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Marketing something nice April 15th, 2018 by

vea la versión en español a continuación

I’ve always been impressed by the way Bolivians adapt creatively to new situations. The other day Ana and I went to a farmers’ fair in the small town of Colcapirhua, near Cochabamba. The fair was due to be held in the charming main square of the town. Paved in flagstones, closed to through traffic and with steps leading up to a small church it would have been a delightful venue. But local townspeople were already there, angrily but peacefully protesting about alleged corruption in their town council.

The protesters were there to stay, so the farmers moved their fair two blocks south, where they strung out their stands on an empty side lane along the main highway between Cochabamba and La Paz. It was less picturesque, but there were more potential customers passing by.

The farmers selling goods represented organized groups from all regions of Bolivia. The fair was actually part of the annual meeting of the National Soils Platform, which had chosen “fair trade” as its annual theme. As we moved up the line of stalls, the farmers were keen to sell us a wide range of goods that were not only high quality, but also unique, such as strawberries from the valleys of Santa Cruz, oven dried to sweet perfection.

Coffee growers from the Amazon (parts of which are cool enough for coffee) had brought little plastic bags of coffee seed. “Ready to plant!” they exclaimed, eager to encourage other farmers to start growing their own coffee. Cacao farmers from the Beni had bitter, white and milk chocolate. There was real pleasure in buying chocolate from the people who had made it from the cacao beans that they grew themselves.

There were tiny puffed grains of amaranth (ready to eat like cold cereal), fresh cherimoyas (a native fruit—but of a small, sweet variety that is now hard to find). Some farmers from Chuquisaca had a local variety of chilli that was so hot, it is called “la gran putita (the great little whore)”. We had to buy some.

There was traditional food, like an aged cow’s cheese from the warm valley of Comarapa. It tasted marvelous, but the smell of cow was not for beginners.

What struck me the most was how many of the products were new, and inventive. Things you wouldn’t find in the supermarket in Cochabamba, such as dried apples, preserved peaches still on the stone (moist and sweet but with no sugar added). Quinoa and wheat were packed in neat plastic bags, with labels, ready to make into soup.

We have said in a previous blog that smallholders with attractive products struggle to produce equally attractive labels, which by law often have to list ingredients. Here, the chocolate was wrapped in handsome paper with a printed label.

My favorite was the apple vinegar, in recycled Mexican beer bottles. The farmers had covered the beer label with a new paper one, proudly explaining that this vintage was made from just three ingredients: organic apples, raw cane sugar with no additives, and water. The bottles were neatly sealed with bright yellow bottle caps.

Most of these farmers’ associations have received support, often from their parish priest or from Church-sponsored NGOs, some with volunteers from Europe and elsewhere. Outside help in manufacturing and packaging had clearly contributed to the quality of the goods, but the farmers were self-motivated to sell their goods. Agriculture is in large measure about producing something to sell.

Although this was an event on fair trade, there was no mention of being certified as fair trade. One speaker the first day had mentioned some of the hurdles that keep smallholders from being able to qualify for fair trade certification, and this group had readily agreed with her.

This group of smallholders certainly understood one basic idea, marketing means you must have something nice to sell: attractive, high quality and well presented. Farmers across the globe deserve a fair price for their products, and smart marketing helps to achieve this.

Related blogs

Food for outlaws (on labels for homemade products)

And some stories on chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

Congo cocoa

Out of the shade

Farewell coca, hello cocoa

Related videos

Coffee: group organization

 

ALGO BONITO PARA VENDER

por Jeff Bentley, 15 de abril del 2018

Los bolivianos siempre me han impresionado con su habilidad de adaptarse creativamente a las nuevas situaciones. El otro día fui con Ana a una feria agrícola en el pueblito de Colcapirhua, cerca de Cochabamba. La feria tenía que realizarse en la linda plaza del pueblo. Enlozada, cerrada al tráfico de autos y con una capilla sobre una colina, hubiera sido un lugar encantador. Pero algunos vecinos del pueblo ya estaban allí, protestando pacíficamente pero molestos contra la supuesta corrupción de sus concejales.

