WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

Anasazi beans June 18th, 2017 by

Dove Creek 3In 1981 I worked as an archaeologist at the Lowry Ruins, a Native American site inhabited about 1200 AD by the Anasazi people, now known as the “Ancestral Puebloans”. The Lowry Ruins are in Southwestern Colorado, a flat land with rich soil, carved in places with deep sandstone canyons.

room blockThis strange landscape is made even more bizarre by the ancient stone dwellings which are still visible in shallow caves (alcoves) in the canyon walls. Modern farms dominate the flat lands and produce some of the finest pinto beans in the USA. But drop into the canyons and it is like going back 700 years to pre-Colombian America, when ancient Native Americans also grew beans, as well as maize and squash.

irrigated beansOne day in 1981, I happened to meet a Colorado bean farmer, who told me that in one of the canyons he found an ancient pot filled with a strange variety of beans. Being a bean farmer, he was naturally curious, so he planted a handful of the beans and they germinated. He harvested the beans and planted them again. By the time I talked to the farmer in 1981 he said that he had a whole acre of the beans and would soon have enough seed to plant a commercial sized field.

By 1983 a new variety of bean appeared in stores in the Southwestern USA under the name “Anasazi beans.” Unlike pinto beans, which are brown, these Anasazi beans were pale, with reddish speckles. I wondered if the beans in the shops were the ones the farmer in Colorado had told me about.

handfull of Anasazi beansI was back in that part of the world recently, visiting family, when my brother, Scott, went to the cupboard for a burlap bag labelled “Anasazi beans” and began to prepare them for supper. I could see that Anasazi beans were still popular with consumers, and for the first time in years I thought of the farmer with his odd tale of finding the beans in a ruin in a canyon. But this time I was more skeptical that bean seed could stay viable for 700 years, even in the dry Southwest. I wondered if the farmer I talked to in 1981 had found the beans in some more conventional way, such as from a seed catalog, or perhaps while on vacation in Mexico.

By 2017, several companies were selling “Anasazi beans”. Scott’s bag of Anasazi beans came from the Adobe Milling Company in Dove Creek, Colorado, where I went with my brothers, Scott, Brett and Dan to learn more about the origin of the beans.

adobe milling companyDove Creek is a small town and the Adobe Milling Company was easy to find. The store was surprisingly busy for a specialty shop in such a quiet place. The staff could hardly keep up with the stream of customers. I met Velvet Pribble, the lady in charge of this successful family business. Although the she and her staff were busy coping with a steady stream of customers, she still had time to chat. Velvet said that her great-uncle found the Anasazi beans in the nearby Lukachukai Mountains of New Mexico and brought them home and planted them in her family’s garden in Yellow Jacket (near Dove Creek). The beans grew and Velvet’s sister took the beans to school, for show-&-tell. The teacher, Bessie White, took some of those beans home and planted them herself. Ms. White shared the beans with neighboring farmers and then “they took off”. Velvet says that her family still has the original pot and some of the ancient beans, and that they look as fresh as the ones just harvested in Dove Creek today. “They never age,” Velvet adds.

tower at Painted HandVelvet’s story puzzled me; her great uncle could not have been the farmer I met in 1981, because the two men claimed to have found the beans in different places. The Lowry Ruins are about 120 miles from the Lukachukai Mountains. Then I learned about other versions of the Anasazi bean story. The pamphlet on display at the Adobe Milling Company itself says they beans “were found in the ruins by settlers to the four corners area in the early 1900s”, not that the beans were found by family members in the 1980s.

To put the Anasazi beans in context, there are no confirmed cases where old seed, stored on purpose by ancient people, has been successfully grown by modern farmers. Legume seeds found in adobe (mud brick) from California and Northern Mexico were still alive after 200 years (Börner 2006), but this is some of the oldest viable seed ever found. Seed rarely survives for more than a century (Bewley and Black 2012).

