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The ice harvest April 23rd, 2017 by

Ice was once a natural resource of some value, harvested, processed and sold on international markets. The ice harvest has vanished, but not before evolving into our modern food chain.

In 1805, the 21-year-old Frederic Tudor was at a party in Boston, when his brother William playfully suggested that ice from nearby ponds could be cut and sold to wealthy customers in the Caribbean. Frederic, later to be known as the “Ice King”, seized on the idea, and the following year took a ship loaded with ice to sunny Martinique, where he taught the owners of the finer hotels how to make and sell ice cream.

The ice cream sold for a hefty price, but the ice itself soon melted, leaving Frederic with a staggering loss of $4000. Not one to be easily discouraged, he learned from his expensive lesson by experimenting with different ways to make the ice last longer. He compared types of insulation, including straw, wood shavings, and blankets, and designs for storage facilities until he had perfected an ice depot that could keep 92% of its inventory frozen for a summer season. Once he had succeeded, Frederic’s business and reputation soared.

Ice mover NSmallFor years, ice harvesters improvised techniques with pickaxes and chisels, aided by horses wearing spiked shoes, to avoid slipping on the frozen lakes. This was usually good enough to gather enough ice to be stored for sale in the summer in northern cities. Then in 1824, another Massachusetts man, Nathaniel Jarvis, invented a horse-drawn ice cutter, with parallel blades that would cut ice from frozen ponds into blocks of standard sizes, such as 22 by 22 inches (56 centimeters). This innovation allowed blocks of ice that could be loaded tightly onto a ship, without spaces in between. The ice was less likely to melt or shift in transit, and the ice trade took on a new life.

Ice began to be shipped to Charleston, New Orleans and other southern cities (especially to chill beer and preserve fish during the long, hot summers), but in one bold experiment in 1833, Tudor shipped 180 tons of ice to Calcutta, where he built a large ice depot to house his product. Residents of India could now buy an insulated box, and stock it with a block of Yankee ice that would keep food and drinks cold for days.

4380 keeping the fridge cool with iceBy 1856 over 130,000 tons of ice were being cut from ponds around Boston and shipped not just to India, but also to Latin America, the Caribbean, China and the Philippines.  But that same year, spurred by the profits to be made from ice, a British journalist, James Harrison, invented a practical, coal-powered ice compressor in Australia. “Natural ice” (cut in the wild) and “plant ice” (from factories) competed with each other in an expanding market. In the 1800s, some railroad cars and ships were fitted with ice-holding compartments that allowed fresh meat and other perishable produce to be shipped long distances.

At first, consumers preferred natural ice, believing it was cleaner and longer lasting, and it wasn’t until 1914 that plant ice in the USA gained dominance. Relatively inexpensive electrical refrigerators came onto the market in 1923. Once consumers had refrigerators, they no longer had to buy ice.

ice bhanAfter a century of lively commerce, the spectacular long-distance and large-scale trade of natural ice finally began to decline and eventually collapsed in the 1930s. However, the ice trade has left the modern economy with a legacy: the commerce in fresh food which continues to this day, although it is now based on refrigeration, not natural ice. And of course there is still a niche market for factory-made ice, sold for picnics, and (especially in developing countries) to fishmongers and other small-scale food dealers.
The ice trade also led to another innovation, the ice box, which allowed homeowners to keep food fresh, stimulating the trade in produce from countryside to town. Modern supermarkets with ice cream, frozen fish and fresh meat presuppose that the consumers have a refrigerator at home. Today, tropical countries like Ghana export mangos and papayas to Europe and North America. Because of refrigeration in Central America, more farmers are able to sell fresh produce to large, new supermarkets in cities like Tegucigalpa and San Salvador.

You can now find tropical produce in refrigerators around the world, and in a sense it started when a student at Harvard joked with his brother about shipping frozen pond water to the Caribbean.

Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1965 The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 517 pp.

