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Puppy love February 5th, 2017 by

In the The Field Guide to Fields, Bill Laws colourfully depicts how fencing is a global and age-old practice. Fences mark field boundaries and they stop farm animals from straying.  Fences make it easier to look after animals but enclosed areas can make them more vulnerable to wily predators. During our recent trip in Bolivia we learned how farmers have come up with a clever way to protect their sheep from foxes.

puppy love 1After an amazing drive along winding mountainous roads of Chuquisaca, crossing a narrow improvised bridge just about the width of the car, and wading through riverbeds, we arrive at the farmhouse of doña Basilia Camargo early in the morning. Her husband is about to leave to mend some fences around their fields further up in the mountains. Doña Basilia and her husband keep their 15 sheep near the house in a corral fenced with brushwood and barbed wire.

puppy love 2I ask about the miniature house that has been built into the corral. The little mud house has a slanted roof to let the rainwater glide off, a small window and a door leading to the coral. It looks like a house for chickens, or a toy made by the children, but doña Basilia explains that it has a more serious purpose. She is raising a dog to protect the sheep from foxes.

Doña Basilia gets into the corral, and shows us an even smaller shelter in one of the corners. She calls it a “nest,” and she wriggles her hand through the small opening and brings out a little puppy that is only two weeks old, barely big enough to stand on its own legs. Most people only bring home puppies that have been weaned, but this puppy has a ewe as a substitute mother.

puppy love 3“I make the ewe lie down and then let the puppy suckle”, she explains. The dog will continue to suckle as it grows older, and will bond with the flock, following them to pasture and back to the corral.

It all has been properly planned. The small mud house that we saw along the fence is to become the house for the dog, once it has become bigger. When the puppy is old enough to follow the sheep, doña Basilia will take him with her, and spend two weeks herding the sheep. That should be enough for the dog to learn to tend the flock on his own.

Doña Basilia used to have a sheep dog but it died three years ago, and she has been trying since then to raise another one. Some dogs have died and others refuse to be trained.

She points to three dogs napping in the sun. “I tried training that dog there, but he is lazy and doesn’t like to walk. He goes out with the sheep, but comes back and just lies down near the house. I hope I will have better luck with this one,” she confides in us smilingly.

So while brushwood and barbed wire fences may be enough to keep the sheep in, a specially trained dog could defend them from foxes, both in the field and in the corral, where the dog will be sheltered from the cold in his own little house. Once more we were reminded of the marvelous ingenuity of local farmers to use their available resources to protect their valuable flock.

Further reading

Bill Laws, 2010. The Field Guide to Fields. Hidden Treasures of Meadows, Prairies and Pastures. Washington: National Geographic.

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Fighting farmers November 20th, 2016 by

Farmers belong to one of the most entrepreneurial professions one can imagine. They not only have to deal with the vagaries of climate and pests and diseases, but also fluctuations in market price, changing demands of retailers and preferences of consumers. As if this isn’t enough, a new threat is lurking on the horizon: farm machinery makers want to restrict the ability of farmers to mend their own machines, increasing costs and eating into farmers’ narrow profit margins.

fighting-farmers-1Generations of farmers have tinkered with tools and machines to make work on the farm easier. Those days may become history soon. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a United States copyright law, manufacturers such as John Deere want to legally stop farmers across the globe from fixing their own machinery if the design of that machine involves electronic devices protected by copyright. An extract from a recent Farm Hack blog post, “Farmers fight for the right to repair their own tractors”, summarises common fears about such property laws:

“While high-tech agricultural machinery has made the job of farmers more comfortable and more efficient in many regards, this same equipment has also proven to be a nightmare for farmers accustomed to equipment with simple control panels that don’t resemble something found on the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. A generation of farmers capable of popping open the hood and fixing a broken engine with their eyes closed now have their hands tied. While much of the gruelling work involved with farming has eased, so has a sense of control.”

Complex, digitalised machinery designs and proprietary rights are hampering farmers’ creativity and independence, but a community of fighting farmers has stood up. For instance, Farm Hack is an online community of farmers, designers, developers, and engineers helping the community of farmers to be better inventors. They develop and freely share tools that fit the scale and ethics of sustainable family farms. Another initiative, the crowdsourced magazine Farm Show, showcases thousands of local farming inventions from the past three decades.

Initiatives such as fair trade, farm shops and other examples of short food supply chains show farmer creativity at its best. These innovations offer a better and more reliable income to farmers, instilling a sense of connection with consumers while retaining the independence that farmers cherish. The ability to develop and share innovations in farm machinery is an equally important part of that independence and identity that sustains the passion of one of the oldest and most noble profession in the world.

Related stories

Digital disruption on the farm | The Economist

Farmers fight for the right to repair their own tractors.

