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100 words for corn (or at least 50) March 1st, 2015 by

“Eskimo has a hundred words for snow” goes the abiding urban myth. In his original 1911 paper, Franz Boaz merely said that the Inuit had four words for snow, but this reasonable number has been blown out of proportion by textbooks and enthusiastic lecturers.

In his charming book on translation, David Bellos mocks the Eskimo myth (Starbucks customers have a lot of words for coffee, he writes). (2011 Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything). He could have said that New Yorkers have a lot of words for sandwiches.

The problem with the snow myth is that it has a grain of truth. People do have words for most ideas that matter to them. For example, Samoan has a separate word for green coconut (niu) and for a ripe one (popo), because the green nuts are filled with a fizzy drink and edible slime, while the ripe ones can be rendered into coconut oil. The over ripe ones even lose their water and meat, to become a sweet, spongy treat called o’o.

I was delighted that Quechua had a special word for the berry (makunk’u) that grows on the potato plant. The makunk’u may be inedible, but it grows in step with the tubers under the soil, so if you notice it, you will know when your potatoes are ripe.

In Honduras, where rural people grow maize (corn) and eat it at every meal, there is however just one word for corn: maíz. But, the deeper you look, the more words you find. The ear of corn changes names as it ages, from jilote for the green ones you can eat raw, to elote for the roasting ears, and mazorca for the mature, dry ones.  That makes 4 words.

There are 14 verbs (or verb phrases) to label each of some dozen perceived stages of corn growth, from nacer, when the corn blade first pokes above the surface of the ground, to madurar, the last stage when the leaves turn from green to straw-colored.

The maize plant itself has 30 words for each of its parts, and there are separate words for the parts of the ear and even the kernel; the tip is called its “ojo” (eye), for example.

To harvest is “cosechar” for all crops except maize, which has its own label (tapiscar). Our sub-total so far is 48.

There are maize words for things that most city folks have never noticed. Such as when a maize plant grows alone, few grains are pollinated, so with lots of extra room to grow, they are round like coins, which Honduran farmers call “cinco cinco” (like five centavo coins).

Then there are the different tasks for growing corn and preparing food for it (e.g. to “palmear” tortillas). And a unique word for the maize field: milpa.

Some ordinary words take on new meaning with maize. A healthy green maize field is said to be “azul” (blue).  That makes 52.

If you add in the names of the different maize varieties there are well over 100 words for maize.  It’s safe to say that Honduran smallholders are not at a loss for words when they talk about maize.

By definition, these are all “technical” words, i.e. terms for describing the techniques of maize farming (and eating).

But my agronomist friends mis-use the word “technical” when they say: “Don’t use technical words, just simple words that farmers understand.” But there is nothing simple about farmer’s own technical vocabulary. Most outsiders just have no idea what those technical terms are, while many book-learned “technical” terms are actually vague (e.g. “physiological”), or verbose (“necrotic lesion”, instead of “dead spot”) or the “technical” words simply replace and obscure perfectly good words (“phenological stages” instead of the “growth states” of a plant).

My advice is, when you write for farmers, just be clear about what you mean. If you don’t know the technical words that they themselves use, at least write with words that everyone knows.

The Honduran maize examples are from the Diccionario Campesino Hondureño. Bentley, J. W. 2001 Ceiba 42(2).

Struggling with tubers February 22nd, 2015 by

Pulling up plants of shallow, light groundnuts is easy compared to uprooting cassava tubers. Many times I have seen farmers, men and women, struggle to pull up the big, starchy tubers. This makes a stunning energy demand on people, not to mention the strain on their backs.

The number and size of tubers vary greatly among cassava varieties; a single tuber can be as long as one meter and weigh up to 8 kilograms. Under traditional practices, farmers harvest 5 to 20 tons per hectare. This can easily be doubled by applying good soil fertility management practices, as shown in the video Growing cassava on poor soils.

While boosting production is one thing, getting the tubers out of the ground is yet another. Cassava does not lend itself readily to mechanical harvesting because the tubers of a single plant can spread over more than one meter and grow up to 60 centimeters deep. While countries like Mexico, Brazil and Thailand have adapted machinery to harvest cassava grown in large-scale plantations, smallholder farmers require simple, affordable devices that can reduce their workload.

Cassava has a tricky characteristic. Although the tubers look sturdy, once they are damaged and the starch is exposed to air, it becomes dark and the value of the flour decreases.

When visiting farmers in Northwest Thailand, I was thrilled to see farmers using a simple device to raise the tubers by pulling at the cut stems left after topping. At the same time I thought: “Why have I never seen any farmer in Africa use something like this?”

The tool was introduced some 20 years ago and now most farmers in Khon Buri district use it. Thai farmers use a long, wooden stick and have a metal fork made by a local artisan. The fork is attached at 30 centimeters from the bottom of the stick. Farmers wedge the rough edges of the fork into the cassava stem and then lever the tool to pull up the roots.

As Mr. Amnart Traprasomrong explains: “Before, I pulled the roots by hand. I had to pull hard, spent much energy. So this tool was invented. Instead of hand pulling, we now use this tool to lever the roots. We can work twice as fast.  If hand pulling takes two days, using this tool will take only one day.”

Local innovations and appropriate technology take time to spread, simply by word of mouth, with no advertising or formal support for the new idea. A topic like this is perfect for a future video which can help spread innovations faster and to many more farmers, even to other countries and continents.

Acknowledgement: the University of Ghent, Belgium, sponsored our video “Growing cassava on poor soils”. CIAT sponsored my visit to Thailand to produce the video “Managing mealybugs in cassava”, during which I learned from farmers about this innovation.

My wild Andean shamrock February 15th, 2015 by

“Would you like some boiled Irish?” I’ve heard folks say in Uganda, where they mean boiled potatoes. In many countries “Irish potatoes” means regular potatoes, not sweet potatoes. The term is so engrained that I have stopped trying to correct people, even though there is nothing Irish about the spud which was domesticated in the central Andes, far from the Emerald Isle.