Cummings, Richard O. 1949 The American Ice Harvests: A Historical Study in Technology, 1800–1918. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

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Why people drink cow’s milk January 15th, 2017 by

Nutritionists and physicians have started to question milk-drinking, suggesting that many consumers eat far too much dairy. Dr. Michael Klaper has even suggested that milk is just “baby calf growth fluid”, designed to “turn a 65 pound calf into a 400 pound cow”, and that unless you have long ears and a tail, you should never drink the white stuff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toZ7Mr-ClCE).

In other words, Dr. Klaper argues that cow´s milk should be avoided because it was designed as calf food. But his reasoning is absurd reductionism, because most of what humans eat was meant to be something else, not people food. Wheat grains were intended to be seed, not flour. Honey is supposed to tide the hive over the lean season, not to be added to pastry. Fish certainly did not evolve so that people could make sushi.

sun, cow, strange toolSo why do people eat dairy products?

Before agriculture, all humans were hunters-and-gatherers. They ate meat when they could (but seldom as much as people who get their food from the supermarket). They ate a bit of fat (wild animals can be pretty lean). Fish were part of the diet in many places and so were insects in a few areas where other sources of animal protein were scarce. Honey was occasionally on the menu, but no processed sugar. Some grains were eaten, but not much, because large-seeded grasses were not very common in the wild. The ancestral human diet was mostly fruit, nuts, roots, tubers and vegetables, and no milk.

peris Njenga dairy farmerThis began to change about 8500 BC when wheat and a handful of other crops were dom
esticated in the Near East (Zohary et al. 2012). Studies at the site of Çatal Hüyük, in what is now Turkey, suggest that farmers began to domesticate cattle at that same time. But the transition to agriculture was gradual, and early farmers still hunted; most of their meat still came from the wild. Livestock only began to provide most of the meat for Near Eastern farmers about 7500 BC, around 1000 years after the beginning of animal domestication (Helmer and Vigne 2007). It seems that then as now, farmers were adapting gradually, experimenting as they went.

loading milk cans on wagonDaniel Helmer (a specialist in the ancient Near East) and Jean-Denis Vigne (a zoo-archaeologist) suggest that during these early centuries of animal rearing, domestic animals were not kept so much for their meat, but for other products like traction, skin, hair, and manure, but most of all for milk. Archaeological evidence (especially remains of milk residues on pottery sherds) suggests that dairying was established by about 7000 BC in the Near East, and by about 5900-5700 BC in Britain, and in central Europe (Helmer and Vigne 2007).
Over the centuries, ancient farmers selected for cows that gave more milk. The modern dairy cow yields around 40 liters of milk a day during the first month of lactation, far more than the calf can drink. Milking allowed farmers to take food from their livestock every day, without killing the animals. The milk was rich in fat and protein, both of which were scarce in early agricultural diets.

piles of cheeseThere was one problem with ancient dairying; most people could not digest lactose, the natural sugar in milk. Human babies can digest the lactose in their mothers’ milk, but most lose this ability in adulthood.

Humans managed to eat milk products in two ways. One was to make cheese or other fermented products, where the yeast or lacto-bacteria broke down the lactose. The second way: some peoples evolved a genetic ability to absorb lactose, a trait governed by a single, dominant gene. Anthropologist William Durham asked why people would evolve the ability to digest fresh milk, if they could simply make it into easily digestible cheese. There must be a high adaptive advantage to being able to digest fresh milk, since in some populations, e.g. in Northern Europe, nearly 100% of the population has the genetic ability to digest fresh milk. It turns out that fresh milk is rich in vitamin D, which allows easy absorption of calcium. Durham reasons that this conferred a special advantage on people in cold countries, where they did not always get enough sunlight to synthesize their own vitamin D.

Fulani woman selling snacksIt is also possible that when people had been raising cows for centuries, and milk was abundant, people who could drink fresh milk were better fed than their neighbors, and so the milk-drinking gene spread through the population. That is my guess, but there is no doubt that the modern people who can drink milk are the ones whose ancestors tended cows in ancient Europe, Africa or South Asia.

