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Armies against armies July 15th, 2018 by

Some battles are harder to win than others. Last year farmers in much of Africa were faced for the first time with a new species of armyworm and saw their maize crops attacked. The fall armyworm had come from Latin America and was unknown to farmers, extension workers and governments. Responses across the continent differed, but quite some governments attempted to stem the tide of fall armyworms with pesticides. In Zambia, the government used the army, deploying soldiers across the country to spray farmers’ maize fields.

But the pest is not easily killed by pesticides and the worry is that this approach will cause more harm than good. The fall armyworm begins life as a caterpillar before becomimg an adult moth. The moth is nocturnal and lives for about two weeks during which it lays its eggs in batches of 100-300 tiny eggs. The small, whitish fluffy spots are mostly found on the underside of maize leaves. When the tiny caterpillars emerge en masse they look like an army, ready to invade the plant. Some armyworms drop off the leaves, hanging on a fragile thread and then carried by the wind to attack neighbouring maize plants. After feeding just a few days on the surface of leaves, the young armyworms hide inside the leaf whorl of young plants. On mature maize plants they tunnel through the husk and chew on soft maize kernels. Either way, the armyworms are protected from pesticide sprays.

Last week, Marcella and I were in Embu County in Kenya, making two farmer training videos on how best to manage the fall armyworm. I was particularly curious to find out if farmers had come up with their own solutions. After all, they have not had a lot of time to experiment. But necessity is the mother of invention, and when livelihoods are at stake farmers can be quick and inventive in finding effective ways to manage damaging pests.

John Fundi, a young farmer in Ugweri village, told us how he merged two independent observations to come up with a life-saving solution. “When my wife cooks in the kitchen, I have seen that when some of the cooking fat is spoiled on the floor, these tiny black ants come and feed on it. And when we dry our maize after harvest, I have seen that some of these ants also carry caterpillars from the maize ears. So I thought that perhaps these ants can help me control the fall armyworm.”

John with his wife and young son now go to their field when the maize is just a few weeks old. With their fingers they smear a little bit of solid cooking fat to the base of the maize stalk. With a small pack of cooking fat, they can easily cover half a hectare. “In no time, the tiny black ants will come to feed on the oil and while they are on the maize they also find any armyworms. Even when we cannot see the tiny caterpillars inside the whorl, the ants will find and kill them,” John says with a satisfying smile. When the maize plant starts to develop maize ears, John and his wife repeat the treatment, smearing the fat at the base of the stalk and one metre high on the stalk.

Neighbours who had sprayed pesticides in vain found it difficult to believe that John’s innovation would work. But as they have seen the results of using cooking fat with their own eyes all have started to copy John’s method. With the videos we hope that examples of innovative farmers like John will inspire farmers and governments across Africa to try out low-cost and simple methods.

In agriculture, armies of ants can do the job of national armies for free – and without the costly and damaging effects of spraying pesticides.

Related blogs

Agro-Insight has written many blog stories on Local innovation and Pest management

Related videos

The videos on the fall armyworm will be published on www.accessagriculture.org in the coming month. Other videos we made that relate to ants used in pest control are:

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

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).

Bienvenidos July 8th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Spanish is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, with over 400 million speakers. Spanish also has the distinction of being spoken in 20 countries. The Royal Academy in Spain helps to keep the language up to date with its marvelous dictionary, corresponding with national language academies from Mexico to Argentina, constantly adding regional vocabulary and new terms to the dictionary. Spanish-speaking countries have a dynamic scientific and academic community, as well as millions of family farmers.

At Agro-Insight, we were delighted when the international NGO Access Agriculture decided to translate its video platform (already in English and French) into Spanish. Access Agriculture hosts over 175 farmer learning videos in 75 languages. At www.accessagriculture.org you can now read the descriptions of each of these videos in Spanish and download a Spanish fact sheet as a PDF, providing a detailed summary of each video. Translations are important; Latin American farmers enjoy and learn from videos filmed in Asia and Africa, as long as the video is available in Spanish.

Only 23 of the videos are in Spanish, but viewers can watch all the others in English, and read the summaries in Spanish to identify videos that need priority translation.

We encourage our readers to review the videos, and send feedback and translation requests to Nafissath@accessagriculture.org. Agencies interested in funding translations of one or more videos can also contact kevin@accessagriculture.org.

BIENVENIDOS

Por Jeff Bentley

8 de julio del 2018

El español es el cuarto idioma más hablado en el mundo, con más de 400 millones de hablantes. El español también tiene la distinción de ser hablado en 20 países. La Real Academia de la Lengua Española ayuda a actualizar el idioma con su maravilloso Diccionario de la Lengua Española, comunicándose con academias nacionales desde México hasta Argentina, para agregar regionalismos y nuevos términos al Diccionario. Los países de habla hispana tienen una comunidad científica y académica dinámica, así como millones de agricultores familiares.

