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Mending fences, making friends August 13th, 2017 by

Clipston is a small village at the geographical centre of England, set in fields where arable and livestock farming has existed for millennia. All Saints Church was built in the early 13th century and still holds regular services. The local primary school has just celebrated its 350th anniversary. Bar some new houses and better roads, the village is recognizably the same from photographs taken over a hundred years ago.

I have visited Clipston regularly over the last forty years, ever since my parents moved there. The village and its surrounding agriculture looks much the same today as they did four decades ago: grazing cattle and sheep and fields of wheat and rapeseed (canola). But it was only a few weeks ago that I spoke to a farmer for the first time and began to appreciate how little I knew about the landscape that defines the village.

Clipston continues to thrive; the village website reveals a vibrant community, even though there’s no shop and public transport is limited. Clipston thrives in spite of rather than because of agriculture. Job opportunities in farming are few and prospects for new farmers are uncertain, as I learnt from talking to a local shepherd, Martin Fellowes. Most of the employed people who live in Clipston today work somewhere else, some travelling long distances each day. Fast trains from nearby Market Harborough reach the heart of London in just over an hour, a journey of about 100 miles.

People who choose to live in villages for their rural charm and tranquillity can sometimes find it difficult to cope with the everyday messiness of farming. The pervasive smell from spreading slurry on fields, drifting smoke from burning stubble or mud spread by tractors on roads are all sources of potential dispute between farmers, who rely on the land for their living, and other residents.

My chance encounter with Martin arose from a domestic issue. The sheep in the neighbouring field would occasionally get into my parents’ garden and munch merrily on flowers and foliage, much to the dismay of my mother and father. A single strand of barbed wire between field and garden was clearly inadequate. The only solution was to erect a sturdier fence, which is what I was doing when I noticed someone in blue overalls in the field. Martin came across when I waved my hand.

Martin explained to me that he’d just taken over the lease of the field and an adjacent one. I felt a little guilty about mentioning the sheep invasions since these were related to a previous tenant. He explained that “the fence is the responsibility of the land owner”. His replies were courteous but wary. I sensed that he had other things of greater concern to consider. I wondered later about Martin’s response to a letter in the Clipston Newsletter some years ago which said: “It is a terrifying prospect that land surrounding this lovely village could easily fall into the wrong hands.” The writer was fearful about a drop in the value of her house.

Martin’s demeanour changed when I told him that I also worked in agriculture. I pointed to my T shirt, which by chance featured a plant health workshop held in Rwanda. I asked him more about his job. “It’s difficult trying to get established as a farmer today”, he said. He was pleased to have a signed lease for the fields behind my parent’s house for his sheep for the coming year, even though the owner was selling up. He was renting other fields in another nearby village and I began to imagine the challenges of moving animals back and forward between different sites.

The sale of the land prompted some gentle mutterings on the price of land. In nearby Market Harborough housing estates are springing up all around the town. Farm land has become increasingly valuable, not only for housing but as an investment. The result is that it’s nigh on impossible for a new farmer such as Martin to own his own land. Leasing creates uncertainty, yet clearly Martin loved what he was doing and was willing to work hard.

I was surprised and delighted that Martin knew about a recent unexpected best seller on sheep farming, The Shepherd’s Life, written by James Rebanks, a shepherd in the north of England. Martin had been given this as a present and confirmed that the descriptions of sheep farming were spot on. “I’m not a big reader”, Martin confessed, but clearly the book had caught his attention. “Sheep farming is tougher up north”, he added, “but down here it’s also difficult to get established”.

People take the gently rolling hills and the seasonal changes in farming for granted. Not far from Clipston is an outstanding farm shop, one of several that have flourished in and around Market Harborough as the population has expanded. Stuffed full of fine food from impeccable sources, much locally produced, it is easy to imagine that this renaissance in food retailing indicates a stronger, more vibrant agriculture.

My short meeting with Martin was proof that new farmers are willing to have a go but that it will be an uphill struggle. Commuters who move to villages bring new life to a fragile rural economy, but living in the countryside also carries a responsibility to take a wider interest in agriculture.

Talking to farmers reveals how hard they work. If commuters move to the countryside for the scenery, it’s worth remembering that farmers have nurtured that land for generations. Sometimes a bit of fence mending goes a long way.

Read previous blogs

Modern ideas for an ancient land

Further information and reading

Clipston village website. What farming delivers for Northamptonshire (NFU infographic).

Rowland Parker (1975). The Common Stream. (An excellent book on the enduring life of an English village.)

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A farm in the city June 25th, 2017 by

Orchard and fields copyAerial views of the fertile plains of Kyrgyzstan reveal a dominant pattern of long, narrow fields, endlessly repeated into the distance. The colours of the fields give some indication of what’s being grown. In early June the wheat is almost ready to harvest and the green swathes are starting to go yellow. Maize fields are lush, the plants growing vigorously. Cotton, another popular field crop, is still establishing and cover is more patchy.