New high-tech farm equipment is a nightmare for farmers.

Inventing a better maize chopper

An image of future knowledge

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A hot plan October 2nd, 2016 by

In his 2006 book, The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly contrasts “planning” (which fails) and “searching” (which succeeds). He leads his readers to believe that development projects fail because they are planned.  But that is like saying that the cooks spoil the soup because they light the stove. Trial and error are certainly part of agricultural change, but planning is so important that even the smallest projects start with a plan, as Ronald Udedi and I learned last week when we visited Thako Chiduli, who teaches at St. Michael’s primary school in Mpyupyu, southern Malawi. Mr. Chiduli is also a smallholder farmer.

In a previous blog I told how another Malawian farmer, Mr. Mpinda, started growing chilli after he watched videos on this spicy fruit.

Like Mr. Mpinda, Mr. Chiduli also watched the chilli videos, several times. When I asked Mr. Chiduli what he had learned from the videos, he spoke easily for several minutes, describing the chilli videos in detail. For example, he had learned that seedbeds should only be one meter wide, so one would not step on them while working. He remembered that farmers can burn dry vegetation to control nematodes, the microscopic worms.

So when I asked Mr. Chiduli what new practices he had used in his chilli, I was a bit surprised when he said: “I don’t grow chilli.”

“Then why have you made such a study of the chilli videos?” I asked

“Because I am planning on growing it.”

When somebody tells me about a plan for the future, I am always slightly skeptical, so I like to ask a few specific questions, to see if the plan is well-thought out or not. So I asked Mr. Chiduli how much chilli he was going to plant.

“A hectare,” he said.

“A hectare?” I repeated in disbelief. A hectare is 10,000 square meters, or 2.5 acres. It is not impossible to farm that much chilli by hand, but it would be a challenge, and too much for a first timer.

I asked if we could visit his farm.

thoko-chidulis-houseWe were soon strolling through a typical Malawian village and into a small compound, where we met Mr. Chiduli’s uncle and his widowed mother, who was grinding meal with a mortar and pestle, to cook lunch on an open fire.

Below the home, Mr. Chiduli showed us a dry stream, which would be full of water when the rains came. He explained how he would plant his chilli just above the stream, so he could water his garden.

thoko-chiduli-in-fieldThe chilli would be planted on a small wedge of land between a path and a banana patch. I paced it off and made a quick calculation. The land was about 800 square meters, a good size for a chilli garden, but much less than a hectare. I’ve seen other people in Malawi make similar mistakes; estimating field sizes is a specific skill. After Mr. Chiduli and I resolved this simple error we agreed that his chilli plan was realistic.

Mr. Chiduli went on describing his plans in detail, how he would plant the variety “Dorado” and make a seedbed at the bottom of the garden, near the water, and carefully mix the soil with manure to enrich it. A month later he will transplant the chilli into rows, in the garden. It was a believable plan.

I have observed before that many farmer experiments are unplanned, such as fertilizing half of the field and then running out of manure, creating a spontaneous split plot trial. But farmer learning videos can also inspire rural people to dream of improving their incomes, and planning a complex innovation, such as starting a new crop

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New crops for Mr. Mpinda September 18th, 2016 by

A good video, one that lets farmers tell about their innovations, can spark the viewers’ imagination. A video can even convince smallholders to try a new crop.

mpinda-wateringLester Mpinda is an enterprising farmer in Mwanza, Malawi. Mpinda has a vegetable garden, known as a dimba, which is irrigated with water from a hand-dug well. A dimba is hard work, but worth it.

Mpinda grows vegetables, and sells them in the market in Mwanza. In 2013, he was able to use his earnings to buy a small, gasoline-powered pump to water his beans, onions and tomatoes. A $100 pump is a major investment for a Malawian smallholder, but also a great way to save time and avoid the backbreaking labor of carrying water from the well to the plants during the long, hot dry season.

mpinda-marches-up-to-get-the-hoseWith the money earned from his productive dimba, Mpinda bought a small stand, where his wife sells vegetables in the village.

In June 2015, Ronald Kondwani Udedi left some DVDs with videos at a government telecentre managed by Mathews Kabira, near Mwanza, Malawi. The DVDs had learning videos for farmers about growing rice and chilli peppers and managing striga, the parasitic weed.

handful-of-chilliesMathews took one set of DVDs to Mpinda, because he was “a successful farmer. Mpinda had a DVD player, but no TV, so he watched the videos on chilli growing at a neighbor’s house, using the neighbors TV and Mpinda’s DVD player. He watched the videos as often as the neighbor would let him. The more he watched, the more he learned.

Mpinda soon recognized the possibilities of chilli as a crop, even though he had never grown it.

