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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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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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