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How are we doing? A double century of blogs since 2013 September 24th, 2017 by

The first Agro-Insight blog appeared in October 2013. Jeff and Paul continued publishing weekly stories until May 2015, when I joined them. Now, after nearly four years, we have reached blog number 200, and I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what stimulates us to write, the subjects we’ve covered and what we’re trying to achieve.

We write mostly about personal experiences, prompted by meeting people, events we’ve witnessed or taken part in and other things we’ve come across while working on projects and consultancies. Stories about Africa have featured in nearly half our blogs. Latin America blogs account for 30% of the total, mainly because Jeff is the most prolific contributor and lives in Bolivia. The Asia-Pacific region is the next common source of inspiration (13%), plus a smattering of blogs from North America, Europe and Central Asia.

We are hugely privileged in being able to visit so many countries, to work with different organisations and learn more about the unsung efforts of their staff. Every visit we make confirms how much there is to learn, and share, about the ingenuity of farmers and the dedication of the many people (particularly in extension) who contribute in unseen ways to agriculture.  People and their actions are the main inspiration for our blogs.

Sometimes we also write about things that we’ve read, such as the last blog by Jeff on photographs of Bolivian miners or a more recent one by Paul on allotments in the UK and Belgium (where he lives: we don’t always have to go far to find sources of inspiration). I wrote about Wilson Popenoe after reading a biography. He was an intrepid plant explorer and the founding director of El Zamorano, the leading agricultural university in Central America. Popenoe’s endeavours resonated strongly because I’m intrigued by the discovery of new crops. And I remembered a visit, many years ago, to the marvellous La Casa Popenoe, a small museum, in Antigua, Guatemala.

Jeff is a keen linguist and trained archaeologist, hence a series of blogs on etymology (Reaper Madness) and links to historic and ancient agriculture (such as the Origin of the sunflower). Many of Paul’s blogs have come from his and Marcella’s (Paul’s wife) experiences of making videos with and for farmers (such as Aflatoxin videos for farmers). My own varied career has given rise to blogs on wild mushrooms, photography, the rise of cocoa in the Congo, and of course plant health. Sometimes we like to call attention to examples of natural resource management gone seriously awry, as in the near extinction of North American bison. We also like to see the lighter side of agriculture and development, as in Paul’s story about bullets and birds.

Each week we submit our ideas to the other two for comments. Writing is a collaborative effort and one of the big pleasures for me is being able to hone each other’s blogs, delivering a better and cleaner message. We try to avoid preaching and to lead our readers to gentle conclusions which encourage fresh thinking.

Not all ideas that we have are published as blogs. In one failed effort, I wrote unconvincingly about the new sustainable development goals. Paul and Jeff suggested it needed more work. They were right. The first blogs were quite short, just a few hundred words. They’ve become longer, though we rarely exceed 1000 words. We know that our readers are busy people, and there’s always a danger with a longer story that you stray from the main topic.

When we write about people we always try to show them the blog before we publish. We want to get our facts right and also check we haven’t written anything that an individual or organisation is unhappy about. Sometimes they don’t want too much publicity or maybe we’ve written prematurely about a work in progress. We had to kill one story about the problems with community centres to feed children, when our horrified partners realized that we were saying too much, too soon. Cannabis growing is legal but still controversial in Alaska, yet the owners were more than happy to share their experiences more widely, provided I didn’t reveal the precise location in the blog.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of having published 200 blogs is how little we know about our audience. Although we get regular comments from colleagues and others who we alert directly about blogs we welcome wider feedback via email (just add Paul or Jeff or Eric to @agroinsight.com.

We don’t know what we will write for blog 300 and beyond, but there is no shortage of things to discover or unheard voices of farmers to report. Thanks for staying with us. Feel free to pass these stories on to friends, family and colleagues. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Miners’ stories September 17th, 2017 by

Robert Gerstmann was a German engineer and professional photographer who spent much of his time from 1925 to 1929, and later on, taking pictures of the tin mines of Bolivia. There were only three tin mining companies in Bolivia then, and two were owned by foreigners. Gerstmann worked mainly for Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, who was also from Germany. The mine owners were eager to show off their work. Tin had replaced silver as the target mineral in Bolivia around 1885, and during the First World War the need for metal for arms had revolutionized Andean mining.

By 1925 Bolivian mines were largely state of the art, with massive diesel motors to power the mills and long cable winches to lower miners down the deep shafts. The mines were modernized with foreign investment and management, and fantastic profits from the tin went into just a few hands.

Taking photographs in the early 20th century was a clumsy business. The cameras were heavy and could only take one photograph at a time, using delicate glass plates. Gertsmann had to use a tripod and estimate exposure by trial and error. He had to develop the plates himself and make prints in his own darkroom. He was also an innovator, and in the early days of electricity he had found a way to run a cable into the mine galleries to flood them with light.

