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Let nature guide you March 17th, 2019 by

Farmers need to take decisions every day. Smallholders living in remote areas often have no one to turn to to ask advice. Nobody tells them which crop to grow or when is a good time to plant. In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about the Yapuchiris, experienced organic farmers on the Bolivian altiplano who started recording their observations on weather, natural indicators and their crops on a daily basis. Some have done so for over 10 years.

In this harsh environment predicting the weather correctly can make the difference between harvesting a crop or harvesting nothing at all.

As always, when producing farmer training videos, we are fortunate to interact with farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, one of the Yapuchiris, Don Bernabé, explains that if frost hits your quinoa, you can lose your crop from one day to the next, all past efforts being in vain. He guides us in the brush land and shows us a local bush called tara t’ula in the Aymara language. “This plant doesn’t like the cold very much, so if you find many of these plants, it is a good place to build your farm house, your corral to keep your llamas and grow your crop.”

But even if your farm is wel located, frost can strike. So don Bernabé has many other natural indicators to inform him about what actions to take. “If the lizard makes a fresh house it will rain tomorrow, but if it starts to close its burrow, it will freeze that night. I then collect t’ula plants and burn them in my quinoa field from 3 to 5 am so that the frost will not settle on my crop,” he continues.

Apart from observing plants and animals, don Bernabé also reads the clouds and wind. Amazingly, winds in June and July already tell him how the next rainy season that starts in January will be. Arrived at a large sand dune, he points to the pattern of vertical ridges blown into the side of the dune. “If the lines are some 10 centimeters apart, the rains will come close to each other and we will have a good harvest. But if they are further apart, the rains will also be sparser and our crop will suffer.”

Don Bernabé has written a book about these natural weather indicators. As he shows us around the landscape, he proudly carries his book with colour photographs that clearly explain all the natural indicators he knows. Reading nature is a skill that requires spending a lot of time outdoors, observing natural phenomena.

The next few days we met some other extraordinary Yapuchiris, each sharing their knowledge with us in front of the camera. It is exciting to be part of this and at the same time an eye opener as to how much industrial agriculture in the West has become disconnected from nature.

With climate change, the need to build on local knowledge will grow in importance.

I cannot think of a better way to end this blog then by quoting don Bernabé once more: “Well these plants and animals are more intelligent than the human being. They know how to live in this land and they know it perfectly. For that reason, it is necessary not to lose this knowledge and that the young people should keep practicing this ancestral knowledge that is so rich.”

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform, in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara:

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Betting on the weather March 10th, 2019 by

Recently, we have had the chance to interact intensively with farmers and agronomists in the Bolivian Altiplano to develop two videos on weather forecasting. The first video focused more on natural indicators, such as plants, animals, wind and clouds. The second video highlighted a weather app. While we encourage in both videos to merge traditional knowledge with daily observations and modern science, a certain level of risk remains.

At an altitude of 4,250 meters, in the village of Ch’ojñapata (which means “green mountain” in the Aymara language), we meet don Juan Mamani with some of his fellow farmers. On the walk to his house in the Green Mountains, field after field of young potato plants showed black, wilted leaves. Despite their rich, traditional knowledge, receiving weekly forecasts on their phone and being connected with other fellow farmers through WhatsApp, the farmers of Ch’ojñapata village saw their potato crop destroyed by frost.

Weather forecasts can be a blessing for farmers and help them to decide when to prepare the land, when to plant, irrigate and harvest their crop. But while rain is relatively easy to predict, frost is less so, especially in a changing climate, as don Juan explains:

“Sometimes the weather is cloudy with good clouds, but during the night they suddenly disappear. It gets cold and starts to freeze, there is no way to be aware of it. I do not understand the climate, the climate is heating up, it confuses us, so for that I say that one should try to understand the climate and we have to adjust to it.”

But I was still concerned, standing on the edge of this ruined potato field. Don Juan is an expert farmer, with the benefit of modern and ancestral knowledge, who had known that there was likely to be a freeze early in the season, which he could have avoided by planting later.

Edwin Yucra, an agronomist who has studied weather for years on the Altiplano, explained what happened. First farmers forecast which part of the summer will be best for planting potatoes, then they plant potatoes early, middle or late in the season, depending on their prediction. But they always hedge their bets, never putting all of their potatoes in one basket. If farmers predict that the last part of the season will be best (as in the southern summer of 2018-19), they still plant a few potatoes in the early season. The farmers also use the forecast to decide where to plant, planting in wetter areas during predicted dry years, for example, or on the warmer slopes if they anticipate a freeze.