La protesta no se movía, así que los agricultores trasladaron su feria dos cuadras al sur, donde colocaron sus carpas en una fila en un camino vacío al lado de la carretera principal entre Cochabamba y La Paz. El lugar no era tan pintoresco, pero sí había más compradores que pasaban a pie.

Los agricultores representaban a grupos organizados de todas las regiones de Bolivia. En realidad, la feria era parte de la reunión anual de la Plataforma Nacional de Suelos, que había escogido a “comercio justo” como su tema anual. Al caminar por los puestos, los agricultores estaban con ganas de vender una amplia gama de productos que no solamente eran de buena calidad, pero también únicos, como las frutillas (fresas) de los valles de Santa Cruz, secadas a la perfección en horno.

Caficultores de la Amazonía (partes de la cual son tan frescas que se puede cultivar café) habían traído bolsitas de semilla de café. “¡Listo para el almácigo!” exclamaron, felices de animar a otros a producir su propio café. Productores del Beni tenían chocolate amargo, blanco y con leche. Dio gusto comprar chocolate de la gente que lo hizo, a partir de granos de los cacao que ellos mismos cosecharon.

Habían pipocas de amaranto. Habían chirimoyas (un fruto nativo—pero de una dulce variedad pequeña que cuesta encontrar). Algunos de Chuquisaca tenían una variedad local de ají tan picante que le llamaban “la gran putita”. Había que comprar un poco.

También había comida tradicional, como un queso añejo de leche de vaca del valle bajo de Comarapa. El sabor era maravilloso, pero el olor a vaca no era para principiantes.

Lo que más me impresionó era que muchos de los productos eran nuevos e innovadores. Cosas que no se encuentran en el supermercado de Cochabamba, como manzanas secas, duraznos preservados con la pepa (húmedos y dulces sin azúcar agregado). Quinua y trigo en bolsas impresas con etiquetas ya estaban listos para hacer sopa.

En un blog previo hemos dicho que los campesinos luchan para hacer etiquetas dignas de sus lindos productos. Por ley las etiquetas tienen que describir los ingredientes. Por ejemplo el chocolate estaba envuelto en un papel hermoso con una etiqueta impresa.

Mi favorito era el vinagre de manzana, en botellas recicladas de cerveza mexicana. Los agricultores habían tapado la etiqueta original con una de papel, orgullosamente explicando que esta vendimia se hacía únicamente a partir de tres ingredientes: manzanas orgánicas, chancaca pura, y agua. Las botellas llevaban una tapa metálica de amarillo brillante.

La mayorĂ­a de esas asociaciones rurales han recibido apoyo, a menudo de su parroquia o de ONGs vinculados a la Iglesia, algunos con voluntarios de Europa y otros lados. La ayuda de forasteros en la manufactura y el envase sĂ­ habĂ­a contribuido a la calidad de los bienes, pero los agricultores estaban auto-motivados a vender sus productos. La agricultora en gran medida se trata de producir algo para vender.

A pesar de que el evento se trataba del comercio justo, no había mención de hacerse certificar como comercio justo. Una expositora el primer día mencionó varios de los obstáculos que previenen que los campesinos puedan certificarse, y este grupo había estado plenamente de acuerdo con ella.

Estos campesinos organizados tenĂ­an bien claro que el comercio consiste en tener algo bonito para vender: atractivo, de alta calidad y bien presentada. Las familias campesinas en todo el mundo merecen un precio justo por sus productos, y el mercadeo inteligente les ayuda a lograrlo.

Blogs relacionados

Comida contra la ley (sobre etiquetas para productos populares)

Y algunos relatos sobre el chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

Congo cocoa

Out of the shade

Farewell coca, hello cocoa

Videos relacionados

El café: constitución de agrupaciones

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Mix and match April 1st, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

This blog often features farmers creatively adapting ideas they learned from watching farmer learning videos. It should come as little surprise that agricultural extension people can also get inventive with new ways to show the videos.

In April 2017, I gave several organizations in Bolivia copies of a DVD with seven videos, each one with Quechua, Spanish and Aymara versions. Two of the videos were made with farmers in Bolivia, but the other five presented farmers from other countries.

