WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

A video is worth 1000 words August 9th, 2020 by

A farmer learning video often does have the proverbial thousand words, but can technical information be shared through images alone? A recent study set out to see how much rice farmers in southern Benin would learn from a video if they couldn’t understand the words.

PhD candidate Lauréano Bede and colleagues created an experiment using a video about urea fertilizer. Over-use of this nitrogen fertilizer wastes farmers’ money, pollutes waterways, and contributes to greenhouse gases. The video shows how to cut urea use by two-thirds, by making large, “super-granules” of fertilizer and pressing them into the wet soil, where the rice plant can absorb it, instead of scattering the urea all over the surface.

In the study, six groups of farmers watched the super-granule video. In three villages, they watched the video in their own language, Adja. One of the villages saw the video once, another watched it twice, and another saw it three times. In comparison, another set of three villages also watched the video once, twice, or three times, but they had the disadvantage of seeing it in a language they didn’t understand: English.

As expected, villagers who only saw the video once learned more if they understood the soundtrack. But the difference narrowed after several screenings. Farmers who saw the video three times, without understanding the words, learned more than farmers who saw a single screening in their native Adja language. The more people watch a video, the more they learn, especially as community members discuss it among themselves, and share their observations, even if the language is foreign.

In this particular case, the super-granule video was expertly filmed to convey information to reduce the use of chemical fertilizer. Sloppy videos may not get their point across as well. A ten-minute video has about a thousand words. If the content and images are well-chosen, the video may be able to carry its messages, even without the words.

Related blogs

Deeper nitrogen, more rice, a cooler planet

Take a stab

Further reading

Lauréano Bede, Florent Okry & Simplice D. Vodouhe 2020 Video mediated rural learning: effects of images and languages on farmers’ learning in Benin Republic. Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2020.1788508

Watch the video Watch or download Urea deep placement in Adja, English or one of 29 other languages.

The fate of food August 2nd, 2020 by

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little (professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University) takes us on a strange journey to the cutting edge of agricultural research. Little has an astonishing knack for getting quality face time with some of the most innovative (and busy) people in the science of food.

She takes us to Shanghai to meet Tony Zhang, an entrepreneur who dreamed of being the Whole Foods (grocery store chain) of China. Zhang was so enraged when he found out that his vegetable farmers were growing special plots of organic produce just for their own families, while selling produce tainted with pesticides, that he created his own 4,000 hectare farm where he monitored his crops with electronic soil sensors that captured data on soil moisture and temperature, humidity, acidity and light absorption. The cost of managing the data and cleaning the heavily polluted soil eventually led Zhang to quit farming, but other companies continue to improve his idea of the digitalized soil sensors.

In Silicon Valley, Indian cardiologist Uma Valeti leads a startup that is culturing meat in the lab. It’s real meat, just grown in a Petri dish, not in an animal’s body. Little finds the duck meat tasty, although at over $100,000 a serving, it’s still not commercial. But costs are falling.

In Norway, commercial salmon grower Alf-Helge Aarskog is growing the fish in cages in the seawater of a fjord. Fish farmers are racing to invent technology fast enough to solve their emerging problems. Captive salmon were once fed wild sea creatures, but the diet is now 75% grain, with the goal of creating a completely vegetarian, cultivated fare. The dense populations of penned fish are a breeding ground for “sea lice,” a crustacean parasite of salmon. Aarskog is using a robot that can spot the sea lice and zap them with a laser as the fish dart through the water.

Robots are the newest farm workers on dry land as well. Peruvian engineer Jorge Heraud and colleagues in California have invented a “lettuce bot” that can thin a field by recognizing when seedlings are too dense, and kill the extra plants with a precision over-dose of chemical fertilizer. John Deere sees enough promise in the idea that the corporation recently bought Heraud’s company for $305 million.