Despite the technical challenges, a skilled photographer such as Gertsmann was able to capture rich and detailed pictures. The owners gave Gerstmann the run of the mines, where the 30-year old’s curiosity took him from the head offices, to the tidy storerooms, the engine rooms with their monster machinery, and into the deep mines.

Gertsmann spent most of the rest of his life in South America, until his death in Chile in 1964. Recently, a group of Bolivian and foreign social scientists discovered Gertsmann’s photographs, including over 5000 prints, some original plates and 30 minutes worth of movies. Anthropologist Pascale Absi and sociologist-historian Jorge Pavez were intrigued by the scenes Gerstmann had captured and have published a selection of them as a book.

Absi and Pavez went one step further. They showed the selected pictures to retired mine workers, who told the story behind Gerstmann’s photographs. He wrote little himself, mostly noting the names of managers and engineers who appeared in his pictures. Laborers were labelled by their job description, e.g. mine cart operator.

Explanations by the retired Bolivian workers brought the photos to life. Two men are shown selling canned sardines and other goods in the company store (pulpería), created to entice workers to stay on the job as labor became more valuable. An engineer with a theodolite is measuring the length of the mine gallery, to tell how far the mine has advanced.  One photo conveys action and hard work, as a mine worker is shown drilling at the rock face. Yet a crucial feature is missing. The retirees explained that the worker had to pose, otherwise the drill would have made so much dust that one would have been unable to see the worker, even under Gerstmann’s bright light.

In another picture, a worker is drenched with water. A colleague has doused him with a hose to cool him off. It was often unbearably hot inside the mine.  In a moon-like landscape of dust and rock, women huddle in the cold to sort ore from barren rock. The retired miners can tell where the women are from by their distinctive clothing. For example, a woman in a white hat with a distinctive black ribbon is from Cochabamba. She has come over 100 km to take this job as a palliri (the Quechua word for the women who select the ore).

Photographs are a powerful communication tool which not only tell a story, but help to unlock people’s memories. Although the Gerstmann photos were taken to pad the egos of the mine owners, the pictures also reveal the lives of ordinary people from a bygone world of dangerous work and low pay, when shifts could be as long as 48 hours, and when injured workers were simply dismissed with no compensation. Photographers don’t always write very much, and by themselves the pictures don’t tell the whole story. But Gerstmann’s innovative pictures, when narrated today by people who lived through the times he recorded, have given us a rich and lasting record of Bolivia’s mining past.

Technical note

The digital photographs you take today may tell your story later. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, Eric Boa taught me to label the pictures. I have labeled them ever since. The more text you include with your photos, the easier it will be for you and others to later read the story behind the picture.

Further reading

Absi, Pascale & Jorge Pavez (eds.) 2016 Imágenes de la Revolución Industrial: Robert Gerstmann en las Minas de Bolivia (1925-1936). La Paz: Plural Editores.

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The power of the pregnant man August 27th, 2017 by

A memorable poster catches the eye, conveys a simple message and makes you think. Achieving all this demands careful planning and good design, balancing content with visual impact. Too much information and the passer-by moves on, having failed to get the full message. Too little information and the viewer leaves unsatisfied, wondering what the point of poster was. When you know who you are writing for, it is easier to know what to include and what to leave out.

Armyworm is a generic term describing the tendency of some caterpillars to congregate in large numbers, chomping like hungry troops through crops. The African armyworm, Spodoptera exempta, has been around for a long time, causing lots of damage on cereals. Now a new species has made the journey from the Americas to Africa, where it is causing high alarm. S. frugiperda, known as the fall armyworm, has recently been recorded from most of sub-Saharan Africa and will doubtless spread to more countries that grow maize, the fall armyworm’s favourite crop.

Scientists have been quick to respond to the arrival of the fall armyworm, first recorded in Sao Tomé in 2016, and soon after in southern Africa. FAO have held meetings in recent months in Harare, Nairobi and Accra to bring interested parties together, marshal resources and make plans for combatting this new pest. Unlike other new diseases which have appeared in Africa, such as banana bacterial wilt, a lot is already known about the fall armyworm and control strategies are well established.

CABI has produced an attractive poster showing the life cycle and damage caused by fall armyworm on maize. The poster appears to be part of a general campaign to raise awareness of key features of the new pest, though details of the campaign are sketchy. The poster has attractive drawings and clear information, yet the more I looked, the more questions I had.

I noticed some curious omissions. There is no date on the graphic and no contact details, such as an email address or a website. The scientific name of the fall armyworm is not given. But my main question concerned the target audience: extensionists or farmers? Both? Scientists?