If your ancestors were not dairying folks, you may be lactose intolerant. If you can drink milk, you can thank your forbearers who herded cows and put milk on the table.

Further reading

Durham, William H. 1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 228-259.

Helmer Daniel and Jean-Denis Vigne 2007 “Was Milk a ‘Secondary Product’ in the Old World Neolithisation Process? Its Role in the Domestication of Cattle, Sheep and Goats.” Anthropozoologica 42(2):9-40.

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a small collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers.

Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows

Related blog stories on the prehistory of food

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat, The sunflower: From Russia with love, and oil

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Men’s language, women’s language January 8th, 2017 by

In most countries, men and women have different styles of speaking. But is it possible for a community to have two completely different languages, one for men and one for women, not just for one generation, but sustained for a long time?

caribbeanIf such diglossia (a dual language system) is possible, imagine the decisions one would have to make while engaging with such a community. Makers of educational videos might have to make two soundtracks for a single community. An agricultural extensionist would have to choose which language to use for a talk.

caribbean-lesser-antillesAs strange as it may seem, at least one society did come close to having two, gender-based languages, which were spoken over several generations.  In the 17th century, the people of the Caribbean Island of Dominica told a story that they said took place some generations before the coming of the Europeans, when the islands of the Lesser Antilles had been inhabited by people who spoke an Arawak language. Then the islands were attacked by canoe-loads of men who spoke a Carib language. The invaders killed the local men, and then settled down with the women.

The two languages were extremely different, but the children born after the invasion grew up speaking both of them. All children learned the Arawak language of their mothers, but when the boys became teenagers they started spending more time with the men, and began to speak Carib among themselves. The Islanders developed a version of Carib that became a language for men only.

In 1665, Father Raymond Breton, a French missionary, published a two-volume dictionary of the language then spoken on the islands of Dominica and St. Vincent. The dictionary specified whether each word was used by men, or by women.

Various scholars have questioned the historical accuracy of the Carib invasion story. It is possible that the men’s language originated through trade or migration.  We will never know if Carib men of the 13th century once rampaged across the island beaches, murdering Arawak men and capturing women. There is no historical or archaeological evidence for (or against) this story. Yet the linguistic data are well documented. There is no doubt that in the 1650s, over much of the Lesser Antilles, men and women spoke in two remarkably different codes. The two genders used the same sounds, and most of the same grammar, but men’s words were from Carib, and women’s words were from Arawak. (The men could speak the women’s language, and would speak it when socializing with women. The men’s language was only used between men).

If you could time travel to the Island of Dominica in the 17th century, and were able to speak the full range of men’s and women’s languages, a talk with the whole community would sooner or later switch to the women’s language, because it was everyone’s first tongue.

In agricultural extension today, sometimes it helps to create a space where women can easily speak up, so that their concerns can be addressed. It is easy to start to think that men and women are very different, but it is also worth remembering that in some ways we are the same, and that language can unite us.

Further reading

Allaire, Louis 1980 “On the Historicity of Carib Migrations in the Lesser Antilles.” American Antiquity 45(2):238-245.

Boucher, Philip P. 2009 Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492–1763. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davis, Dave D. and R. Christopher Goodwin 1990 “Island Carib Origins: Evidence and Nonevidence.” American Antiquity 55(1):37-48.

Taylor, Douglas 1954 “Diachronic Note on the Carib Contribution to Island Carib.” International Journal of American Linguistics 20(1):28-33.

Taylor, Douglas R. and Berend J. Hoff 1980 “The Linguistic Repertory of the Island-Carib in the Seventeenth Century: The Men’s Language: A Carib Pidgin?”  International Journal of American Linguistics 46(4):301-312.

Further viewing

Watch a video on women in agricultural extension, here.

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Our younger readers December 18th, 2016 by

Some countries with deeply contrasting linguistic histories are now becoming literate in similar ways. In Nepal and Malawi reading is becoming more common, as governments set up more schools and encourage girls and boys to attend.