In the USA, most lettuce is grown in California in the summer, and around Yuma, Arizona in the winter, a continent away from the big consumer markets of the East Coast. Former Cornell professor Ed Harwood and colleagues have solved this problem by growing aeroponic lettuce in an old building in Newark, New Jersey, where the plants grow under LED lights, without soil. The lettuce is marketable after 12 to 16 days instead of 30 or 45, and the plants yield four times as much as in the open field. The lettuce is grown on trays stacked high, so the yield per hectare can be 390 times as high as in a conventional farm.

The book is crowded with insights. For example, drip irrigation was invented in the 1930s by Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer, after he observed a tree growing big and lush in the desert, thanks to a nearby, overlooked leaking faucet. Little is also cautious about some recent innovations; 90% of the maize, soy and cotton grown in the USA now is genetically modified, mostly to be grown with high doses of herbicides. Pigweed has now evolved resistance to the herbicides and infests 70 million acres (28 million hectares) in the United States.

As we learned from professor Calestous Juma, earlier in this blog (The enemies of innovation), innovations often look awkward at first; it took years for the farm tractor to become agile enough to really compete with horses. It’s hard to tell which of the innovations that Little describes will produce the food of the future. But big data, robots and more indoor farming may all be here to stay. Little starts and closes her book with a vignette about Chris and Annie Newman, a young couple in Northern Virginia raising pigs and chickens, and fruit and nut trees, with permaculture. The Newmans are pro-environment and pro-technology; they look forward to the day when they can use weeding robots on their farm. It’s just possible that digital technology of the future might tempt more young people to invest in highly productive, organic family farming.

Further reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

Validating local knowledge July 26th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Paul and I have written earlier stories in this blog about the yapuchiris, expert farmer-researcher-extensionists on the semi-arid, high plains of Bolivia. At 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 feet), seasoned farmers know how to observe plants and animals, clouds and stars, to predict the weather, especially to answer the Big Question on their minds: when will the rains start, so I can plant my crop?

All of the yapuchiris know some traditional ways of predicting the weather. Some yapuchiris also write their observations on a special chart they have designed with their agronomist colleagues at Prosuco, an organization in La Paz. The chart, called a Pachagrama, allows the yapuchiris to record the weather each day of the year, just by penciling in a few dots, so they can see if their predictions come true, and how the rains, frosts and hail affect their crops.

It can be daunting to prove the value of local knowledge, but it is worth trying.

Eleodoro Baldivieso is an agronomist with Prosuco, which has spent much of the past year studying the results of the Pachagrama weather-tracking charts. As he explained to me recently, Prosuco took four complete Pachagramas (each one filled out over seven years) containing 42 cases; each case is a field observed over a single season by one of the yapuchiris. Comparing the predicted weather with the recorded weather allowed Prosuco to see if the Pachagramas had helped to manage risk, mainly by planting a couple of weeks early, on time, or two weeks late.

Frost, hail and unpredictable rainfall are the three main weather risks to the potato and quinoa crops on the Altiplano. In October, a little rain falls, hopefully enough to plant a crop, followed by more rain in the following months. Average annual rainfall is only 800 mm (about 30 inches) in the northern Altiplano, and a dry year can destroy the crop.

For the 42 cases the study compared the yapuchiri’s judgement on the harvest (poor, regular, or good) with extreme weather events (like frost), and the planting date (early, middle or late) to see if variations in the planting date (based on weather predictions) helped to avoid losses and bring in a harvest.

The study found that crops planted two weeks apart can suffer damage at different growth stages of the plant. For example, problems with rainfall are especially risky soon after potatoes are planted, affecting crops planted early and mid-season. Frost is more of a risk for early potatoes at the start of the season, and for late potatoes when they are flowering. Hail is devastating when it falls as the mid and late planted potatoes are flowering.

The yapuchiris are often able to accurately predict frost, hail, and rainfall patterns months in advance. Scientific meteorology does a good job predicting such weather a few days away, but not several months in advance. When you plant your potatoes, modern forecasts cannot tell you what the weather will be like when the crop is flowering. Forecasting the weather in a challenging environment is helpful, at least some of the time. Planting two weeks early or two weeks late may help farmers take best advantage of the rain, but then expose the crop to frost or hail. Changing the planting dates can help farmers avoid one risk, but not another.

