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Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

Golden urine September 16th, 2018 by

Cities are throwing away a fortune in urine, I learned the other day while visiting Dr. Noemi Stadler-Kaulich, a German agro-forester and long-time resident of Bolivia. The urine from an average person contains $85 dollars´ worth of phosphorous in one year, Noemi explained. Urine is rich in phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium, the main elements of fertilizer (chemical or organic). A metropolitan area like Cochabamba, with 1,200,000 people, flushes away over $100 million worth every year, Naomi explained, just in the phosphorous from urine, turning the valley’s main river, the Río Rocha, into an open sewer.

Noemi has dry latrines on her farm near the town of Vinto, on the edge of the Cochabamba metropolitan area. If you have never sat a dry latrine it can take some getting used to. There is a large hole for feces and a smaller one, up front, to collect the urine, which can be used right away as fertilizer. After defecating, one walks around to the back of the latrine and adds a handful of wood ash to the deposit, which is composted once the container is full. Dried, composted human feces are an excellent, dry fertilizer with little or no smell.

I used to have a nice dry latrine in Honduras. It used no water and made little odor. But dry latrines do take a little management. At the time I was worried about pathogens and had samples from dry latrines analyzed at a laboratory in Tegucigalpa. The samples were free of the most common parasites and pathogens. Dry latrines compost the night soil for at least six months, which helps to kill pathogens. Still, this demands some competent management.

At our home in Cochabamba, we began recycling urine about a year ago. Urine is easy to collect in a jar or bottle or while sitting on a chamber pot. You can mix urine with water or apply it straight to the soil, near plants. We put most of our urine on the compost pile, where the pee helps to speed up the decomposition of paper and dry plants. Urine in a compost heap has no smell at all; perhaps in part because the nitrogen in urine quickly breaks down into ammonia.

I have not yet been able to confirm Noemi’s estimate of the value of phosphorous in urine, not to mention the potassium and nitrogen, but urine is certainly worth something as fertilizer. Recycling urine also helps to save water. Conventional toilets waste up to six liters of precious water to flush 300 ml of urine.

As it is now, modern conventional agriculture applies nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) to crops, and (at least some of) the nutrients become part of the living plants, which are eaten by people and later discarded as human waste. No doubt in the future clever people will find other clean, convenient ways to recycle this NPK, without wasting water. In the meantime, saving urine as fertilizer is a golden opportunity.

Related video

Human urine as fertilizer

Further reading

Andersson, E. (2015). Turning waste into value: using human urine to enrich soils for sustainable food production in Uganda. Journal of Cleaner Production96, 290-298.

The intricacies of mulching September 9th, 2018 by

Everybody working in agriculture knows something about mulching, which can lead us to think that we know all about it. But mulching is a surprisingly complex topic, as I recently realised while following a video from start to finish. For example, different crops may require different types of mulch, and some mulches are better avoided under certain conditions. As with other farming techniques, to make a video on mulch, manuals are often inadequate; one needs to rely on the experience of farmers.

We started preparing for the video on mulch during a workshop in Pune, India, in February 2017, where Jeff and I had trained a number of local partners to write fact sheets and video scripts for farmers (read an account on this workshop in: Nourishing a fertile imagination). One of the scripts was on mulch. When I revisit the first draft of that script it is striking how generic our early ideas were.

Among other things, the script mentioned: “Mulch allows more earthworms and other living things to grow by providing shade. The earthworms make the soil fertile and dig small tunnels that allow the water to go more easily into the soil.” That is all well and good, but that first script was a little light on how to go about mulching, although it had an idea of using dry straw.

More than a year (and 10 versions of the script) later, cameraman Atul Pagar from Pune, India, finished his video “Mulch for a better soil and crop”. For the past two years, Atul has been steadily producing quality farmer-to-farmer training videos, such as on the use of herbal medicine in animal health. Each of the videos is a testimony of the richness of local knowledge and practices.

For instance, the final version of the video mentions that fruits and vegetables like cauliflower, watermelon and others that grow close to the ground are best mulched with dry straw and sugarcane trash or other crop residue in between every row.

Commonly available wheat husks are not suitable for such crops, as Ravindra Thokal, one of the farmers featuring in the video, explains. “After harvest, we used to burn the crop residue. Now we do not burn it, but I use it as mulch in my cauliflowers. I do not mulch with wheat husks because they are easily washed away by rain. And when blown away by the wind, the husks can settle on the cauliflowers, which may damage them.”