By 1299 AD, following a 27-year drought, the Anasazi abandoned their canyon homes on the Colorado Plateau, in the area where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all meet. Centuries later, the area was settled by small groups of other Native Americans, the Utes and the Navajos. Anglo-American colonization did not start until the 1840s. Parts of Anasazi country are still uninhabited, so great was the ecological collapse of the late 1200s.

Seven centuries seemed a long time for bean seed to stay viable, so I phoned an old college friend, Winston Hurst, a life-long resident of canyon country, and an archaeologist specializing in the area. He told me that stories have been circulating for years about people finding beans in pots in archaeological sites. Winston explained that Utes and Navajos were growing corn in the region, but it is less clear if they were planting beans there. However, historic native North Americans usually grew maize and beans together, and the Navajos made enough pots to suggest that they could have been cooking beans. Several Navajo pots have been found in dry caves in Anasazi country. Winston recalls seeing three kinds of beans, which people claimed had come from ancient pots. Each bean was completely unique. One was the reddish “Anasazi bean,” while another was large and white like a navy bean, and the third looked a bit like a castor bean.

So I offer the following hypothetical scenario: after the Anasazi (the Ancestral Puebloan) people abandoned southern Colorado and southern Utah in the late 1200s. Navajo settlers eventually planted gardens of maize and beans in the country, and left small caches of seed in pots in dry alcoves, perhaps even in Anasazi sites. These beans could have been less than 200 years old when collected by Anglo-American farmers, including Velvet’s great-uncle.

Whatever their origin, the Anasazi beans are delicious. So drop in to see the friendly folks in Dove Creek, Colorado, or order some Anasazi beans on-line, because no matter where these attractive beans came from, they are a real treat to eat.

About ancient sites

Some local people in the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico are now digging up archaeological sites for pleasure, forever closing a window on the past. Wherever you live, please respect ancient sites and leave them to the archaeologists, who know how to excavate a site professionally, to learn how ancient people lived and farmed. When plundered for its artifacts, an ancient site is not worth a hill of beans.

Scientific name

The pinto bean and the Anasazi bean are varieties of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).

Further reading

Bewley, J. Derek, and Michael Black 2012 Physiology and Biochemistry of Seeds in Relation to Germination: Volume 2: Viability, Dormancy, and Environmental Control. Springer Science & Business Media.

Börner, Andreas 2006 “Preservation of Plant Genetic Resources in the Biotechnology Era” Biotechnology Journal 1: 1393–1404 DOI 10.1002/biot.200600131.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Chocolate evolution June 11th, 2017 by

Some foods, like bread and boiled potatoes, have been around for thousands of years, but since the 1500s, new options have evolved, including French fried potatoes, corn flakes, and those marvelous chocolate bars. Cacao was domesticated by Native Americans in Central America and Mexico. Cacao residue found on ceramics in Honduras may be 2400 years old. Ancient American cacao beans were so valuable they were often used as money. Cacao was made into a bitter drink and a food. A sauce made from cacao, chili and peanuts was used to make a turkey stew, called “mole.” (The word “mole” can either refer to the sauce itself, or to a dish that includes it.)

cacao beansChocolate reached Spain in 1528, after the conquest of Mexico. The Spanish soon found that cacao could be mixed with sugar and pressed into a solid disk or tablet, to mix with hot water to make a drink. For the first time in history chocolate was sweet.

Manufacturers in Mexico still sell boxes of chocolate disks, sweetened and spiced with cinnamon. The chocolate is hard and dissolves slowly, so it must be vigorously beaten into hot water, but the frothy drink is worth it.

By the 1700s, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, and its popularity soon led to other innovative uses, for example in confectionary.

In 1828 a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten, found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing half of the natural fat (cocoa butter), pulverizing what remained and treating it with alkaline salts to reduce the bitter taste. The cocoa powder was called “Dutch chocolate.”