Large-scale farming in Kyrgyzstan is no longer the centrally-planned, target-driven model of the Soviet era. Farmers may be free to plant what they want, but market forces still determine the range of crops that are economically viable. The demand for wheat is steadily increasing and cotton has ready markets in Turkey, a close partner of Kyrgyzstan.

P1040244 copyBut there’s much more to agriculture in Kyrgyzstan than field crops. One gets a view of a more diverse production as the plane descends to land at major cities such as Bishkek and Osh. The irregular spaces between the long, narrow fields are filled with mostly fruit trees. Orchards can occupy up to several hectares, particularly in Osh district and in the southwest of the country generally, but many are relatively small. A smattering of polytunnels (small greenhouses) around the outskirts of Bishkek points to a year-round capacity to produce vegetables, meeting some of the local demand during the long, cold winter.

Then, just before the wheels touch the tarmac, small plots of vegetables and fruit can be seen around many houses. One of the privileges of the work Jeff, Paul and I regularly experience is to meet small-scale farmers, but this is usually in a rural setting and not in cities. A quick glance at Google Maps shows that while the centres of Bishkek and Osh are densely packed, gardens are still a prominent feature in the spreading suburbs.

P1120610 copyMr Orunbai Dosmatov, senior entomologist at the phytosanitary laboratory for Osh province and guide for my three-day visits to the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, invited me to stay at the family home in Osh city. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to learning more about urban agriculture. The family home was fronted by a vegetable plot about 25 metres by 25 metres, complete with tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins and maize.

Just beyond this was an orchard of cherries, the trees laden with juicy and flavoursome fruit. Orunbai told me that a local trader would organise the harvesting for an agreed price. Running your own farm in addition to a full-time job requires careful management. Cherry picking is a time-consuming task, even with family members to hand. At the back of the house, lucerne (alfalfa) was being grown to feed the three goats held in a covered area attached to the side of the house. Hay was stored in an open loft for the winter months.

There were more fruit trees in a separate field on the other side of the short track up to the main house. Orunbai had one cow on a summer pasture. Water flowed freely through the garden, diverted from a natural stream that flowed from the hills behind Osh. Ironically, despite the natural abundance of water, the supply to the house was restricted and unreliable.

P1120626 copyA grapevine wove in and out of a high metal frame outside the upper floor rooms which I occupied during my stay. A tandoor oven below my bedroom window was used for baking delicious bread. Yet it takes a lot of hard work to make good, local food. The crops have to be planted, weeded and tended. The goats need to be fed and looked after regularly. The garden may produce 30 cabbages in one go and so the family has to sell them or preserve them for later. Fruit can be turned into jam, though there’s a limit on how much of this you need throughout the year.

Later I was invited to Orunbai’s brother’s house in Kyzl Kiya, the main city in Batken region and around two hours from Osh. I saw another intriguing mix of vegetables and fruits, with large baskets of cherries ready to sell.

P1040433 copySalaries are low so city farming helps salaried people, even highly educated ones, to feed their families, save money and perhaps even earn a bit of extra income. Some years ago, I watched people sell berries, mushrooms and home-grown vegetables outside Tallinn railway station in Estonia. The value of each vendor’s produce was little more than 30 euros (around $34), a small sum but clearly valuable enough to warrant the cost of setting up the stall and hanging around all day for customers.

Field crops dominate agriculture in Kyrgyzstan but there’s also a strong tradition of growing your own food. The shops may be full of fresh produce, a welcome change from limited choice and uncertain availability during Soviet times, but it is expensive. Producing your own food is a way to eat well and cheaply and to combine the benefits of city and rural life. Orunbai is rightly proud of his urban farm and is showing the way for his sons and daughters to grow their own.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip (peri-urban agriculture)

Things ain’t what they used to be (Kyrgyzstan)

Smelling is believing (peri-urban agriculture)

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Nurgazy and Akmaral for assistance with translation. And of course to all the Dosmatov family who made my stay so memorable.

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Anasazi beans June 18th, 2017 by

Dove Creek 3In 1981 I worked as an archaeologist at the Lowry Ruins, a Native American site inhabited about 1200 AD by the Anasazi people, now known as the “Ancestral Puebloans”. The Lowry Ruins are in Southwestern Colorado, a flat land with rich soil, carved in places with deep sandstone canyons.

room blockThis strange landscape is made even more bizarre by the ancient stone dwellings which are still visible in shallow caves (alcoves) in the canyon walls. Modern farms dominate the flat lands and produce some of the finest pinto beans in the USA. But drop into the canyons and it is like going back 700 years to pre-Colombian America, when ancient Native Americans also grew beans, as well as maize and squash.

irrigated beansOne day in 1981, I happened to meet a Colorado bean farmer, who told me that in one of the canyons he found an ancient pot filled with a strange variety of beans. Being a bean farmer, he was naturally curious, so he planted a handful of the beans and they germinated. He harvested the beans and planted them again. By the time I talked to the farmer in 1981 he said that he had a whole acre of the beans and would soon have enough seed to plant a commercial sized field.