En Agro-Insight, estuvimos encantados cuando la ONG internacional Access Agriculture decidió traducir su plataforma de video (que ya está en inglés y francés) al español. Access Agriculture alberga más de 175 videos de capacitación de agricultores en 75 idiomas. En el www.accessagriculture.org ahora se puede leer las descripciones de cada uno de estos videos en español y descargar una hoja volante en español en PDF, que resume cada video detalladamente. Las traducciones son importantes; a los campesinos latinoamericanos les gusta aprender de los videos filmados en Asia y Africa, con tal que el video esté disponible en español.

Solo 23 de los videos ya están en español, pero se puede ver todos los demás en inglés y leer los resúmenes en español para identificar videos que necesitan traducción prioritaria.

Alentamos a nuestros lectores a que revisen los videos y envíen comentarios y solicitudes de traducción a Nafissath@accessagriculture.org. Las agencias interesadas en financiar la traducción de uno o más videos también pueden contactar a kevin@accessagriculture.org.

As the waters recede July 1st, 2018 by

Peasant farmers can be quick to seize an opportunity, and when the benefit is clearly high, farmers may skip the experimental stage and go straight to a new practice on a massive scale.

In the lower Gangetic Delta in southwest Bangladesh, people live just centimeters above sea level. Getting rid of excess water can make all the different between harvest and hunger.

In the 1960s, earthen embankments were built around certain large areas of land.

The newly dry land inside these dykes is called a polder. Successful farming in the polder depends on having large draining canals, snaking through the muddy land, to carry water to the river.

In 2000, the 10 km-long Amodkhali Canal silted up. So during the winter rainy season the water had nowhere to go. A vast area in the middle of Polder 2 became a seasonal lake. Villagers hung on, growing rice in the dry season. Many migrated for wage labour in the winter.

Then in May 2017, Blue Gold (a program implemented by the government of Bangladesh) began to re-excavate the Amodkhali Canal.  By July they had dug out 8.4 km. It was a big job. At 2.5 meters deep and 6 meters wide, thousands of cubic meters of mud had to be moved. Some was done by machinery and some by hand. Groups of women were organised into Labour Contracting Societies (LCS) to earn money doing the work.

Local people near the canal saw the work. Even those living far away heard about it, and when the rains came in July 2017, farmers could see with their own eyes that the rainwater was draining away.

Like a river, a drainage canal has a sort of watershed, called a catchment area. This canal drains a roughly tear-drop shaped area some four by six kilometres: a big place. The thousands of farmers in the area didn’t have to be begged or cajoled into planting rice: they just did it.

My colleagues and I met local farmer Nozrul Islam near the banks of the canal. He said that he was so happy with the canal. He has two hectares of land and when the water drained off, nobody told him to plant rice. He simply went to Khulna, a neighbouring district, and bought rice seed for all of his land. He hadn’t planted winter rice for over 16 years.

Nozrul’s experience was replicated all over the area. In the village of Koikhali, a group of women told us that they also planted winter (amon) rice last year.

There was no experimentation, no hesitation. People simply re-introduced a winter rice crop into their cropping system, which they had not grown for almost a generation. The total catchment area is 4326 ha. That first year they planted 2106 hectares of winter rice, and harvested 12,000 tons or rice. Much of this rice was sold on the national market.

Related blog

Robbing land from the sea

Related video

Floating vegetable gardens

Acknowledgement

The Amodkhali Canal was re-excavated by the Blue Gold Program in Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. I am indebted to Joynal Abedin, Shahadat Hossain, Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones, A. Salahuddin and many others for teaching me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh.

A burning hunger June 24th, 2018 by

Towards the end of the dry season many families across the African savannas have exhausted their reserves of stored cereal crops. Vegetables are hard to come by in local markets. Bush meat is one way for rural people to supplement their meagre diet with protein during the well-named lean or hunger season. This is why development organisations have struggled for decades to curb the destructive practice of setting the bush on fire to hunt small wildlife.

One option to ensure some food and income during the lean season is to grow cashew and mango trees. But with increased labour costs and insecure markets, it is difficult for farmers to properly maintain their planted trees. Slashing the weedy and bushy undergrowth is often only done late during the flowering and fruiting season, by which time bush fires set by others may have spread into and destroyed entire plantations in no time.

Increasingly, development organisations are starting to realise that integrated farming systems and local value addition to food are the way forward. In a recently published video on the Access Agriculture video platform, the Beninese NGO DEDRAS neatly shows how growing groundnuts and soya beans in cashew plantations helps farmers produce a nutritious crop during the lean season, and thus discourage damaging bush fires. DEDRAS also made a training video with rural women on how to make cheese from soya, a good example of adding value.

