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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.

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care August 19th, 2018 by

It is unfortunate that not more is done to safeguard and value traditional knowledge.

In Pune, Maharastra, the Indian NGO Anthra has devoted a great part of its energy in documenting traditional animal health knowledge and practices across India. Dr. Nitya Ghotge along with a team of women veterinarians founded Anthra in 1992 to address the problems faced by communities who reared animals, particularly peasants, pastoralists, adivasis (indigenous peoples of South Asia), dalits (formerly known as untouchables – people outside the caste system), women and others who remained hidden from the gaze of mainstream development.

In their encyclopaedia Plants Used in Animal Care, Anthra has compiled an impressive list of plants used for veterinary purposes and fodder.

To ensure that local communities across the global south benefit from this indigenous knowledge, Anthra started collaborating with one of Access Agriculture’s trained video partners (Atul Pagar) to gradually develop a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos on herbal medicines (see: the Access Agriculture video category on animal health).

While Indian cities are booming and the agro-industry continues its efforts to conquer lucrative markets, many farmers and farmer organisations across the country treasure India’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In many countries, local knowledge is quickly eroding as the older generation of farmers and pastoralists disappear.

 

A few years ago, I was thrilled to work with traditional Fulani herders in Nigeria, only to discover that none of them still made use of herbal medicines. Even to treat something as simple as ticks, the young herders confidently turned to veterinary drugs. Although the elder people could still readily name the various plants they used to treat various common animal diseases, the accessibility and ease of application of modern drugs meant that none of the herders still used herbal medicines. The risks of such drastic changes quickly became apparent. As we were making a series of training videos on quality milk, which should have no antibiotics or drug residues, we visited a hospital to interview a local doctor.

“If people are well they are not supposed to take antibiotics. If such a person is sick in the future and the sickness requires the use of antibiotics, it would be difficult to cure because such drugs will not work. It can even make the illness more severe,” doctor Periola Amidu Akintayo from the local hospital confided in front of the camera.

Later on, we visited a traditional Fulani cattle market. For years, these markets have been bustling places where the semi-nomadic herders meet buyers from towns. People exchange news on latest events and the weather, but above all assess the quality of the animals and negotiate prices. Animals that look unhealthy or have signs of parasites obviously fetch a lower price. Given that the cattle market is where the Fulani herders meet their fellow herders and clients, I quickly realized why the entire market was surrounded by small agro vet shops. Competition was fierce, and demand for animal drugs was high.

Modern drugs come with an enclosed instruction sheet, but as with pesticides nobody in developing countries reads this advice. To keep costs down, many herders and farmers administer drugs to their own animals, to avoid spending money on a veterinary doctor. Perhaps even more worrying: few people are aware of the risks that modern drugs pose to human health, whether it be from developing resistance to antibiotics or drug residues in food. In organisations like Anthra, socially engaged veterinary doctors merge local knowledge with scientific information, thus playing an undervalued role that deserve more attention. The training videos made with these veterinarians and their farmer allies will hopefully show more people that it is important to bring the best of both worlds together.

Related training videos

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Related blogs

Trust that works

Big chicken, little chicken

Nourishing a fertile imagination

Asking the right questions August 12th, 2018 by

I once saw a quantitative survey turn to dust, literally. I was a young graduate student in Tucson, Arizona when an older anthropologist asked me if I would like to write up the results of a survey she had conducted on the city’s largely Hispanic south side. She swung open the doors to her storage shed, revealing a large, cardboard box. When the anthropologist tried to lift some of the forms out of the box, they crumbled in her fingers. Tucson’s warm, dry climate is perfect for termites, which had carved their galleries throughout the sheets of paper.

For that anthropologist, going door-to-door with her questionnaire had been the fun part of the survey. Analyzing the results and writing up the conclusions were harder. In the end the termites benefited the most from the survey.

A few years later, I found myself in northern Portugal, on a questionnaire study of smallholder farmers. I was part of a team of anthropologists and economists who designed the survey form, a straightforward task – or so we thought at the time. But at 20 pages, the form took about two hours to fill out. To encourage farmers to take part, we said that their answers would make policy-makers more responsive to agriculture, which may not have believable.

After we surveyed six parishes in the Entre-Douro-e-Minho province I went to live in one of them, Pedralva. There I learned how much the survey had annoyed the farmers. One couple had missed their irrigation turn while answering questions. One prosperous farmer complained how long the survey took and said that: “They even counted the eyes of the chickens!” That was an exaggeration (we had asked how many rabbits and chickens people had) but a sign of how frustrating farmers found the lengthy, prying survey.

Even worse, the farmers mistrusted the survey’s intentions. The farmers assumed that the tax bureau would be informed of the results, so they claimed to have harvested a fraction of their real yields, inadvertently making their well-adapted farming systems appear unproductive.

Eventually I learned to write shorter, more focused surveys, and to enter the data every night on a spreadsheet. And prizes can help to take the sting out of lost time. Once in the Chapare, Bolivia my colleagues and I rewarded each farmer we interviewed with three kilos of mineral fertilizer, left over from an earlier project. They liked the gift so much that one of them took the survey twice.

Sometimes four or five questions are enough. In Bolivia I once worked with a project that gathered hundreds of farmers for three “technology fairs” to watch other farmers demonstrate new ideas such as metal plows or fertilized quinoa. At the end we simply asked the fair goers what ideas they liked and which ones they wanted to try. The questionnaire was so short that a dozen agronomists could administer it in a few minutes. We could get feedback from some 200 farmers before breaking for lunch.

Of course times have changed. Surveys in the city or in the villages can now be entered electronically on a tablet. The questionnaires being filled out today are immune to termites, and you can send them out on-line.

But one thing remains the same. People still don’t like to answer long questionnaires. When you fill out a questionnaire in person, the respondents may be too polite to break off the interview, but with an on-line version, fatigue sets in quickly. On-line surveys yield the best results when they are short. Some respondents are willing to share more during follow-up phone calls or emails (as we have seen in previous blog stories (Families, land and videos in Northern Uganda. Watching videos to become a dairy expert, and Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan).

Whether on-line or in-person, a few simple questions may be as revealing as a long and tedious questionnaire that tries too hard to gather information. If do you need answers to lots of questions, consider rewarding people for the time they give you.

Further reading

The results of the first Portuguese survey eventually contributed to:

Pearson, S.R., F. Avillez, J.W. Bentley, T. J. Finan, R. Fox, T. Josling, M. Langworthy, E. Monke, & S. Tangermann 1987 Portuguese Agriculture in Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

My community study in Entre-Douro-e-Minho:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

The short survey in the Chapare (where people received a gift of fertilizer for answering our questions) contributed to:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2003 Desarrollo Participativo de Tecnología en el Trópico de Cochabamba. Cochabamba: Development Alternatives, Inc.

The results from the questionnaire at the technology fairs:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Graham Thiele, Rolando Oros & Claudio Velasco 2011 “Cinderella’s Slipper: Sondeo Surveys and Technology Fairs for Gauging Demand,” pp. 276-301. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2004 as AgREN Network Paper No. 138.

Bentley, Jeffery W., Claudio Velasco, Félix Rodríguez, Rolando Oros, Rubén Botello, Morag Webb, André Devaux & Graham Thiele 2011 “Unspoken Demands for Farm Technology”. pp. 302-324. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2007 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5(1): 70-84.

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