MarĂ­a Omonte, an agronomist and the national director of the NGO World Neighbors, watched all seven of the videos. To my initial surprise, MarĂ­a also watched all of the videos in Spanish on the Access Agriculture video portal. She is a registered user and checks the portal frequently to see if any new Spanish versions of videos have been added. MarĂ­a graduated from the prestigious agricultural university in Honduras, El Zamorano, and her training and natural curiosity has made her a keen life-long learner.

MarĂ­a and her team had been working for almost three years in six rural communities in Vila Vila, in the warm, semi-arid valleys of southern Cochabamba. Last December the team introduced the idea of organic fertilizer and Bordeaux mixture, a copper-based fungicide, as well as other similar products for diseases of papaya, lemon and other crops. After seeing some practical demonstrations and receiving starter kits with the ingredients, some of the farmers tried the Bordeaux mix, but MarĂ­a felt that they needed more encouragement to keep using them.

So María decided to creatively combine two videos. She took the Quechua version of “Let’s Talk Money” from the DVD, and downloaded the Spanish version of “Turning Honey into Money”, which was not on the DVD, from the Access Agriculture video portal. She decided to use these two videos along with other information to make a unique training event for the six Quechua-speaking villages, a five-hour drive from the city of Cochabamba.

I was there last week in the community of Sik’imira at an evening meeting in the local school. The courtyard was full of high school students playing a furious game of football on the cement basketball court. María and her driver, Enrique Mancilla, set up their projector and within minutes 25 farmers, over half women, had filed in and taken their seats.

María told the group that she had a video in Quechua, but from Mali, a country in Africa. From previous screenings María had learned that three details in the video were unfamiliar to farmers, so she explained those. The video mentions millet (“a small grain”) and cowpea (“a bean”) and third, the currency in the video is called the franc.

By now the football game outside had ended, and the teenagers were playing loud, pounding music. So the video was a bit hard to hear. Still, people said they understood it, and they had no questions.

María used this as an opportunity to say: “In the video we saw farmers and their facilitator adding up costs for different practices with millet and cowpea to see which one is more practical. Would you like to do the same with one of your crops?” The farmers suggested sweetpotato.

It takes skill to walk through each step in the production of a crop and at the same time count the costs in front of an audience. Unfazed, MarĂ­a launched into the exercise in fluent Quechua. She started to struggle with the loud music still pounding next door, but eventually they turned it down enough for her to continue.

At the end, people looked at the results. “We’re not making much money,” one said. “That’s sad,” another added.

María used this as an entrée to discuss organic inputs, to improve yields, then she asked the packed room – standing room only – if they would like to watch another video. It was 10 PM, past everyone’s bed time, but to my surprise everyone agreed.

Enrique and MarĂ­a put on the video Turning honey into money. She explained that this one was made in Kenya, also in Africa. By then, the music outside had mercifully stopped. The video played beautifully. Although it was in Spanish, which few in the audience understood, MarĂ­a told me that the images in this video are so clear that everyone understood it.

As the video ends, one man shouts out “Now we have the sweet taste of honey in our mouths!” Everyone laughs. None of the Bolivian farmers comment on the skin color of the people in the videos, or their clothing. That is not an issue. María thinks that farmers are intrigued by seeing smallholders from far away.

After watching the honey video, María says that she can bring an expert beekeeper to help them get started raising bees. The farmers request a meeting on Sunday morning. María and Enrique both agree to give up their weekend to do that, delighted at a small victory.  Until now, the Sik’imira community has only ever wanted to meet at night. A Sunday morning meeting suggests that they are taking the extension program more seriously, helped by the warm response to the two videos.

A creative development professional, with access to a library of videos, can mix and match, combining a video on calculating farm costs with one on honey. Then she can add more information, to make an exciting training event that local people find relevant.

Watch the videos

Let’s talk about money is available in 30 languages, including English, Spanish and Quechua.

Turning honey into money is available in 10 languages, including Spanish and English.

Acknowledgements

Our work in Bolivia is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program).

COMBINAR CON GRACIA

Por Jeff Bentley, primero de abril del 2018

Este blog a menudo resalta a agricultores que creativamente adaptan ideas que hayan aprendido cuando ven videos de capacitación. No nos debe sorprender que los ingenieros extensionistas también inventen nuevas maneras de mostrar videos.