To start a new crop you need more than a bright idea; you need seed. Getting chilli seed took some imagination. Mpinda went to the market and bought 20 small fresh chillies for 100 Kwacha (14 cents) and then dried them, like tomatoes, and planted the little seeds in a nursery, just like he had seen in the video. Mpinda had already been used to making seedbeds for onions and some of his other vegetables. At 21 days he transplanted the chilli seedlings, as he had seen on the videos.

lester-chizumeni-mpinda-in-gardenNow Mpinda has several dozen plants of chillies, a perennial variety which is eaten fresh in Malawi. People cut up the fiery chilli at table, to add some zest to meals.

Every few days Mpinda harvests three or four kilos of chillies and takes them to the market and sells them for 1000 kwacha a kilo ($1.40).

Mpinda has already planned his next step. After harvesting his little patch of eggplant, he is going to clear the land and plant a whole garden of chilli.

Mpinda has also watched the DVD of rice videos, and although no one in the area grows rice, he realizes that the crop would do well in the slightly higher space, just above his rows of vegetables. He has already looked for rice seed: there is none to be found in Mwanza and the agro-dealers won’t or can’t order it for him, so he is going to travel to the city of Zomba, 135 km away, and buy rice seed there. Mpinda has already identified the major rice varieties grown in Malawi and decided that one of them, Apasa, is the best for highland areas like his.

He is going to plant rice in October, possibly becoming the first rice farmer in Mwanza district.

Mpinda didn’t watch the rice and chilli videos as part of a farmer group. He didn’t have an extensionist to answer questions. He simply had the videos which he could (and did) watch several times to study the content. And this information alone was enough to inspire him to experiment with two crops that were entirely new to him.

Further viewing

You can watch the chilli videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/all/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/ny/

You can watch the rice videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/en/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/ny/

These videos and others are also available in other languages at www.accessagriculture.org

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Inventing a better maize chopper September 4th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

It can take years to perfect even a simple maize chopper. Agricultural research is harder than it looks, as we see in this case where researchers also found inspiration in their students, in farmers and later in their customers.

The Center for Research, Training and Extension in Agricultural Mechanization, better known as Cifema, its Spanish acronym, is part of the public university (UMSS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema started as a Swiss project in 1978 and has since split into an academic department and a company that manufactures and sells agricultural implements.

For years, Cifema specialized in animal-drawn tools, and made red metal ox-drawn plows that are now a common sight in the valleys of Bolivia. Much of Cifema’s work has been a long-term collaboration between agronomist Leonardo Zambrana and mechanical engineer Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeIn 2004, Cifema set out to make one of their first motorized implements. With funding from the Swedish government, Zambrana, Huanca and their student Henry Cabrera made a prototype forage chopper for family dairy farms. The machine would cut plants into small, digestible pieces. With rising labor costs, the farmers needed a way to save time while making animal feed.

By 2006, the prototype was finished and Henry Cabrera had completed his studies. He took the machine home, to his parents’ farm in the remote, highland municipality of Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Two years later Henry returned to UMSS with new ideas on how to improve the maize chopper. The first version had been ingenious—the farmer would feed the maize stalks through two rollers into a set of four blades that would cut up the plant. But it needed to be more robust; it had small springs were easily broken and were a nuisance to replace.

So Zambrana and Huanca made a second, bigger version of the chopper, with no springs and with six blades instead of four. They took it to an agricultural fair in Cochabamba to show it off. A dairy farmer stopped to admire the machine and asked if he could try it out. So Cifema took the chopper out to the dairy farm, and demonstrated it.

The dairy farmer kept the machine overnight to try it for himself. Mario Huanca recalls going back the next morning to collect the chopper. He was astounded at the huge mound of maize that the farmer had chopped, but off to one side was a smaller pile of just the ears.

“Why didn’t you chop up the ears?” Mr. Huanca asked.

“I wanted to, but they got stuck in the machine, so I had to break them off.”

This was a problem. Henry Cabrera was from a farm so small that people ate all the maize grain, and only cut up the dry stalks. But the dairy farmer who borrowed the machine overnight grew special forage maize and the whole plant had to be chopped up, ears and all.

máquina enteraZambrana and Huanca made adjustments and by 2009 they had created a chopper with eight blades instead of six. It had fewer moving parts. Instead of rollers, the maize simply slid in under a plate, right into the whirling blades. Then they added a Japanese-made, gasoline-powered motor. The chopper cost 12,000 Bolivianos (almost $1,700), but it was so useful that eventually 50 families bought one, as admiring neighbors followed the first purchasers.

Cifema made further improvements to the chopper design as they saw which repairs were most often needed.  Cifema also realized that they needed to make the machine cheaper. Many of the dairy farmers already had a two-wheeled tractor. If that could be used as the power source the chopper could be made without an engine, saving $400 from the price tag. That sounds simple, but it requires a lot of original research on the pulleys.