In less than 12 minutes, the nicely crafted video also explains what to consider when mulching fruit trees, how to fertilise your mulched crop with liquid organic fertiliser, how to control rats that may hide in mulch, and what the pitfalls are of using plastic mulch. None of these ideas were in the first draft of the video script. The script had been improved over the intervening months by discussing the ideas with farmers and other experts. Although I had read quite a bit about mulching, a lot of the information in the video was new to me.

Farming is intricate. To produce good training videos for farmers requires people who have a keen eye, an open mind and the patience to learn from farmers. Atul has all of these. You can find his videos on the Access Agriculture video platform.

Related blogs

We have written many blog stories on soil fertility management, such as:

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

What do earthworms want?

Nurturing ideas, and seed

Chemical attitude adjustment

The bokashi factory

Smelling is believing

The big mucuna

Crop with an attitude

Related videos

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

The wonder of earthworms

Reviving soils with mucuna

Dick’s Ice Box September 2nd, 2018 by

In 2005, a few years before my Mom died, she took some of her grown children and grandchildren to Dewey, Utah, a ghost town on the Colorado River, to show us one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen. On a blistering day in July we walked through the sage brush and the red sand to a canyon wall. Mom led us through a neat little door through the cliff-face into a darkened room, surprisingly cooler than the outside and big enough for a dozen people to crowd in.

Mom’s grandfather, Richard Dallin “Dick” Westwood had carved this room from solid stone. Dick’s children called the place ‘Dad’s Ice Box.” Dick would stack winter ice from the Colorado River into his ice box to keep food cold all through the summer. “They could even keep butter in here,” Mom added proudly. My great-grandfather lived from 1863 to 1929; there was no electricity in Dewey and household refrigerators were rare before 1927.

Off and on between 1901 and 1916 Dick ran the ferry at Dewey, where the wagon road from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado crossed the Colorado River. The trip was a hundred miles (160 km), so travelers often spent the night at Dewey, where my great-grandmother Martha had a little boarding house and diner. The family had a small farm and some cattle that provided meat and other provisions. The ice box filled with food was important for Martha’s business.

That day in 2005, my Mom told us that Dick carved the ice box with dynamite. The rectangular doorway and the spacious room it led into were clearly the work of a craftsman. Carving stone with dynamite is a dangerous business, a good way to lose life or limb, and I always wondered how Dick knew what he was doing.

This remained a mystery until this year, when my cousin, Richard “Rick” Westwood wrote a book about our great-grandfather. It finally helped me make sense of Dick’s Ice Box.

Dick held many professions, from sheriff to muleskinner to Shakespearean actor, but until I read Rick’s book I never realized that Dick was also a miner. From childhood I knew that Dick had staked a mine claim, which he named “The Silver Dick.” I was aware that my great-grandfather had a sense of humor, but until I read Rick’s book I didn’t know that the Silver Dick was a working silver mine. Discovered in August 1908, it may have been the only one in Southeastern Utah. Dick worked the mine until 1909 when he filled a box car with valuable ore, enough to make his fortune. Sadly, this never happened, because the shipment was stolen by railroad workers en route to buyers. But Dick’s mine enriched him with the skill of working sandstone with dynamite.

The Ice Box may have been partly inspired by the root cellar, a small structure dug into the ground, topped off with a timber roof. Many families in Utah stored their food in root cellars. During their early years in Dewey, Dick and Martha’s root cellar burned down. Martha would later tell my grandmother how devastating it was to lose all their stored food. Dick took the loss stoically, saying: “Oh we’ll get us another sack of flour and another bag o’ taters (potatoes) and we’ll be as good off as ever.” But losing the root cellar may have inspired Dick to think of a fire-proof place to store the household food. As luck would have it, Dick was well placed to get ice. Rick explains that in the early 1900s, the Colorado River used to freeze so hard in winter that Dick could drive his family over the river in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The ferry was sited between two sharp bends in the river, near the modern-day Dewey Bridge. In the spring the ice would break with great force, and some big slabs would pile up on the bank, where they were relatively easy to collect.

In her history of ice, Elizabeth David observes the sunken ice houses made by Scandinavian farmers, but in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century USA, ice houses were typically wooden barn-like structures, made and operated by professional ice mongers, not by smallholder farmers. Dick’s Ice Box is the only one I know of carved into a sandstone cliff.