En abril del 2017, en Bolivia, repartí copias de un DVD a varias organizaciones, con siete videos, cada uno en quechua, español y aymara. Dos de los videos se hicieron con campesinos en Bolivia, pero los otros cinco mostraron a agricultores de otros países.

María Omonte, una agrónoma y la directora nacional de la ONG Vecinos Mundiales, miró los siete videos. Para mi sorpresa inicial, María también miró todos los videos en español del portal de videos de Access Agriculture. Ella se registró al portal y revisa frecuentemente para ver si hay nuevas versiones en español de los videos. María se egresó de la prestigiosa universidad agrícola El Zamorano, y su formación y curiosidad natural le han ayudado a seguir aprendiendo toda la vida.

María y su equipo llevan casi tres años trabajando en seis comunidades en Vila Vila, en los valles cálidos y semi-áridos del sur de Cochabamba. En diciembre pasado el equipo introdujo la idea del fertilizante orgánico y el caldo bordelés, un fungicida en base a cobre, y otros caldos para enfermedades de papaya, limón y otros cultivos. Después de ver algunas demostraciones prácticas y recibir materiales de arranque, algunos comuneros probaron el caldo bordelés, pero María pensó que ella podría animarles más a usar los caldos.

Así que María decidió hacer uso creativo de dos videos. Tomó la versión en quechua de “Hablemos del dinero” del DVD, y del portal de Access Agriculture y bajó la versión en español de “La miel es oro,” el cual no estaba en el DVD. Ella decidió usar esos dos videos juntos con otra información para crear un taller de capacitación para esas seis comunidades de habla quechua, a cinco horas en auto de la ciudad de Cochabamba.

Yo estuve allá la semana pasada, en la comunidad de Sik’imira en un taller en el colegio local. El patio estaba lleno de estudiantes de secundaria que jugaban un partido enardecido de fulbito. María y su conductor, Enrique Mancilla, armaron su proyector y dentro de minutos unos 25 agricultores, casi la mitad mujeres, habían tomado sus asientos.

María contó al grupo que tenía un video en quechua, pero de Mali, un país en Africa. En talleres en otras comunidades María vio que unos tres detalles en el video eran extraños a los agricultores, así que se les explicó: el video menciona mijo (“un pequeño grano”) y caupí (“un frijol”) y tercero, la moneda en el video se llama el franco.

Ahora el partido de fulbito se habĂ­a terminado, y los jĂłvenes habĂ­an encendido una mĂşsica fuerte y pulsante. AsĂ­ que nos costĂł un poco escuchar el video. Aun asĂ­, la gente dijo que lo entendieron, y no tenĂ­an preguntas.

María usó esa oportunidad para decir “En el video vimos que los agricultores y su facilitador sumaban los costos de diferentes prácticas con el mijo y el caupí, para ver cuál era más rentable. ¿A ustedes les gustaría hacer lo mismo con uno de sus cultivos?” El público sugirió el camote.

Requiere de destreza hablar paso por paso de la producción de un cultivo, contar los costos delante del público. Pero María arrancó el ejercicio de una vez en quechua fluido. Empezó a frustrarse con la música tan fuerte al lado, pero después de un tiempo le bajaron el volumen un poquito y siguió adelante.

Al final, la gente miró los resultados. “No ganamos mucho dinero,” dijeron. “Es triste,” agregaron.

María usó esa observación como una entrada para hablar de los insumos orgánicos, para mejorar su producción.

Ahora había tanta gente que no había donde sentarse. María les preguntó si estaban cansados y si querían irse o si querían ver otro video. Eran las 10 PM, cuando todos normalmente están dormidos, pero querían ver otro video.

Enrique y María encendieron el video La miel es oro. Ella explicó que este se hizo en Kenia, también en Africa. Ahora por fin la música de los chicos se había terminado. El video se escuchó una maravilla. Estaba en castellano, que no todos entienden, pero como María me dijo, las imágenes en este video son tan claras que toda la gente entendió.

Al fin del video, un hombre gritó “¡Nos hemos quedado con el sabor de la miel en la boca!” todos se rieron. Ninguno de los comuneros comentó sobre la tez de la gente en los videos, ni de su ropa. Eso no les importaba. María cree que a los campesinos les intriga ver a sus colegas en países lejanos.