In 1847, in Bristol, England, Joseph Fry invented bars of chocolate by adding cocoa butter back into Dutch chocolate, along with sugar, and pressing the mixture into molds. Fry’s Chocolate Cream Bars debuted on the market in 1866, but the confection was still somewhat bitter, and sales were slow.

From 1869 to 1887, Daniel Peter, a chocolate maker in Vevey, Switzerland, experimented with ways to add milk to improve the bitter flavor of chocolate. The challenge was to remove liquid from the milk, add sugar, and blend it with chocolate before the mix spoiled. Early attempts were often rancid or tasted of bad cheese. But Peter’s hard work paid off, and chocolate was being sold in the UK under the Nestle brand by 1901. By 1900 other manufacturers (including Milton Hershey in Pennsylvania) were also selling factory-made chocolate bars in America.

Allied troops in the Second World War were issued chocolate tablets (with oat flour added to prevent melting). Soldiers often used the chocolate as gifts or trade items. Paul Van Mele’s older relatives in Belgium recall how the British soldiers gave chocolate to the local families who offered them food and accommodation.

Since those optimistic days at the end of World War II, chocolate has continued to change, not always for the better. Manufacturers often substitute partially hydrogenated vegetable oil for cocoa butter, and use the chocolate as a simple coating for cheaper candy.

So food evolves, fueled by the creative experiments of innovators who were stimulated by new commercial opportunities. The Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution both offered new foods, which the public craved, including the seductive taste of chocolate. As with other kinds of technologies, old food recipes often persist alongside new ones. In Mexico and parts of the USA you can still find the delicious mole, often made now with chicken instead of turkey. The sauce even comes conveniently packaged in class jars. So chocolate still survives, in at least some places, not just as a candy, but also as a drink and a main dish.

Further reading

Boynton, Sandra 1982 Chocolate: The Consuming Passion New York: Workman Publishing.

A brief history of chocolate

Chocolate, food of the gods

Daniel Peter – The inventor of milk chocolate.

Related blog stories

Teach your children well (with cocoa)

Out of the shade

Forty farmer innovations

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Wilson Popenoe: plant explorer and educator June 4th, 2017 by

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) is the only agricultural scientist to ever win a Nobel Prize (for peace, in 1970). Borlaug developed short-stem (dwarf) wheat varieties that were high yielding and disease resistant, a hugely significant scientific advance for the world’s leading staple crop. But the award was as much for his dogged efforts to distribute improved wheat seeds to India and Pakistan at a time when millions were at risk from famine, and both countries were at war.

Popenoe 2Borlaug’s Noble Prize ensured global recognition of his achievements and continues to be a role model for many researchers. However, there have been many others in agriculture who have inspired students and made important scientific advances and who should be better known. One such example is the American plant explorer and educator Wilson Popenoe (1892-1975).

I first came across Wilson Popenoe’s name during a visit to the Pan-American School of Agriculture in Zamorano, Honduras, in the early 1990s. An impressive campus and bustling student population exuded a real sense of zeal for agriculture. Here was a thriving centre for producing graduates who would return to their homes from Mexico to Peru and beyond, where they would start their own agricultural enterprises or strengthen existing ones with new ideas.

“El Zamorano”, as the school is commonly known, was the creation of Popenoe in many ways, although it was first proposed by Samuel Zemurray, the president of the United Fruit Company, who wanted to give something back to the countries of Central America, whose soils and climate were the foundation for the company’s wealth. El Zamorano was established in the central highlands of Honduras, far away from the profitable banana plantations on the north coast. The idea was that the school could work on other important crops such as maize and coffee and avoid becoming a place to train banana agronomists.

Popenoe 7When Popenoe became the first director of El Zamorano in 1941 (the school did not officially open until 1943), he had already worked for the United Fruit Company for many years. He retired in 1957, having made a lasting contribution to the training of thousands of students and establishing a first class educational facility that was much admired throughout Central and South America. Popenoe’s early career, before he joined the United Fruit Company in 1925, is less well known, though arguably led to equally important achievements.

