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Harsh and healthy December 23rd, 2018 by

Hours away from any city and a half hour drive from the pavement, we meet don Miguel Ortega, a warm, welcoming man in his late 40s, along with his wife, Sabina Mamani, and three of their five children on their farm in Viloco village.  In this remote area on the northern Altiplano of Bolivia, I wonder how he manages to feed his family. But first impressions can be deceiving; later in the day we meet his daughter who studies at the university and I realize that this is a prosperous family that is investing in education and healthy food.

The landscape is quite unlike the Southern Altiplano, where the sandy soils and the mere 150 mm of rainfall per year allow farmers to only grow quinoa and rear llamas and sheep. Here, further north, there are more options; soils are more fertile and with 500 mm of rainfall farmers grow quinoa, potatoes, broad beans, barley and alfalfa as fodder. Dairy cows are as prevalent as llamas.

Don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, experienced farmers on the Altiplano who share their skills with their peers. He is hired by several NGOs to train groups of farmers on organic agriculture, including how to make organic inputs, such as biol (fermented liquid manure), and how to fill out the Pachagrama, a locally invented method to record natural weather indicators and cropping calendar so farmers can make better decisions.

Don Miguel’s home, a cluster of adobe buildings, houses animals and vegetables that produce a tasty and healthy diet. The farm also has three neo-Andean greenhouses, made with adobe walls and topped with yellow agro-film, a tough plastic that withstands the sun. But one greenhouse is not used to grow vegetables. It turns out to be a home-made biogas installation. The greenhouse structure ensures that the manure and organic waste keeps fermenting during the cold winter months. The unit provides the family year-round gas to cook for 2 hours per day. Being off the grid, a solar panel supplies the household the minimum amount of electricity.

Mid-morning, one of the young girls brings us a mandarin. We accept the fruit with a sense of wonder. At nearly 4000 meters altitude there are hardly any trees, certainly none that require mild Mediterranean temperatures. When don Miguel invites us in one of his greenhouses, we see a single mandarin tree with a few fruits.

In the greenhouse he opens a black plastic sheet laying on the soil. Hundreds of earthworms seek shelter from the light, crawling deeper into the decomposing manure. He tells us that he watched a video a while ago from Bangladesh where farmers were also rearing earthworms. The video had been translated into Aymara and Spanish. While don Miguel had been rearing earthworms before he saw the video, he was pleasantly surprised to see farmers growing earthworms on the other side of the world, and he realized that in the future he could perhaps make enough vermicompost to have some to sell. Training videos from other countries not only give farmers new ideas, they also give them confidence about their own innovations and practices.

The family treated their visitors to a delicious, traditional Andean meal with mutton, potatoes and chuño (potatoes that are freeze-dried outside during the winter nights). Unusual for household on the Altiplano, they also serve organic, leafy vegetables, fresh from the greenhouse. All comes with a delicious, yellow sauce, which later on, we are told is prepared by their teenage son who aspires to become a chef one day.

It is often stated that people in remote areas only grow organic crops by default, because they cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Don Miguel and the many Yapuchiris we have met during this trip confirm that such statements are an insult to the many farmers who decide to live in harmony with nature, with care for their environment, their health and their families. Enabling farmers in remote areas to learn from their peers within and beyond their own country deserves the necessary attention.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform. Shortly the following ones will be added:

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

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.

Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

Feeding the cities December 2nd, 2018 by

Last week, Jeff, Marcella and I explored the Teleférico in La Paz, an innovative public transport system that works like a metro with stops for people to get in and out. Using Swiss and Austrian technology developed to transport alpine skiers, the cable cars are the perfect solution to move people around in the Bolivian capital that has sprawled along the steep slopes of the canyon where the city is built, and onto the Altiplano at altitudes ranging from about 3400 meters to above 4000.

La Paz sits in a deep canyon, while its twin city, called El Alto, sprawls over the plains above La Paz. The two cities, side by side, make up the highest major metropolis in the world. One of the Teleférico lines takes us from La Paz to El Alto. I was amazed at the sheer number of people that have been attracted to the cities, perhaps two million, while El Alto was just farm land until the 1940s and may now be home to half of the population of the Altiplano.

Looking down from our cable car onto the rooftops and small courtyards, it seems that nobody is actually growing anything in El Alto. Only once we hear a cock crow. Supplying these fast growing cities with healthy food that is localy produced will be a challenge for the years to come.

Urban gardening is gaining popularity across the globe and smart innovations like the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables in people’s courtyards offer a great opportunity to make the most of limited space and limited fertile soil and organic material.

The recently released farmer training video produced in Kampala, Uganda, on growing vegetables in sack mounds is a practical example of how farmers and urban gardeners can grow tomatoes and greens in a sack, in a very small space. As countries like Bolivia and Uganda urbanize rapidly, they can learn from each other’s experience.

Through its specialised video platform and translation services, Access Agriculture strives to make this happen. As the Teleférrico moves people across places, so does Access Agriculture move farmer training videos across the globe.

The joy of farming October 21st, 2018 by

Yesterday in Mandera village in Tanzania, we were lucky to meet an inspiring young farmer.  32-year old Sadiki Mchama is an entrepreneur with passion and vision who left his office job to become a farmer. Across Africa, well-organised farms that produce for markets are often set up by older government officials who invest their savings into farming to provide a steady income after they retire. But Sadiki was clearly a different case, which triggered my curiosity.

Until 3 years ago Sadiki worked as an accountant at the Water Supply and Sanitation Authority of the Wami River Basin. Once he had saved enough money, he decided to start his own farm.

When asked what attracted him to go into agriculture, he replied happily: “You can enjoy everything in agriculture. Everything I do are my own ideas.”

Sadiki started growing cassava on his 10 acres (4 hectares) of land. But some of the planting material he got from the open market was infested with disease, such as the cassava mosaic virus and the cassava brown streak disease. As he uproots some of the infested plants it does not take long to realise that infested plants yield no tubers.

Eager to find a solution, Sadiki turned to the extension officer who introduced him to a project that tried to set up a cassava “seed” system, involving community “seed” producers. Sadiki successfully took the course, bought certified cassava planting material and planted it far from other fields, so the disease would not spread to his new crop.

“When you start a business, you need to find customers and look after them so they come back to you,” Sadiki says. While many farmers struggle to find a market for their cassava roots, Sadiki did manage. He now rents a car and brings his produce to the customers however far away they are.

Asked how Sadiki would manage to find customers for his new cassava planting material business, he said: “I attend village meetings and talk to the farmers, but I also use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram to inform potential customers.”

Sadiki is a people person. His open, smiling face radiates with positive energy. As we were filming a video on healthy cassava planting material, we were pleased to include him. In farmer training videos, enthusiastic people like Sadiki communicate ambition and show what is possible.

Once our video on quality cassava planting material is posted on the Access Agriculture video platform, Sadiki plans to download the video and share it with his network. The video in turn may help to boost his business, the same way that vegetable training videos in Uganda boosted the demand for tomato, chilli and onion seed.

Young people across Africa are starting to see opportunities in agriculture. And they cleverly combine their great interpersonal skills with new ICTs and social media.

Further reading

Bentley, J. 2016. The Luo translations: farmer learning videos in northern Uganda. Agro-Insight, Belgium. See: www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Acknowledgement

The video on Quality Cassava Planting Material is developed for IITA under the ACAI project (African Cassava Agronomy Initiative)

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

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