In addition to tree crops, such as mango and cashew, farmer also manage other local species, such as nĂ©re (Parkia biglobosa) and the karitĂ© or shea nut tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). These wild indigenous trees, distincive features of the savanna, also provide fruits and nuts during the lean season. NerĂ© and the shea nut tree have grown here for thousands of years and are relatively fire-resistant. Traditionally, nĂ©rĂ© seeds are dried, cooked and fermented to make “soumbala”, a local equivalent to bouillon cubes that brings taste to many dishes. But with an increased need for fuel wood, more nĂ©rĂ© are being cut down. While the fuel wood crisis has not received the attention it deserves, nutritionists have taken notice and have come up with a way to use fermented soya beans as a replacement for the local soumbala. This practice has been captured by the NGO AMEDD in Mali in a nice farmer training video, also hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about his experience with grasscutters in West Africa. Declining populations in the wild, along with the strong and continuing demand for meat, have inspired rural entrepreneurs to develop alternative sources. Across Africa one can witness how mainly women and youth have set up grasscutter, poultry, rabbit and other small livestock businesses.

The many training videos on small livestock, intercropping with legumes, and rural food processing offer viable alternatives to the hunting for bush meat. These enterprises may eventually prove more effective in reducing bush fires than lecturing rural people about their adverse environmental impacts. Positive solutions are always better at promoting behaviour change.

Related blog

Coming in from the wild

Waiting for rats

Related farmer training videos

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Preparing cashew apple juice

Making a condiment from soya beans

Making soya cheese

Parkland agroforestry

Harvesting and storing shea nuts

Making better shea butter

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Feeding grasscutters

Feeding the ancient Andean state June 17th, 2018 by

Early states from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica still inspire awe with their fine art and architecture. Yet the artists and soldiers who built the states needed to be fed; whatever their other accomplishments, early states were always based on agriculture. In a recent book, James Scott reminds us that early states usually collected their taxes as grain, staple crops grown on a large scale, such as maize, rice, and wheat, which are easy to store. Scott observes that there were no ancient states based on potatoes or other tuber crops. Yet he admits that the Inka were a partial exception. The Inka did have maize, but they depended largely on the potato which is bulky and perishable, making it difficult to collect and store.

This set me thinking. Inspired by Professor Scott’s excellent book, I’d like to explain how tuber crops, and the potato in particular, sustained the Inka state and provided taxes.

First, the Inka state (called Tawantinsuyu) was not an early state, but had co-opted the myths and king lists of a much earlier one, Tiwanaku, which managed an empire that straddled the Andes from the Pacific Coast to the warm valleys of the Amazon Basin. Tiwanaku began as a village (about 1580 BC), but was a state by 133 AD and an empire by 724, lasting until 1187 when it collapsed in a civil war and broke up into smaller chieftainships (señoríos) that were independent until they were later conquered by the Inka.

The capital city of Tiwanaku was built near Lake Titicaca, on the high plains of Bolivia, not far from the border of modern-day Peru. It once housed 100,000 residents and was centered on large stone buildings made of sandstone and andesite, a hard rock quarried in Peru and ferried across Lake Titicaca on ships woven from the reeds that grew in the shallow waters. Tiwanaku was created long before the first Inka, Pachacuti, organized Tawantinsuyu in Cusco starting in 1438. So the Inka’s Tawantinsuyu was a late state, patterned on the much earlier and long-lasting Empire of Tiwanaku.

But in the pre-Colombian Andes, states could collect taxes in potatoes because of an ingenious method of making them light-weight and non-perishable. The Inka and the people of Tiwanaku both knew how to freeze dry potatoes during the winter nights of the high Andes. This preserved potato is called chuño: there are two types, a grey one and a white one, called tunta, which is soaked in water during processing. Both types are as hard and dry as wood. With the water removed, the potato loses weight and can be stored for years. Potatoes were portable once they were transformed into chuño. The Inka taxed their subjects in chuño, as well as maize. Both of these foods were kept in royal storehouses. Chuño was simply soaked in water and boiled to make them edible.

The Inka Empire was large and complex, eventually spanning most of the Andes, from Ecuador to northern Argentina. Like Old World states, the Inka collected taxies in grain: maize in this case. But unlike other classic civilizations, the Inka and an earlier state, Tiwanaku were also largely sustained by a perishable tuber crop, thanks to ingenious recipes for preserving the potato as chuño.

The modern cities of Peru and Bolivia have kept few vestiges of the ancient states that preceded them. But you can still buy chuño in Andean markets and even at upscale supermarkets. The ancient states are gone. Their art works are now curiosities in museums, yet the crops the Inka grew and their imaginative methods of preserving and serving food are still very much alive.

Earlier blog stories

The bad old days

The tyrant of the Andes

Further reading

Finucane, Brian Clifton 2009 “Maize and Sociopolitical Complexity in the Ayacucho Valley, Peru.” Current Anthropology 50(4):533-545.

Haas, Jonathan & Winifred Creamer 2006 “Crucible of Andean Civilization: The Peruvian Coast from 3000 to 1800 BC.” Current Anthropology 47(5):745-775.

Horkheimer, Hans [1973] 2004 Alimentación y Obtención de Alimentos en el Perú Prehispánico. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura. Segunda edición.

Montaño Durán, Patricia 2016 El Imperio de Tiwanaku. Tercera Edición. Cochabamba: Grupo Editorial Kipus. 249 pp.

Scott, James C. 2017 Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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