The weather is so complicated that risk can never be completely managed. And because scientific meteorology cannot predict hail and frost months in advance, local knowledge fills a void that science may never replace.

Previous blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

To see the future

Predicting the weather

Watch the video

Recording the weather

Watch the presentation by Eleodoro Baldivieso (in Spanish)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana and Santos Quispe are the yapuchiris who participated in this research. Thanks to Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, and Sonia Laura of Prosuco for reading and commenting on a previous version of this story. The first two photos are courtesy of Prosuco.

VALIDANDO LOS CONOCIMIENTOS LOCALES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de julio del 2020

Paul y yo hemos escrito historias anteriores en este blog sobre los Yapuchiris, expertos agricultores-investigadores y extensionistas en el Altiplano semiárido boliviano. A los 4000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores experimentados saben cómo observar plantas y animales, nubes y estrellas para predecir el clima, especialmente para responder a la Gran Pregunta en sus mentes ¿cuándo comenzarán las lluvias para yo pueda sembrar mi chacra?

Todos los Yapuchiris conocen algunas formas tradicionales de predecir el tiempo. Algunos Yapuchiris también apuntan sus observaciones en un cuadro especial que han diseñado con sus colegas, los ingenieros agrónomos de Prosuco, una organización en La Paz. El cuadro, llamado Pachagrama, permite a los Yapuchiris registrar el tiempo cada día del año, con sólo dibujar algunos puntos, para que puedan ver si sus predicciones se hagan realidad y como las lluvias, heladas y granizadas afectan sus cultivos.

Puede ser difĂ­cil comprobar ese conocimiento local, pero vale la pena intentarlo.

El Ing. Eleodoro Baldivieso, de Prosuco, ha pasado gran parte del año pasado estudiando los resultados de los Pachagramas. Cómo él me explicó hace poco, Prosuco tomó cuatro Pachagramas completos (de siete campañas agrícolas) y 42 casos; cada caso es una parcela observada durante una campaña por uno de los yapuchiris. El comparar el tiempo previsto con el tiempo registrado permitió a Prosuco ver si los Pachagramas habían ayudado a manejar el riesgo, principalmente mediante la siembra temprana (dos semanas antes), intermedia y tardía (dos semanas después).

Las heladas, el granizo y la lluvia impredecible son los tres principales riesgos meteorológicos para los cultivos de papa y quinua en el Altiplano. En octubre cae un poco de lluvia, con la esperanza de que sea suficiente para sembrar un cultivo, seguida hasta marzo por más lluvia. La precipitación media anual es sólo 800 mm en el Altiplano Norte, y un año seco puede destruir la cosecha, lo mismo que un año con mucha lluvia.

Para los 42 casos el estudio comparó la evaluación del Yapchiri de la cosecha (malo, regular, o bueno) con eventos extremos de tiempo (como heladas), con las fechas de siembra (temprano, mediano, o tarde) para ver si el variar la fecha de siembra (basado en el pronóstico del Yapuchiri) ayudó a evitar pérdidas y lograr una cosecha.

El estudio halló que los cultivos sembrados a dos semanas de diferencia pueden sufrir daño en diferentes etapas de crecimiento da las plantas. Por ejemplo, los problemas con las lluvias son especialmente arriesgados poco después de la siembra de la papa, afectando más a la siembra tempran, a principios y mediados de la temporada. Las heladas son más riesgosas para las papas tempranas al comienzo de la temporada, y para las papas tardías justo en la época de floración. El granizo es devastador para las siembras intermedias y tardías, si la papa está en flor.