Unlike most of Africa and Asia, Nepal was never formally colonized. The British were content to recognize the kingdom and install a British ministry in 1840 to advise on key issues, especially foreign policy. And the British accepted Nepali soldiers, the famous Gurkhas, into the Indian army.

Malawi was colonized, but fairly late. The Scottish missionary-explorer, David Livingstone ambled across what is now Malawi in 1861. The first traders, the African Lakes Company, set up shop in 1878, in Blantyre, and military conquest was complete by 1890.

A country’s literary tradition can be old or recent. Nepali has been written from the very start, since the language first evolved from Sanskrit, which itself had a sophisticated writing system by the second millennium BCE. The languages of Malawi (then called “Nyasaland”) were not written until the 1870s when Scottish missionaries devised scripts (“alphabets”) to translate the Bible. By the 1890s children were learning to read and write in mission schools. In Malawi, a literary heritage of thousands of years had been compressed into a single generation.

juno-gaha-reads-mites-pamphletAn old literary tradition is not necessarily a democratic one. In Nepal, as late as 1900, only 5% of the population could read. Government schools gradually improved. By 1951 the literacy rate was 39%, rising to 58% in 1991. Some of this effort was motivated by a policy to promote the Nepali language at the expense of the others spoken in the country, many of which are entirely unrelated to Nepali, linguistically.

In Malawi there were never enough mission schools to meet the demand from parents who wanted their children to study. Government schools expanded, especially after independence in 1963. The languages of Malawi are all Bantu tongues, and are all fairly closely related to one another. People learn to read in their own language (e.g. Tumbuka or Yao), besides Chichewa, which is the de facto national language.

The world literacy rate (the percentage of people over 15-years-old who can read), is 86% (83% for women). Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have some of the lowest literacy rates in the world: 65% for Nepal and almost the same for Malawi at 66%. Fewer women are literate, 55% in Nepal and just slightly more, 59%, in Malawi.
I was in Nepal and Malawi this year, and while the school systems are not over-funded, in both countries I was pleasantly surprised to see people reading, even in the countryside. Even people who didn’t go to school usually have someone in the household who can read a document to them. In Nepal, shops advertise their wares in writing on the storefront, and in Malawi, roadside grain buyers scrawl their maize and bean prices onto signs, to attract farmer-sellers.

buying-maize-and-beans-chichewa-languageIn both countries, when extensionists give farmers a piece of paper, their first reaction is to read it. There is room for improvement, e.g. schools need to be better resourced and more girls and women need to be included, but even in some of the poorest parts of the world many more people can read now than in their parents’ day. This is an opportunity for communicating agriculture. It means that agencies can write fact sheets for farmers, as long as the writers can avoid jargon. While videos are an important way of reaching women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups, even a DVD of farmer learning videos is enhanced with a bit of writing, such as a cover with a title, and a menu so farmers can choose the videos they want to watch.

World literacy rates have improved so fast that it is much more common for young people to read than for elders (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2016). Let’s make sure that this generation of literate farmers has something appropriate to read about agricultural technology.

Further reading

McCracken, John 2012 A History of Malawi: 1859-1966. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: James Currey. 485 pp.

Roser, Max and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina 2016 “Literacy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/

Whelpton, John 2005 A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 296 pp.

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Learning from students August 21st, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I like to teach adults, because I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

Last week I taught a writing course to a group of Bolivians (mostly agronomists) in Anzaldo, a small town in Cochabamba department. During the five days, students write a fact sheet on a topic for farmers, and then take a draft to the villages, to gather the farmers’ comments. We call this a “farmer peer review”. Eric, Paul and I have used this simple method in many countries to get direct feedback from farmers to make the prose clearer and simplify the technology described in the fact sheet.

My eight students wrote five fact sheets. Juan Vallejos and Maura Lazarte co-authored one on how to prepare the seed of tarwi (the Andean lupine with the edible seeds) with practical tips for getting a bigger harvest from farmer-saved seed.