Después de ver el video sobre la miel, María dijo que ella podría traer a un apicultor experto para enseñarles a criar abejas. La comunidad pidió una reunión el domingo en la mañana. María y Enrique se quedaron en eso, sacrificando su fin de semana, pero felices con esa pequeña victoria, Hasta ahora la comunidad de Sik’imira solo ha querido hacer talleres de noche. El querer hacer uno el domingo en la mañana sugiere que la gente empieza a tomar este programa de extensión un poco más en seria, ayudada en parte por su cálida reacción a los dos videos.

Una creativa profesional del desarrollo, con acceso a una videoteca puede combinar diferentes títulos, usando un video sobre cómo contar costos de producción con uno sobre la miel. Luego puede agregar más información para hacer un taller ameno que es relevante para la gente local.

Vea los videos

Hablemos del dinero está disponible en 30 idiomas, incluso inglés, español y quechua.

La miel es oro está disponible en 10 idiomas, incluso español e inglés.

Agradecimiento

Nuestro trabajo en Bolivia es financiado por la CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

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To fence or not to fence February 25th, 2018 by

Fences reveal a lot about rural communities. They show  how farmers make good use of available materials, but they can also uncover social tensions. Reading fences and understanding what they do and represent tells you a lot about how people work and live.

In the country-side of Kenya, farmers have a long tradition of fencing their farm with wooden poles. While this practice stems from a time where trees were abundant, competition with fuel wood is gradually changing this practice towards more inclusion of living plants.

In some parts of East Africa, fences contain the so-called pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), grown in Europe as an ornamental. The aim is to discourage potential intruders, particularly those trying to steal livestock.  The fragile branches of pencil plants break easily, releasing a white sap that can blind people when the juice gets into their eyes.

In Egypt, farmers protect their maize from grazing animals by surrounding the field with a row of nightshade (from the same plant genus as potato and tomato). As with Euphorbia, the nightshade’s leaves contain a toxic juice. Farmers can restrain their own animals from grazing afar, but can’t be sure their neighbours do the same. And once cattle get into your maize field, the damage can be huge. A small investment in fences prevents disputes with your neighbours about who pays for the losses.

But fences often do more than keep animals out. Stone walls in Guatemala often contain sisal plants. Without reducing the land available for grazing animals, the space taken up by the fence is used to grow this valuable plant that provides farmers with fibre to make ropes. By diversifying crop, livestock and plant species on farm, farmers ensure a steady supply of what they need to live from their land.

At the highlands of southwest Uganda, a local farmer, James Kabareebe, showed us how he plants Calliandra around his fields, an agroforestry practice widely promoted by projects in the 1990s. Prunings of this leguminous tree are used as mulch to enrich his soil with nitrogen. And above all, it provides the necessary organic matter to soils on sloping land that are highly vulnerable to erosion caused by tropical downpours.

At times, living fences also point to a level of social injustice. Customary land rights benefit male community members, while women are often left to struggle to grow food on smaller plots or on less fertile soils.

In parts of Mali, women have negotiated with their men to grow a high value crop along the border of the field. The juicy, red flower heads of the roselle or bissap plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is native to West Africa, provide a good source of additional revenue for rural women.

Fences across the world give us insights into how people manage their land. They are like a signature, revealing a little about how people relate to the land, and to each other.

 

Further reading

Tripp, A.M. 2004. Women’s Movements, Customary Law, and Land Rights in Africa: the case of Uganda. African Studies Quarterly. http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i4a1.htm

Related blogs

Mending fences, making friends

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Seed fairs February 18th, 2018 by

Seed fairs are gaining in popularity around the world, and are a great way to encourage farmers and gardeners to conserve global biodiversity. But the fairs can do more than just provide an opportunity for people to exchange and sell seed, as I recently learned during a visit to Guatemala to make a farmer training video on farmers’ rights to seed, with a particular focus    on women in biodiversity management. In Guatemala, donor agencies and organisations have supported community biodiversity conservation initiatives for over a decade.

Our local partner, ASOCOCH, is an umbrella organisation of 20 cooperatives and farmer associations, representing some 9,000 farm families in the western highlands of Huehuetenango. On Sunday, one day before the actual seed fair starts, we visit the venue. The seed fair has become a large annual event, unlike in Malawi, where seed fairs are less regular. The fair attracts hundreds of people from across the highlands, some travelling long distances. One elderly woman told me she rode a bus for five hours to get there.