Some hints are given by the layout. The circular cutaways and links to the far left hand column of text, running from bottom to top, would confuse a low-literate audience. An understanding of the insect’s life cycle is essential for designing a control programme, yet do extension officers, for whom this poster appears intended, need all this information?

These questions reminded me of my first effort at designing a poster for Sumatra disease of cloves in Indonesia (see earlier blog). I assembled photographs of the symptoms and the insect vector, a planthopper called Hindola, my own drawing showing the spread of the disease in a plantation, and a cartoon of the insect feeding on the branches. The photos and drawings were accompanied by short bits of text explaining key features of the disease.

I was rather proud of my efforts until a visiting project evaluator, Caroline O’Reilly, asked me who the poster was for and what it aimed to do. My stumbling answers revealed that I hadn’t thought through these key questions. Before writing anything, the author must first decide who the story (or the poster) is for. Since then I’ve also learned the importance of validating all extension material with the people it is intended for, whether it is a poster or a fact sheet. The gulf between scientists who have never farmed or who have long since left their rural childhood behind, and the extension workers and farmers who live and breathe agriculture, is easy to ignore.

Posters can have great power, as shown in a brilliant example from a 1970s British health education campaign to promote better contraception. One’s attention is immediately caught by the swollen belly, looking remarkably like an advanced pregnancy, except that it’s a man in the picture. The statement in bold makes its point concisely before adding a clever punchline – contraception is one of the facts of life.

When I teach people how to produce extension material I emphasise the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. What does someone need to know? Depending on the audience it’s either: “Think like a farmer, act like an extension agent”; or “Think like an extension agent, act like a scientist”. The reason why the contraception poster works so well is because those designing it clearly understood the irresponsible ways of men. The poster designers also understood the power of simplicity.

The Health Education Council had a clear mandate to improve health outcomes in the UK. The pregnant man poster sought to change attitudes and behaviours, and was part of a wider campaign aimed at reducing unwanted pregnancies, particularl y amongst teenage women. It is less clear how the fall armyworm poster will reduce the impact of this new pest. Raising awareness about the biology and damage caused is a useful first step, but further posters are needed as part of a coordinated campaign that directly targets farmers and tells them how to manage this new threat to maize production.

Click here for a full copy of the fall armyworm poster.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Eric Boa 2013 “The Snowman Outline: Fact Sheets by Extensionists for Farmers.” Development in Practice 23(3):440-448.

Related blogs

Ethical agriculture (discusses clove disease)

The rules and the players (validating fact sheets)

Chemical attitude adjustment (validating fact sheets)

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Connected to the world May 21st, 2017 by

A few weeks ago in this blog, Paul told how he was pleasantly surprised to see village farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, sharing videos on their smart phones. At the time I thought that India might be an exceptional case, being the technological giant of the Global South. However, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are catching up fast, as I learned recently. I was completely taken aback on a visit to Awasi, a small, unremarkable town close to Kisumu in western Kenya, to find that many farmers are linked to the Internet.

I visited the home of Esther Atieno Okello, a smallholder farmer. She explained that her extensionist had been by two weeks earlier to show some of the women videos about striga (a weed) on his tablet.

“Will you ever be able to watch the videos on your own?” I asked.

She thought that might be possible. “My son has a tablet,” she said offhandedly. And then she called him in to come and talk to us.

Cal, Esther, Evans with smart phonesEdwin Ochieng Okello was a vibrant youngster of about 20, who played football with the local club and helped his mom on her farm. He watches sports and news on his tablet, has an email account and sends photos on Instagram. Edwin’s brother Calrina has a smart phone which he uses to “stay connected to the world,” via the BBC News, Facebook and a radio-based platform called WeFarm, where callers can phone in with agricultural questions.

The brothers have a slightly older relative, Evans Owuor Omondi, an independent commercial farmer growing maize, cassava and with his own poultry farm. He uses a tablet to get online. All three young men were more interested in news, social media and information than in entertainment.

Awasi is only 40 km from Kisumu city, but the town is a distinct, bona fide farm community, with scattered houses surrounded by corn fields. The generation just reaching adulthood wants to be plugged in to the rest of the world. These young people can read and write, speak English as a third language, and are actively surfing the web for information.  They buy their electronic gear in town, with their own money, earned by working in agriculture.

Six years ago, when Access Agriculture started to host videos for farmers, the idea seemed wildly ahead of its time. But since last year, farmers have become the largest group of people registering on the Access Agriculture website.