Cifema is now figuring out how to run a chopper at 1000 RPMs, powered by a two-wheeled tractor engine that runs at half that speed.  Slow innovation is like slow food. Sometimes the ideas have to simmer for a while, but they are worth the wait.

INVENTANDO UNA MEJOR PICADORA DE MAĂŤZ

4 de septiembre del 2016

Por Jeff Bentley

Puede tomar años perfeccionar hasta una sencilla picadora de maíz. La investigación agrícola es más difícil de lo que parece, como vemos en este caso donde los investigadores encontraron inspiración en sus estudiantes, los agricultores y más tarde en sus compradores.

El Centro de Investigación, Formación y Extensión en Mecanización Agrícola, mejor conocido como  Cifema, es parte de la universidad pública (UMSS) en Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema empezó como un proyecto suizo en 1978 y luego se dividió en un departamento académico y una compañía que manufactura y vende implementos agrícolas.

Durante años, Cifema se especializó en implementos de tracción animal, e hizo rojos arados metálicos jalados por bueyes que ahora se ven por todos los valles de Bolivia. Mucho del trabajo de Cifema ha sido fruto de una larga colaboración entre el ingeniero agrónomo, Leonardo Zambrana y el ingeniero mecánico, Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeEn el 2004, Cifema empezó a fabricar uno de sus primeros implementos motorizados. Con fondos del gobierno sueco, Zambrana, Huanca y su estudiante Henry Cabrera hicieron un prototipo de una picadora de forraje para pequeñas fincas lecheras. La máquina cortaría las plantas en trozos comestibles. Con alzas en los costos de la mano de obra, los agricultores necesitaban una manera de ahorrar tiempo mientras preparaban los alimentos para sus animales.

Para el 2006, el prototipo estaba listo y Henry Cabrera había terminado con su ingeniería. Él llevó la máquina a la pequeña finca de sus padres en el lejano municipio andino de Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Dos años más tarde, Henry volvió a la UMSS con nuevas ideas sobre cómo mejorar la picadora de maíz. La primera versión había sido ingeniosa—el agricultor metía el maíz entre dos rodillos hacia un juego de cuatro cuchillas que cortaban la planta. Pero tenía que ser más robusta; tenía resortes pequeños que se quebraban fácilmente y eran trabajosos de reemplazar.

Así que Zambrana y Huanca hicieron la segunda, más grande versión de la picadora, sin resortes y con seis cuchillas en vez de cuatro. La llevaron a una feria agrícola en Cochabamba para mostrarla. Un productor lechero se detuvo en admiración y pidió probar la máquina. Así que Cifema llevó la picadora a su finca, e hizo una demostración.

El lechero se quedó con la máquina toda la noche para hacer la prueba. Mario Huanca se acuerda de su visita la mañana siguiente para recoger la picadora. Él se quedó impresionado con el enorme montón de maíz que el agricultor había picado, pero a un lado había otro bulto más pequeño de solo las mazorcas.

“¿Por qué no picó las mazorcas?” preguntó el Ing. Huanca.

“Quería hacerlo, pero se trancaban en la máquina, así que tuve que sacarlas.”

Eso sí era un problema. Henry Cabrera era de una finca más pequeña donde la gente comía el grano, y solo se picaban los tallos secos. Pero el lechero que se prestó la máquina toda la noche producía maíz de forraje, y tenía que picar la planta entera, incluyendo la mazorca.

máquina enteraZambrana y Huanca hicieron ajustes y para el 2009 habían creado una picadora con ocho cuchillas en vez de seis. Tenía menos partes movibles y en vez de rodillos, el maíz se metía bajo una placa, directamente a las voraces cuchillas. Luego agregaron un motor japonés de gasolina. La picadora costaba 12,000 Bolivianos (casi $1,700), pero era tan útil que 50 familias se compraron una, a medida que sus vecinos se admiraban de la máquina y seguían a los primeros compradores.

Cifema mejoró el diseño más mientras veía las máquinas que sus compradores traían para reparar.  Los ingenieros se dieron cuenta que tenían que hacer una máquina más accesible. Muchos de los productores de leche ya tenían un motocultor, un tractorcito de dos ruedas. Si se podría usar el motocultor como la fuente de poder, se podría fabricar la picadora sin motor, ahorrando $400. Suena sencillo, pero requiere de investigación original con las poleas.

Actualmente, Cifema está averiguando cómo hacer funcionar una picadora a 1000 RPM, usando el motor de motocultor que se gira a la mitad de esa velocidad.  La innovación lenta es como la comida a fuego lento;  a veces las ideas tardan en servirse, pero valen la pena.

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