The seed fair is a lively, social event, with a Ferris wheel, stalls with amusement games and one with wooden, artistically carved horses with leather saddles on which people can sit and have their photo taken against a painted background of lush vegetation, complete with mountains and waterfalls. Visitors can buy sweets and nuts. A young boy gently pushes his wheelbarrow full of mandarins for sale through the crowds, while indigenous women sell traditional delicacies. Families with grandparents and kids relish the event as the region does not have such a large fair very often.

But there is more to the fair than having fun and eating. The seed fair is held on school grounds and I soon see farmers in intricately woven, traditional clothes lining up to register for classes. There are four large rooms where farmers can learn about potato, agrobiodiversity, climate change and women’s rights. My wife Marcella and I first attend the talks in the agrobiodiversity room, where Juanita Chaves from GFAR explains about farmers’ rights to seed. To my surprise this is followed by two presentations on aflatoxins in maize by staff from a local NGO. The presenters graphically explain the relation between mouldy maize cobs and the disfigurement of children and internal organs. As most farmers conserve their own maize seed they need to be aware of the risks of fungal infections. I am still a little puzzled as to how this relates to the seed fair and agrobiodiversity conservation, but after lunch all becomes clear.

We accompany the farmers who attended the aflatoxin sessions to the Clementoro Community Seed Bank, less than 10 kilometers away. The farmers see seeds stored in plastic jars, clearly labelled and neatly stacked on the shelves. In the middle of the room, a young agricultural graduate working at the seed bank shows farmers how they can detect if their seed is contaminated with aflatoxins by using a simple methanol test. “When you store your maize crop and seed, you need to be sure it has less than 13% moisture so that moulds will not develop,” the enthusiastic young woman explains. “Here at the seed bank, you can have your seed tested and conserved in optimal conditions,” she continues.

Seed is one of farmers’ most precious resources, and storing it at a community seed bank requires lots of trust. They need to know that their seed will be safely stored until they need it, either for the next growing season or even a few years later whenever the need arises. By organising seed fairs, seminars and visits to community seed banks, ASOCUCH is building trust through sharing knowledge and explaining clearly what they do.

The next day, we film the actual seed fair itself. There is an overwhelming abundance of crop varieties, fruits, medicinal and even some ornamental plants. Farmers and their families are clearly excited as seed and plant material changes hands. There is brisk trading between farmers. While some exchange materials, most sell and buy seed. People tell each other about the seeds they have on offer. ASOCUCH, with the support of GFAR, had also prepared a booklet with traditional recipes. Copies are spread on tables at the entrance and they run out like hot cakes.

There is a judging competition to find the best seeds.  Judges visit each stand, measuring maize cobs, counting seeds, weighing potato seed tubers and taking notes. Agrobiodiversity is a serious matter. At the same time, outside the schoolhouse, sheep are being rated by another set of judges. In the late afternoon, the results are shared with the audience. People had brought dozens of varieties and over a thousand accessions of various crops. The audience is excited, and so are we. This has been a fascinating two-day event, and the drive of the farmers and their organisations has made us hopeful for the future.  Local initiatives are where conservation begins, but they need the support of local authorities, governments and international organisations to increase their impact.

Everyone has had a good time. More importantly, farmers have made new contacts, acquired seeds of traditional varieties that may have been lost in some areas and helped others to preserve them in new areas. They have learned about saving seed, but most of all, the farmers have learned that they have certain rights to seeds—they can plant their own native varieties as they wish, for example—and that these rights mattter hugely in sustaining local agriculture.

Related blogs

Quinoa, lost and found

Homegrown seed can be good

Bolivian peanuts

We share

Further viewing

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Guatemela

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Malawi

Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) and the European Union for funding the production of the video discussed here. Support in Guatemala was kindly provided by the AsociaciĂłn de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

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No land, no water, no problem December 17th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

A hot, parched gravel patch on the edge of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia may seem like a poor place to grow high value vegetables, but a group of agricultural students and a local entrepreneur are making it happen.