Farming is a gamble in many ways. Every time farmers plant they are betting on the weather. While modern forecasting technologies help smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve the odds, crop insurance (and fair food prices) may be required to make farming attractive to new generations of commercial small-scale farmers.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

High Andean Climate Change

To see the future

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

Community seed producers February 24th, 2019 by

Smallholder farmers are clearly part of the private sector, along with agrodealers, traders, food processors and other actors on the value chain. Projects often encourage farmers to improve their livelhihoods by moving into other private sector roles, like seed production. But one project can easily undermine what another one is trying to create, as we recently learned in Tanzania.

For centuries farmers have developed their own plant varieties, kept their own seed and exchanged it with their neighbours. This has also been the case for cassava which is propagated by stem cuttings. Unlike cereal, legume and vegetable seed that can be stored for months if properly dried, cassava is a vegetatively propagated crop. Cassava is planted with stem cuttings that need to be as fresh as possible, or the cuttings may die. Cassava stems are also bulky. For half a hectare a farmer needs 25 bundles, each with 30 stakes of about a meter long. As with other vegetatively propagated crops, the short shelf life and bulkiness of cassava seed make it almost impossible to sell in shops, but farmer seed enterpreneurs who are close their clients could sell cassava stems.

In 2017, a regional cassava project invited Alli Abdalla Lugome from Mhaga village in Tanzania to become a community seed producer. Alli received training in good agronomic practices, bought certified cassava cuttings from the Kibaha research institute and had his field inspected by a TOSCI (Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute) official who accredited him as a producer of “quality declared seed”. Alli now officially and legally sells cassava seed to his fellow farmers.

It is difficult to develop a market for something like cassava stems that farmers can easily produce themselves. Cassava stems also have no alternative use; they are abundant and can only be used as seed. So when a cassava garden is harvested, most farmers will happily give the leftover stems to neighbours in need of seed. But farmers will buy seed to get a new cassava variety. The improved variety that Alli multplies is resistant to the cassava brown streak disease that is caused by a virus and spread by whiteflies and by cassava cuttings. Cassava across Tanzania and many other African countries has been seriously affected by this disease. There is an urgent need to get seed of new varieties into farmers’ hands and Alli is well-placed to sell such seed to his neighbours.

But while one project was helping Alli to get into the cassava seed business, other projects were killing his market by giving free cassava seed to members of the farmer group to which Alli belongs. As I saw during my time at AfricaRice, you cannot establish farmer seed producers while at the same time handing out seed for free to the farming community. 

When development organisations are under pressure from donors to create impact at scale quickly, they can be successful in their project, but the speed and scale of success may at the same time undermine an emerging private sector of community-based seed enterprises. Running a cassava seed business is a challenge, but it would certainly help farmers like Alli if organisations would come to his village and buy his seed to distribute to other smallholders, instead of undercutting Alli by giving away free seed to his neighbours.

What is clear from this case is that two or more projects can work at cross-purposes with the same crop, in the same village as though the other project did not exist. Unfortunately, such “coordination breakdowns” are all too common in seed projects for vegetatively produced crops like cassava. But such mishaps can be avoided with better planning and communication.

Further reading

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Bentley, Jeffery W., Jorge Andrade-Piedra, Paul Demo, Beloved Dzomeku, Kim Jacobsen, Enoch Kikulwe, Peter Kromann, P. Lava Kumar, Margaret McEwan, Netsayi Mudege, Kwame Ogero, Richardson Okechukwu, Ricardo Orrego, Bernardo Ospina, Louise Sperling, Stephen Walsh & Graham Thiele 2018 Understanding Root, Tuber, and Banana Seed Systems and Coordination Breakdown: A Multi-Stakeholder Framework. Journal of Crop Improvement.

Related video

The video Quality cassava planting material is available in English, French and Kiswahili on the Access Agriculture video platform. Soon, this video will also be available in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Pigeon English.

Mobile slaughterhouses February 3rd, 2019 by

A recent article on the BBC News reminded me of how policy-makers can look at narrow technical solutions (how to kill an animal) while ignoring broader, yet largely undebated issues about how we organise our food system. I will illustrate this by giving an example of my former neighbour, René, a farmer who lives in the east of Belgium.

René inherited the farm from his father. EU subsidies in the 1980s encouraged farmers to increase the number of livestock, so by the time his father handed over the farm there were around 1000 pigs. But René of course had to pay his brothers for their share of the inheritance. By the time he was in his early 50s he was still paying off loans to the bank. With the low price he got from selling to supermarkets, René realised he had to find a way to earn more money. He decided to take a butchery course and soon after he started selling meat products directly to the public on his farm.