And on the second of August, Juan, Maura and the other adult students showed up in a village called Phinkina, holding a fact sheet in Spanish, written for Quechua-speaking farmers. We could have written the fact sheets in Quechua. Like any human language, Quechua can be written, but few people know how to read this native language. Quechua people who can read, are literate in Spanish.

As always, I had given the students three options.

First, invite the farmers to read the fact sheet.

Second option, if reviewers can’t read, read the fact sheet out loud to them exactly as it is written.

Third, if the farmer can’t understand the national language (in this case, Spanish), translate the fact sheet for her, word for word, into the local language (Quechua).

leyendo sobre quinua con Juan y EliseoBut sometimes adult students politely ignore your suggestions. In Phinkina, Juan and Maura went to visit a farmer and her two young daughters. Juan speaks fluent Quechua, and he started by asking the farmer if she would read the fact sheet. She said that she didn’t read much, but that she understood some Spanish. But instead of translating the fact sheet, Juan read it to her, one sentence at a time, in Spanish, and then asked her in Quechua what the sentence was about. The farmer began to essentially translate each short sentence into Quechua. It was a systematic way to see which parts of the paper she understood and which phrases needed to be improved.

For example, the farmer explained that she did not understand the difference between “insecticide” and “fungicide.”

And she balked at the description of the dessicated grains. Farmers here say that the dried up grains are “sucked” (chupados) or “empty” (ch’usus).

Later that afternoon, in the neighboring village of Tijrasqa, I watched Maura use the same method to review the fact sheet with another farmer.

For example, when Maura read that the disease attacks in the “early stages” of the plant’s life, the farmer didn’t understand, so Maura explained it.

“Why not say ‘just when the plant comes up?’” the farmer asked. Simple words are often the most powerful.

During the reading, this second farmer cradled a green, plastic bucket in her arm. Tarwi is one of the main crops here, so the fact sheet on tarwi seed held her attention.

A few steps away, children were dancing in the village school, to honor the memory of 2 August 1953, when the Agrarian Reform was signed, in nearby Ucureña, in the Valle Alto.

Maura y Eliseo validandoThe farmer’s bucket was full of chuchusmut’i, which is what tarwi grains are called when they are prepared as a snack food. The farmer had brought them to sell to the parents and teachers at the school. When the farmer finished reviewing the fact sheet she scooped out a generous bag full of chuchusmut’i and proudly handed it to us, as a gift, as though the fact sheet was valuable enough that she wanted to give us something in return.

But we had already been rewarded with the farmers’ suggestions. Later, all the students edited their fact sheets, taking their readers’ ideas on board. The students had learned a valuable lesson about writing for their audience. And I learned a new way to review fact sheets.


Our course was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program, McKnight Foundation www.ccrp.org, with logistical support from the Proinpa Foundation www.proinpa.org.

Further reading

You can download fact sheets and videos at www.accessagriculture.org.

If you need help finding a fact sheet, write to me at jeff@agroinsight.com.



21 de agosto del 2016, por Jeff Bentley

Me gusta enseñar a los adultos, porque aprendemos los unos de los otros.

La semana pasada di un curso de redacción a un grupo de agrónomos y otros profesionales en Anzaldo, un pueblo pequeño en el departamento de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Durante los cinco días del curso, los estudiantes escriben hojas volantes para campesinos, y luego se las llevan a las comunidades, para recibir los comentarios de los comuneros. Es lo que llamamos una “revisión por árbitros agricultores”. Con Eric y Paul hemos usado este sencillo método en muchos países para obtener la retroalimentación directa de los agricultores, la cual nos ayuda a escribir con una prosa más clara y simplificar la tecnología que se describe en la hoja volante.

Esa semana, mis ocho estudiantes escribieron cinco hojas volantes. Juan Vallejos y Maura Lazarte eran los co-autores de una sobre cómo preparar la semilla de tarwi (la lupina andina con las semillas comestibles). Incluyeron sugerencias prácticas sobre cómo cosechar más, con la semilla guardada por los agricultores.