Related blog

Village smart phones

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An illusion in the Andes April 30th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

When five, roughly rectangular blocks appeared on the mountainside high above Cochabamba, I assumed they were just fields of oats. The pale green shade seemed about right for the feathery grain, and the cool climate was ideal for oats.

oat fieldsHowever, social media soon turned the checkered slope into a mystery.  Cochabambinos began writing into a popular website to ask about the odd shapes. Some rushed in with answers. There was even one far-fetched suggestion that the blocks were fields of ripening coca, even though this narcotic shrub only grows in much lower and wetter country. Some thought the patches were just oats.

Others said they were wild flowers, sprouting where fields had been left fallow. My wife Ana wrote to say that the patches were so light that they could only be the brilliant white flower, known as ilusiĂłn in Spanish. Her suggestion was ignored, so one sunny afternoon, Ana and I decided to check out the fields first hand.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónAlthough the fields with the mysterious blocks are as visible as a beacon, the Bolivian bourgeoisie are not avid hikers, and few of the city dwellers know how to get up onto the slope. We drove up one of the steep, narrow roads, peeked over a few ridges, and finally spotted the ivory-colored fields up close. It wasn’t quite like finding Machu Picchu, but it was delightful to see five little plots of ilusión.

Called “baby’s breath” in English, this hardy flower (Gypsophila muralis) is a native of northern Europe and Siberia, but has adapted well to the Andes, where it has become a poor person’s commercial crop. Baby’s breath has few pests and thrives on poor, stony soil. It is a low-input, low profit crop: a cheap flower that is complements and enhances bouquets of roses. A mourner with just a few spare pesos can buy a handful baby’s breath to take to a funeral.

The fields were surprisingly small, each just a few meters wide. They made up no more than a hectare all together. There were no houses near the fields, which were being tended by some absentee, peri-urban farmer, who trusted the isolated spot to keep his or her flowers hidden in plain sight, much to the bewilderment of the townsfolk below.  Every crop whether food, fiber or flower has its own signature color. A person who knows and loves plants can spot the difference between illusion and reality from miles away.

CUANDO LA ILUSIĂ“N SE VUELVE REALIDAD

Por Jeff Bentley

30 de abril del 2017

Cuando aparecieron cinco bloques, más o menos rectangulares en el cerro arriba de Cochabamba, me supuse que eran parcelas de avena. El tono verde claro parecía más o menos el del grano plumoso, y el clima fresco era ideal para la avena.

oat fieldsGracias a los medios sociales, los cuadraditos en la ladera pronto se volvieron un misterio. Los cochabambinos empezaron a escribir a una página web popular para preguntar qué eran las formas extrañas. Algunos se apuraron con respuestas. Había hasta una solución equivocadísima que los bloques eran parcelas de coca, a pesar de que el arbusto narcótico solo crece en zonas mucho más bajas y húmedas. Algunos sí pensaron que las pequeñas mantas eran avena.

Otros dijeron que eran flores silvestres, que nacieron donde las chacras se habían dejado en descanso. Mi esposa Ana escribió diciendo que las formas eran tan pálidas que solo podrían ser la brillante flor blanca, conocida como ilusión. Nadie hizo caso a su sugerencia; así que una tarde asoleada, con Ana decidimos descubrir las chacras de cerca.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónA pesar de que los bloques misteriosos son tan visibles como un faro, la burguesía boliviana no es muy fanática de las caminatas en el monte, y pocos de los citadinos sabían llegar a la falda de la serranía. En el auto subimos unos caminos angostos e inclinados, echamos un vistazo sobre algunos filos y al fin vimos de cerca los campos color de marfil. No era exactamente como encontrar Machu Picchu, pero nos encantó ver a las cinco parcelitas de ilusión.

La ilusiĂłn (Gypsophila muralis) parece delicada, pero en realidad, es un robusto nativo del norte de Europa y de Siberia, que se ha adaptado bien a los Andes, donde se ha convertido en un cultivo comercial de los pobres. La ilusiĂłn tiene pocas plagas y prospera en el suelo pobre y rocoso. Es un cultivo de baja inversiĂłn y baja rentabilidad: una flor barata que complementa y enriquece hasta a un ramo de rosas. Una persona que solo tiene dos o tres pesos en el bolsillo puede mostrar su respeto al muerto, llevando un ramito de ilusiĂłn al entierro.

Nos sorprendió que las chacras fueran tan pequeñas, unos pocos metros de ancho cada una. Las cinco no sumaron a más de una hectárea. No había ninguna casa cerca de las parcelas, que eran cultivadas por algún agricultor peri-urbano pero ausente, que confiaba en el lugar aislado para proteger a sus flores, escondidas en plena vista, desconcertando a los vecinos de la ciudad en el piso del valle. Cada cultivo, bien sea alimento, fibra o flor tiene su propio color único. Una persona que conoce y ama las plantas puede ver la diferencia entre ilusión y realidad a kilómetros de distancia.

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