His first job was as a plant explorer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Popenoe was a protégé of David Fairchild, the first director of the Office of Seed and Plant Introductions, and himself a seasoned plant explorer. Popenoe left the USDA in 1925, having become fed up with the bureaucracy that kept him from the field work he loved. He relished hunting down new crop varieties and spent months carefully documenting the botanical and food characteristics of specimens on lengthy travels, often on horseback.

Popenoe worked sympathetically with local farmers to learn what they knew about different crops. An intriguing quote in Frederic Rosengarten’s biography of Popenoe reveals a keen awareness of farmers’ ingenuity: “Important food crops will be found as a rule,” said Popenoe, “from a region where their value (has already been) realized.” Popenoe recognized that farmers experimented, testing, selecting and propagating the best varieties.

Popenoe2Popenoe is best known for his work on avocados, meticulously recording new varieties in Central America. He also prospected for cinchona (the tree that produces quinine), citrus and many other tropical fruits during his extensive career. The most impressive thing about Popenoe was his dedication and persistence, coupled with a restless curiosity. He was largely self-taught, having rejected a scholarship to Cornell in favour of becoming a plant explorer.

There have been many plant explorers over the years, but relatively few who have focused on plants of economic importance and dedicated their whole life to them. Before he became a USDA plant explorer Popenoe had already been to Iraq and North Africa, aged 20, to collect date palms, dodging bullets as warring tribes fought over land and overcoming the loss of plants that perished before they could be shipped to the US. He suffered from malaria and dysentery many times yet still he persisted in his hunt for new crop varieties. He spoke five languages fluently and worked hard all his life for a better agriculture, through science and education.

Popenoe was hugely influenced in his early years by the endeavours of plant explorers such as Spruce and thrilled “at the tale of Lieutenant Bligh and his voyage in the Bounty, to bring the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies.” Popenoe would doubtless be pleased to learn that his own remarkable endeavours were an inspiration for future agricultural scientists.

Reference

Rosengarten F (1991). Wilson Popenoe: agricultural explorer, educator, and friend of Latin America. National Tropical Botanic Garden, Hawaii. (photos that appear above have been scanned from this book)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Finding solutions May 28th, 2017 by

Farmers may doubt the worth of an innovation, until they meet other people who have tried the idea on their own land. In 2015, the village of Korelach in West Pokot, Kenya, was suffering. The land was so eroded and degraded that it was getting difficult to raise crops. Many people were leaving the community. Then they got some help from researchers at the nearby University of Eldoret, who were looking for a community with challenging soil erosion problems. The researchers soon realized that the immediate culprit was sand extraction. Brokers from the city would come and load a lorry with sand in the dry river bed. A crew of local men could earn 3000 shillings ($30) for shoveling the truck full of sand, but no other villagers benefited. The sand would be sold in nearby cities for up to 60,000 shillings ($600), to use for construction.

carrying pale of water on headAs more sand was extracted, the dry river bed became a gully so deep that people could hardly walk to the other side of it. It was getting increasingly difficult to cross the river to farm or visit neighbors. When the researchers explained to the villagers how much the brokers were earning from the sand, the villagers said “We cannot let this gully hold us off; we need to hold on to it and fight it off.”

The villagers banded together and stopped the sand digging. With the next rainy season, the pits in the riverbed began to fill up with sand. The gully became easier to cross, and the riverbank stabilized. A minister from a church in Korelach convinced the local government to drill a well (a borehole) on the river bank, where women could pump their own water close to home, and avoid long walks to fetch water.

This success created enough trust for the researchers to propose new soil and water conservation techniques for the village. In May, 2016 the university took five farmers from Korelach to Tigray, Ethiopia, to learn about the new techniques. However, the results were disappointing: in part because the Kenyan farmers had to speak to their Ethiopian peers through interpreters, but also because the expense of international travel meant that the project could only take a few Kenyan farmers.