The ice box was crucial for running a family business on a small, desert farm.

Farmers’ creativity is often stimulated by new ideas, as we often say in our weekly Agro-Insight blog. Those ideas can come from science or from a technology the farmer learned somewhere else, even by mining. Dick was flexible, tough and creative. He took misfortune in stride, and adapted, just like many of the farmers we still meet today.

Acknowledgement

I thank my cousin, Rick Westwood, for letting me read his book manuscript. Thanks also to Rick and to my brothers Brett and Scott Bentley for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this story. I gratefully acknowledge Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele who gave me thoughtful feedback on this story, as they always do.

Related blog story

The Ice Harvest

Further reading

Richard E. “Rick” Westwood is publishing his excellent biography, Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood later in 2018.

See also:

Westwood, Richard E. 2010 Westwood Family History, Vol II. R. Westwood: Highland, Utah.

My great-grandmother, Martha Wilcox (1871 to 1962) wrote an autobiography, edited by her daughter, Grace Westwood Morse:

Autobiography of Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, privately printed in 1983.

And for the definitive story of ice boxes:

David, Elizabeth 1994 Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. London: Faber and Faber. 413 pp.

The enemies of innovation August 26th, 2018 by

Sometimes even rational people fight innovation, as we learn in this recent book by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan scholar who taught at Harvard and who enjoyed the rare distinction of being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science.

To condense Prof. Juma’s nuanced and complex thesis, there are two good reasons to oppose innovation, and one surprising outcome.

First, early versions of an innovation are often expensive, unwieldy and simply not very good at getting the job done. Thomas Edison’s first electrical wiring relied on noisy generators, was a fire hazard, and accidentally electrocuted 17 New Yorkers to death in two years between 1887 and 1889. These problems were eventually ironed out, but some of the failings of an innovation are never fully addressed. When tractors began to replace horses in the USA in the 1920s, three decades after they were invented by John Froelich in 1892, critics complained that the tractors (and automobiles) were wasteful and that buying, fueling and repairing them would place a financial burden on farmers,

Second, an innovation is opposed by the social network that uses and supports the incumbent technology. Electric lights were competing with a well-entrenched and profitable natural gas industry. Farriers, veterinarians and harness makers relied on horses for steady business and income. Older workers with the skills and experience to use an existing technology may resist an alternative. The Luddites were not a bunch of maniacs who liked to break things; they were skilled weavers in the 19th century who correctly realized that mechanized looms would replace experienced workers with unskilled ones.

Fortunately, the dynamic tension between the old and the new can be as creative as the original invention, refining the timeworn technology or promoting innovative social structures.

For example, margarine was invented in France in 1869 and was being manufactured in the USA by the 1880s. At the time American dairy farmers were poorly organized, but led by the butter factories, they eventually formed the National Dairy Council. This powerful lobby group harassed margarine makers, leading to legislation in five US states which required margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink. They also spread disinformation, reporting bogus studies that claimed that margarine stunted children’s growth, for example. But nineteenth century butter was not the choice food that we know today; it was often rancid and adulterated with chemicals. Competition with margarine forced butter manufacturers to make a better product. And in the ultimate compromise, some spreads now blend butter and margarine.

In the end margarine’s saving grace was not technical, but social. In the 1940s US margarine makers switched from imported coconut oil to American soybean and cottonseed oil, acquiring farmer allies that allowed them to fend off the big dairy interests and find a permanent place at the table.

In the end, the innovation may never completely defeat the incumbent technology, which may settle into a competitive niche of its own. The gas industry fought electricity with all the imagination it had, creating gas-powered versions of every electrical appliance invented. There was even a gas radio in the 1930s (it had the added advantage of giving off a little extra heat). Electricity never completely replaced natural gas, which still provides heat and energy, but the rivalry lives on in the competition between gas ovens and electric models.

There are some clear lessons here for agricultural scientists, who are often dismayed when farmers do not immediately adopt ideas derived from research. As we learn from the optimistic Prof. Juma: your invention may have potential in the long run, but in the short term it may still have bugs that need to be fixed. Innovations often seek to replace existing technologies that have proven advantages, and are familiar to users; the struggle between old and new can lead to creative solutions.  Specifically, researchers can use farmer field schools (FFS) or other experiences to learn about the farmers’ point of view and work together to adapt innovations to meet their needs and circumstances.

Further reading

Juma, Calestous 2016 Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford University Press. 416 pp.

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