Así que el dos de agosto, Juan, Maura y los otros estudiantes adultos llegaron a la comunidad de Phinkina, llevando sus hojas volantes en castellano, escritas para campesinos que hablan quechua. Podríamos haber escrito las hojas volantes en quechua. Igual que todo idioma humano, el quechua se puede escribir, pero pocas personas saben leer este idioma nativo. Si alguien que habla quechua puede leer, lee en español.  Como siempre, a mis estudiantes adultos les di tres opciones.

Primero, invitar a los campesinos a leer la hoja volante.

Segunda opción, si los árbitros no saben leer, lean la hoja volante para ellos en voz alta, tal como está escrita.

Tercero, si la agricultora no entiende el idioma nacional (en este caso, español), traduzca la hoja volante para ella, palabra por palabra, en el idioma local (quechua).

flor de tarwiFelizmente, mis estudiantes adultos no siembre me hacen caso. En Phinkina, Juan y Maura visitaron a una campesina con sus dos hijitas. Juan habla fluidamente el quechua, y comenzó preguntando a la agricultora si estaría dispuesta a leer la hoja volante. Ella respondió que no sabía leer mucho, pero que sí entendía algo del castellano. Pero en vez de traducir la hoja volante, Juan se la leyó, una oración a la vez, en español, y luego le preguntó en quechua de qué se trataba la oración. La agricultora empezó a más o menos traducir las cortas oraciones al quechua. Era una manera sistemática de ver qué partes de la hoja volante ella entendía y cuáles frases había que mejorarse.

Por ejemplo, la agricultora explicó que no entendía la diferencia entre “insecticida” y “fungicida.”

Rechazó la descripción de los granos desecados. Aquí los campesinos los llaman “chupados” o “ch’usus” (vacíos) a esos granos.

Más tarde, en la comunidad vecina de Tijrasqa, estuve presente cuando Maura usó el mismo método para revisar su hoja volante con otro agricultor.

Por ejemplo, cuando Maura leyó que la enfermedad ataca en las “primeras etapas” del cultivo, la agricultora no entendió, así que Maura se le explicó.

“¿Por qué no decir ‘apenas que salga la planta?’” preguntó la agricultora. Las palabras más sencillas frecuentemente son las más poderosas.

Durante la lectura, esta segunda agricultora tenía en las manos un balde de plástico verde. Tarwi es uno de los cultivos principales aquí, por lo tanto la hoja volante le captó la atención.

A unos pasos, los niños bailaban en su colegio, en honor a la memoria del 2 de agosto del 1953, cuando se firmó la Ley de la Reforma Agraria, no muy lejos de aquí, en Ucureña, en el Valle Alto.

tarwi chuchusmutiEl balde estaba lleno de chuchusmut’i, que son los granos de tarwi preparados para comer como un bocadillo. La agricultora los había traído para vender a los pares y profesores del colegio. Cuando la agricultora terminó de revisar la hoja volante, llenó su tutuma de chuchusmut’i y orgullosamente nos regaló una porción generosa, como si la hoja volante fuera tan valiosa que ella quería agradecernos con algo.

Pero nosotros ya habíamos sido premiados, con las sugerencias de la gente local. Más tarde, los estudiantes adultos editaron sus hojas volantes, tomando en cuenta las ideas de sus lectores. Los estudiantes aprendieron una lección valiosa sobre cómo escribir para su audiencia. Y yo aprendí una nueva manera de revisar las hojas volantes.


Nuestro curso fue auspiciado por el Collaborative Crop Research Program de la Fundación McKnight www.ccrp.org, con el apoyo logístico de la Fundación Proinpa www.proinpa.org.

Lectura adicional

Se puede bajar hojas volantes y videos en la página www.accessagriculture.org.

Si le puedo ayudar a encontrar una hoja volante, escríbame al jeff@agroinsight.com.

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