By 1983 a new variety of bean appeared in stores in the Southwestern USA under the name “Anasazi beans.” Unlike pinto beans, which are brown, these Anasazi beans were pale, with reddish speckles. I wondered if the beans in the shops were the ones the farmer in Colorado had told me about.

handfull of Anasazi beansI was back in that part of the world recently, visiting family, when my brother, Scott, went to the cupboard for a burlap bag labelled “Anasazi beans” and began to prepare them for supper. I could see that Anasazi beans were still popular with consumers, and for the first time in years I thought of the farmer with his odd tale of finding the beans in a ruin in a canyon. But this time I was more skeptical that bean seed could stay viable for 700 years, even in the dry Southwest. I wondered if the farmer I talked to in 1981 had found the beans in some more conventional way, such as from a seed catalog, or perhaps while on vacation in Mexico.

By 2017, several companies were selling “Anasazi beans”. Scott’s bag of Anasazi beans came from the Adobe Milling Company in Dove Creek, Colorado, where I went with my brothers, Scott, Brett and Dan to learn more about the origin of the beans.

adobe milling companyDove Creek is a small town and the Adobe Milling Company was easy to find. The store was surprisingly busy for a specialty shop in such a quiet place. The staff could hardly keep up with the stream of customers. I met Velvet Pribble, the lady in charge of this successful family business. Although the she and her staff were busy coping with a steady stream of customers, she still had time to chat. Velvet said that her great-uncle found the Anasazi beans in the nearby Lukachukai Mountains of New Mexico and brought them home and planted them in her family’s garden in Yellow Jacket (near Dove Creek). The beans grew and Velvet’s sister took the beans to school, for show-&-tell. The teacher, Bessie White, took some of those beans home and planted them herself. Ms. White shared the beans with neighboring farmers and then “they took off”. Velvet says that her family still has the original pot and some of the ancient beans, and that they look as fresh as the ones just harvested in Dove Creek today. “They never age,” Velvet adds.

tower at Painted HandVelvet’s story puzzled me; her great uncle could not have been the farmer I met in 1981, because the two men claimed to have found the beans in different places. The Lowry Ruins are about 120 miles from the Lukachukai Mountains. Then I learned about other versions of the Anasazi bean story. The pamphlet on display at the Adobe Milling Company itself says they beans “were found in the ruins by settlers to the four corners area in the early 1900s”, not that the beans were found by family members in the 1980s.

To put the Anasazi beans in context, there are no confirmed cases where old seed, stored on purpose by ancient people, has been successfully grown by modern farmers. Legume seeds found in adobe (mud brick) from California and Northern Mexico were still alive after 200 years (Börner 2006), but this is some of the oldest viable seed ever found. Seed rarely survives for more than a century (Bewley and Black 2012).

By 1299 AD, following a 27-year drought, the Anasazi abandoned their canyon homes on the Colorado Plateau, in the area where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all meet. Centuries later, the area was settled by small groups of other Native Americans, the Utes and the Navajos. Anglo-American colonization did not start until the 1840s. Parts of Anasazi country are still uninhabited, so great was the ecological collapse of the late 1200s.

Seven centuries seemed a long time for bean seed to stay viable, so I phoned an old college friend, Winston Hurst, a life-long resident of canyon country, and an archaeologist specializing in the area. He told me that stories have been circulating for years about people finding beans in pots in archaeological sites. Winston explained that Utes and Navajos were growing corn in the region, but it is less clear if they were planting beans there. However, historic native North Americans usually grew maize and beans together, and the Navajos made enough pots to suggest that they could have been cooking beans. Several Navajo pots have been found in dry caves in Anasazi country. Winston recalls seeing three kinds of beans, which people claimed had come from ancient pots. Each bean was completely unique. One was the reddish “Anasazi bean,” while another was large and white like a navy bean, and the third looked a bit like a castor bean.

So I offer the following hypothetical scenario: after the Anasazi (the Ancestral Puebloan) people abandoned southern Colorado and southern Utah in the late 1200s. Navajo settlers eventually planted gardens of maize and beans in the country, and left small caches of seed in pots in dry alcoves, perhaps even in Anasazi sites. These beans could have been less than 200 years old when collected by Anglo-American farmers, including Velvet’s great-uncle.

Whatever their origin, the Anasazi beans are delicious. So drop in to see the friendly folks in Dove Creek, Colorado, or order some Anasazi beans on-line, because no matter where these attractive beans came from, they are a real treat to eat.

About ancient sites

Some local people in the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico are now digging up archaeological sites for pleasure, forever closing a window on the past. Wherever you live, please respect ancient sites and leave them to the archaeologists, who know how to excavate a site professionally, to learn how ancient people lived and farmed. When plundered for its artifacts, an ancient site is not worth a hill of beans.

Scientific name

The pinto bean and the Anasazi bean are varieties of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).

Further reading

Bewley, J. Derek, and Michael Black 2012 Physiology and Biochemistry of Seeds in Relation to Germination: Volume 2: Viability, Dormancy, and Environmental Control. Springer Science & Business Media.

Börner, Andreas 2006 “Preservation of Plant Genetic Resources in the Biotechnology Era” Biotechnology Journal 1: 1393–1404 DOI 10.1002/biot.200600131.

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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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