The entrepreneur, René Cabezas, is an agronomist who gives training courses in hydroponics, where vegetables are produced in tubes of water. Mr. Cabezas also produces hydroponic vegetables himself, and he recently bought in three metal frame houses—each about the size of a modest suburban home, about 7 by 15 meters—at a cost of 45,000 Bolivianos ($6400) each. Aldo Chipana and Arturo Siles, two thesis students, were showing Ana and I how the vegetables are grown. The metal frames were covered in a fine, plastic mesh, a fabric which keeps out insects, such as aphids and whiteflies. The structures were a big investment, and making them pay off will depend on using them carefully for a long time. Several agronomy students are working in the vegetable houses, writing their theses on the experience, and keeping some of the profits from the produce.

One house was full of tomatoes watered with drip irrigation three times a day, carefully regulated by an electronic timer and a humidity-measuring device. Mineral fertilizer had been dissolved in the water, feeding the plants with every drop. The tomatoes had no obvious health problems: which is astounding for the tropics, where the plants grow year round, and so do the pests and diseases. I thought of some of the commercial farms I had seen in Bolivia and elsewhere, where the tomatoes were under constant attack by pests and diseases and dripping with pesticides.

These tomatoes are planted in small pots of soil with lots of organic matter. The dry climate of the Southern Andes helps to avoid disease, but Aldo and his colleagues also prune off any unhealthy leaves. The fine mesh covering will limit the fungal spores that blow in, though in this sprawling neighborhood, houses are more common than fields, so there are few other vegetables in the vicinity to act as sources of infections. Ana and I were lucky to visit; Aldo and colleagues allow few visitors, who might carry pathogens on their shoes or clothing.

Like much of peri-urban Cochabamba, this south-side lot has no city water. People have to buy expensive water from tank trucks, from 7 Bs. to 15 Bs. ($1 – $2) for a 200 liter barrel. It seems like madness to irrigate vegetables with water at this price, but these tomatoes only use about 200 liters of water a day, for some 800 plants, thanks to the carefully controlled drip irrigation, which makes the most of every drop.

In another metal frame house, Aldo showed us the lettuce growing in plastic (PVC) tubes filled with water, laced with mineral fertilizer. Unlike the tomatoes, which are growing in pots, the lettuce was growing only in water, with no soil. Like the tomato plants, the lettuce was free of disease and of pesticides, producing the kind of vegetables that demanding consumers really want.

There was one unforeseen problem: the sun. There was simply too much light for the lettuce. Even with the roots sitting in water, the little plants were wilting. Aldo and his colleagues had found that a thick, black net provided the best shade while still allowing the lettuce to thrive.

I had seen hydroponics before, but usually at universities, research centers (and once even at an amusement park), so until seeing these vegetables I doubted that plants could be grown for a profit in tubes of water. Now I was starting to change my mind, seeing these young people invest their time and energy to make it work, raising a commercial crop on a stony lot that was unfit for conventional gardening. They were saving so much water that they could afford to irrigate even when water is expensive.

My dad was a hydrologist and used to be fond of saying that agriculture could never compete with a city for water. City dwellers could always outbid farmers for water. But dad was thinking of old-fashioned ditch irrigation. As irrigation technology improves and becomes more efficient in using water, agriculture can afford to buy water at high prices.

As climate change continues to make for a warmer, thirstier planet it is good to see creative solutions providing healthy produce, and doing so without pesticides.

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To drip or not to drip

SIN TIERRA, SIN AGUA, NO HAY PROBLEMA

Por Jeff Bentley

Una parcela pedregosa, caliente y reseca en las afueras de la ciudad de Cochabamba, Bolivia, puede parecer un lugar equivocado para cultivar verduras de alto valor, pero un grupo de estudiantes de agronomía y un empresario local lo están logrando.