On their return, the five farmers were unable to convince the rest of the community to try the new techniques. The other villages had not been to Ethiopia, and were still skeptical that the land could be improved with simple techniques.

Then in December 2016, the researchers tried a different tactic. They took a whole bus load of farmers from Korelach to Machakos, on the other side of Kenya. This had several advantages, explained Professor Wilson Ng’etich of the University of Eldoret. First, the bus could hold more people, so women and youth were able to go on the trip, while only senior men had been to Ethiopia. Second, most Kenyans speak Kiswahili in addition to their local language, so the farmers from Korelach could speak freely to farmers in Machakos.

The farmers from Korelach were impressed with what they saw: “Those guys in Machakos have worse land than us, but they are taking better care of it than we are.”

After the visit, researchers were able to help the people of Korelach set up their own experiments with soil and water conservation, such as small, hand-made earthen “sand dams” to slow the rain runoff, so water would soak into the soil instead of washing it away. The farmers also tried cover crops, such as legumes that build soil fertility by fixing nitrogen and leaving biomass on the soil.

Now Korelach is ready to try other ideas, such as planting fruit trees and multi-purpose legumes (that not only enrich the soil, but also feed people).

“We didn’t want to be the solution bringers. We wanted to strengthen the idea that villagers can solve their own problems,” explained Dr. Syphylline Kebeney of the University of Eldoret.

The farmers are also starting to get a more positive vision of the future. One farmer could imagine her fruit trees so vividly that she said “I’m seeing myself with a gunny bag full of mangos on my back going to market.”

This experience shows that cross-site visits can spark farmers’ interest to overcome their own discouragement, engage in collaborative research and see a different future for their land.

Acknowledgement

The work in Korelach was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Watching other farmers on a video can often be as convincing as a meeting in real life, as we have seen in some earlier stories.

Call anytime

Stop erosion

Friends you can trust

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Connected to the world May 21st, 2017 by

A few weeks ago in this blog, Paul told how he was pleasantly surprised to see village farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, sharing videos on their smart phones. At the time I thought that India might be an exceptional case, being the technological giant of the Global South. However, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are catching up fast, as I learned recently. I was completely taken aback on a visit to Awasi, a small, unremarkable town close to Kisumu in western Kenya, to find that many farmers are linked to the Internet.

I visited the home of Esther Atieno Okello, a smallholder farmer. She explained that her extensionist had been by two weeks earlier to show some of the women videos about striga (a weed) on his tablet.

“Will you ever be able to watch the videos on your own?” I asked.

She thought that might be possible. “My son has a tablet,” she said offhandedly. And then she called him in to come and talk to us.

Cal, Esther, Evans with smart phonesEdwin Ochieng Okello was a vibrant youngster of about 20, who played football with the local club and helped his mom on her farm. He watches sports and news on his tablet, has an email account and sends photos on Instagram. Edwin’s brother Calrina has a smart phone which he uses to “stay connected to the world,” via the BBC News, Facebook and a radio-based platform called WeFarm, where callers can phone in with agricultural questions.

The brothers have a slightly older relative, Evans Owuor Omondi, an independent commercial farmer growing maize, cassava and with his own poultry farm. He uses a tablet to get online. All three young men were more interested in news, social media and information than in entertainment.

Awasi is only 40 km from Kisumu city, but the town is a distinct, bona fide farm community, with scattered houses surrounded by corn fields. The generation just reaching adulthood wants to be plugged in to the rest of the world. These young people can read and write, speak English as a third language, and are actively surfing the web for information.  They buy their electronic gear in town, with their own money, earned by working in agriculture.

Six years ago, when Access Agriculture started to host videos for farmers, the idea seemed wildly ahead of its time. But since last year, farmers have become the largest group of people registering on the Access Agriculture website.

Related blog

Village smart phones

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Design by Olean webdesign