By 2010, René had reduced his herd to some 200 pigs. He still sells some pigs to supermarkets, but his main income is now derived from selling meat from his own animals to people who visit his farm butchery. Every Monday morning René takes 2 pigs to the slaughterhouse, spends the week processing the meat into more than 20 products ranging from salamis to smoked hams and pâtés, and then he and his wife Marij open the shop from Friday to Sunday.

With a great sense of pride, René told me a few years back that he had finally paid off all his debts. But just a year later, the farm family had to take another main decision. The nearest slaughterhouse in Genk, some 20 kilometres from his farm, had closed down, so René was forced to drive over 50 kilometres to have his animals slaughtered.

Regulations required that for longer distances live and slaughtered animals had to be transported in special vehicles. René told me this would cost the family around 10,000 Euro, not counting the extra distance to be traveled each week. One has to sell a lot of sausages to pay for this extra cost. Closing the farm and going to work in a factory was not an option, so they kept their heads high, invested in a trailer and the family continued with their farm and food business.

It seemed that the slaughterhouse in Genk that René relied on had closed down under pressure of certain lobby groups in favour of more industrial agriculture. When supermarkets rule the food system, policies change to reflect the concerns of consumerss. Little thought is given to how changes work to the detriment of smallholder farmers and local food initiatives.

At least for the red meat sector, mobile abbatoirs could offer a great alternative to centralised slaughterhouses. Under the supervision of the farmer and the professional slaughterer who drives the mobile abattoir, animals can be spared the stress of long transport and be slaughtered humanely at home. We can learn from countries where such initiatives are in use, such as those in Scandinavia, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Food is power, and a democratic food system is one that is owned and controlled by as many people as possible instead of by a few giant companies. While community-supported agriculture can give people a sense of ownership over their food, more is required to fundamentally change our food system with due respect given to the people who produce the bulk of our food: professional and passionate smallholder farmers. Mobile abattoirs deserve more attention to enhance the welfare of animals and to keep farmers crafting food in a business they are proud to run.

Further reading

BBC News. Research into benefits of mobile abattoirs. 23 January 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-46958906

Related blog

In an earlier blog I wrote about the challenges of regulating the slaughtering of animals, with public debates in Belgium mainly focusing on how to deal with religious rituals (see: Forgotten food rites).

Three generations of knowledge January 20th, 2019 by

“As a youth I planted a little and my grandparents told me nothing about these bioindicators. My potatoes had a lot of worms. I was discouraged and decided to seek another life,” said don Miguel Ortega when we visited his farm a while ago in Voloco village. Now in his mid 40s don Miguel runs a prosperous organic farm in the Northern Altiplano of Bolivia (see also our previous blog: Harsh and healthy).

During his interview in front of the camera, don Miguel explained why he returned to his home village and picked up farming again: “Because when you work in a company, coming on time, leaving on time it is a form of slavery. So now that I work for myself I am a free man.”

In the meantime, don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, expert farmers who shares his knowledge with his peers and anyone who is interested in learning from nature and learning about healthy farming. But to become an expert farmer who can predict the weather based on observing plants, animals and insects has not been easy. The elders in the village were not forthcoming with sharing their knowledge about natural indicators, as don Miguel explained:

“When I asked the elders, they said “in this way.” But you do not ask them just like that with the mouth empty. You have to give them a little soft drink. I managed it this way. I did not pick up a piece of paper at that moment. I held it in my mind. I held it in my mind and when I arrived home, I wrote it on paper. That is how I worked. By questioning. If we would pick up a sheet of paper and write they would not want to tell us everything.”

Five days after meeting with don Miguel, we drive to the village of Ch’ojñapata, at an altitude of 4,250 meters. We interview Mery Mamani, who is in her early 20s. She runs a little shop where she sells soft drinks, beer and home-made cheese. Although we planned to interview her about an app that forecasts the weather, it soon became clear that this young woman had much more to tell us.

Full of energy she guides us down the steep slopes to a valley behind her house. A pretty cactus with red flowers, called sank’ayu in the local Aymara language, is what she wants to show us. “The app is great to tell us which day it will freeze or rain in the coming days, but this cactus tells us when is the best time to plant potatoes,” she said.

While Marcella films Mery in her little shop, she opens WhatsApp on her smart phone and shows photo after photo of various plants, mainly cactuses. All are bioindicators (see previous blog stories below that define “bioindicator”). Mery is clearly interested in making the right decisions on when to plant and do the other activities on her farm and she cleverly combines knowledge from the past with modern forecasting. Youth like Meri who remain in the countryside, and who are interested in ancestral knowledge can share those ideas and their observations with peers in other communities and other parts of the country. New communication devices can keep old knowledge alive.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in the coming month

Recording the weather

Weather forecasting

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information, and to Edwin Yucra from UMSA for introducing us to farmers in Ch’ojñapata.

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