El empresario, René Cabezas, es un agrónomo que imparte cursos de formación en hidroponía, donde las verduras se producen en tubos de agua. El Sr. Cabezas también es productor de verduras hidropónicas, y hace poco compró tres casas de marcos de metal, cada una del tamaño de una modesta casa suburbana, de aproximadamente 7 por 15 metros, a un costo de 45,000 bolivianos ($ 6400) cada una. Aldo Chipana y Arturo Siles, dos tesistas, nos estaban mostrando a Ana y a mí cómo se cultivan las hortalizas. Los marcos metálicos estaban cubiertos por una fina malla de plástico, una tela que impide la entrada de insectos, como los áfidos y las moscas blancas. Las estructuras fueron una gran inversión y para rescatarlo hay que hacer un uso cuidadoso durante mucho tiempo. Varios estudiantes de agronomía están trabajando en las casas de malla, escribiendo sus tesis sobre la experiencia y manteniendo algunas de las ganancias del producto.

Una casa estaba llena de tomates regados con riego por goteo tres veces al día, cuidadosamente regulados por un control electrónico y un medidor de la humedad. Se había disuelto fertilizante mineral en el agua, alimentando a las plantas con cada gota. Por lo visto, los tomates no tenían ningún problema de salud: lo cual es asombroso en los trópicos, donde las plantas crecen durante todo el año, igual que las plagas y enfermedades. Me acordé de algunas parcelas comerciales que había visto en Bolivia y en otros lugares, donde los tomates estaban bajo constante ataque de plagas y enfermedades y la fruta chorreaba plaguicidas.

Estos tomates se habían plantado en macetitas con suelo rico en materia orgánica. El clima seco de los Andes sureños ayuda a prevenir las enfermedades, pero Aldo y sus colegas también podan las hojas enfermas. Lo cobertura de malla fina limitará la entrada de las esporas de hongos por aire, aunque en este vecindario en expansión, las casas son más comunes que los campos, por lo que hay pocas otras verduras en la zona que serían fuentes de infección. Ana y yo tuvimos la suerte de visitar; Aldo y sus colegas permiten pocos visitantes, que pueden llevar patógenos en sus zapatos o en su ropa.

Al igual que gran parte de la parte peri-urbana de Cochabamba, este lote de la zona sur no tiene agua potable. La gente tiene que comprar agua cara de camiones cisternas, desde 7 Bs. a 15 Bs. ($ 1 – $ 2) por un barril de 200 litros. Parece una locura regar las verduras con agua a este precio, pero estos tomates solo usan unos 200 litros de agua al dĂ­a, para unas 800 plantas, gracias al riego por goteo cuidadosamente controlada, que aprovecha al máximo cada gota.

En otra casa metálica, Aldo nos mostró la lechuga creciendo en tubos de plástico (PVC) llenos de agua mezclada con fertilizante mineral. A diferencia de los tomates, que crecen en macetas, la lechuga crece solo en agua, sin tierra. Al igual que los tomates, la lechuga estaba libre de enfermedades y de plaguicidas, produciendo el tipo de verduras que los consumidores exigentes realmente quieren.

Hubo un problema inesperado: el sol. Simplemente había demasiada luz para la lechuga. Incluso con las raíces en el agua, las pequeñas plantas se marchitaban. Aldo y sus colegas descubrieron que una gruesa red negra proporcionaba la mejor sombra y permitía que la lechuga prosperara.

Yo habĂ­a visto hidroponĂ­a antes, pero generalmente en universidades, centros de investigaciĂłn (y una vez incluso en un parque de diversiones), asĂ­ que hasta ver estas verduras, yo dudaba que las plantas en tubos de agua fueran rentables. Ahora estaba empezando a cambiarme de opiniĂłn, viendo a estos jĂłvenes invertir su tiempo y energĂ­a para hacerlo funcionar, sacando un producto comercial en un terreno pedregoso que no era apto para la horticultura convencional. Estaban ahorrando tanta agua que podĂ­an regar incluso cuando el agua es cara.

Mi papá era hidrólogo y solía decir que la agricultura nunca podría competir con una ciudad por el agua. Los citadinos siempre podrían pagar más que los agricultores por el agua. Pero mi papá estaba pensando en las zanjas de tierra, al estilo viejo. A medida que la tecnología de riego mejora y se vuelve más eficiente en el uso del agua, la agricultura sí puede comprar agua a precios altos.

A medida que el cambio climático continúa generando un planeta más cálido y sediento, es bueno ver soluciones creativas que proporcionen productos saludables y sin plaguicidas.

Aprender más de los videos

Riego de goteo para tomate

Hydroponic fodder

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