Los Yapuchiris a menudo son capaces de predecir con certeza las heladas, el granizo y los patrones de lluvia, con meses de antelación. La meteorología científica a menudo puede predecir ese tiempo a unos pocos días, pero con meses de anticipación. Cuando siembras tu papa, el pronóstico moderno no te puede decir cómo será el tiempo cuando tu cultivo está en flor. Pronosticar el tiempo en un entorno desafiante es útil, al menos parte del tiempo. Sembrar dos semanas antes o dos semanas después puede ayudar a los agricultores a aprovechar mejor la lluvia, pero se expone el cultivo a las heladas o granizo, cuando es más vulnerable. Cambiar las fechas de siembra puede ayudar a los agricultores a evitar uno de los riesgos, pero no siempre a todos.

El clima es tan complicado que el riesgo nunca puede ser manejado completamente. Y debido a que la meteorologĂ­a cientĂ­fica no puede predecir el granizo y las heladas con meses de anticipaciĂłn, el conocimiento local llena un vacĂ­o que la ciencia tal vez nunca reemplace.

Historias previas del blog

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Conocer el futuro

Prediciendo el clima

Ver el video

Hacer un registro del clima

Vea la presentación por Eleodoro Baldivieso (en español)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight. Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, FĂ©lix Yana y Santos Quispe son los Yapuchiris que participaron en esta investigaciĂłn. Gracias a Eleodoro Baldivieso, MarĂ­a Quispe, y Sonia Laura de Prosuco por leer y hacer comentaros sobre una versiĂłn previa de esta historia. Las primeras dos fotos son cortesĂ­a de Prosuco.

Pay and learn July 19th, 2020 by

Extensionists often give information away for free, but selling it may get you a more tuned-in audience. This is the conclusion of researcher GĂ©rard Zoundji and colleagues in a recent paper published in Experimental Agriculture.

Zoundji compared three groups of people in West Africa who had received DVDs with farmer learning videos. Several video collections covered topics related to vegetable production or how to manage the parasitic weed striga. The videos could be shown in multiple local languages, or in English or French.

When NGOs in Benin gave the DVDs to organized farmers, they tended to watch the videos, and they experimented with planting styles and other ideas shown in the videos. But some farmers who got DVDs for free did not show the videos to friends and neighbors, complaining that they needed fuel for their generators, or other support.

Audience appreciation improved when DVDs were shared by NGOs that were committed to the topic and the communities. In Mali, organizations that had taught striga management realized the importance of the weed, and arranged screenings of the videos in villages. Professional staff from the NGOs were on hand to answer people’s questions after the show. The NGOs left copies of the DVD with local people who usually self-organized to watch the videos again later, to study the content. Farmers experimented keenly with the ideas they had learned, such as planting legumes between rows of cereal crops, to control striga naturally.

But the big payoff came when farmers bought the DVDs cold, off-the-shelf in shops. Most only paid a dollar or two for the DVDs on vegetable production, but buying the information gave it value. All of these paying customers watched the videos and most of them showed the videos at home to friends and neighbors. They found the agricultural ideas useful; some bought drip irrigation equipment they had seen on screen. Others learned to manage nematodes (microscopic worms) without chemical pesticides.

Farmers who bought the DVDs also experimented with the digital technology used to show the videos. Nearly 15% bought DVD players to watch the videos. Some loaned the DVDs to their children at university, who copied the DVDs from the disk, converted them to a phone-friendly format (3gp) and then loaded the videos onto the mobile devices of friends and colleagues.

Selling information draws a self-selected audience: interested people who will take the content seriously. Expert extensionists who appreciate the videos can also demonstrate their value by organizing video shows that respectfully engage with the communities and their leaders. But when DVDs are simply given away, even though they contain cinematic-quality videos on crucial topics, farmers may watch the videos and value them, or not. People who pay for information see its importance.

Further reading

Zoundji, GĂ©rard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. VodouhĂŞ, Jeffery W. Bentley, and Loes Witteveen 2020 Commercial Channels vs Free Distribution and Screening of Learning Videos: A Case Study from Benin and Mali. Experimental Agriculture. DOI: 10.1017/S0014479720000149.  

Related blog stories

Private screenings

Call anytime

Sorghum and millets on the rise

Watch the videos

The 11 fighting striga videos

And the 9 vegetable videos:

Managing vegetable nematodes

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

The migrations of farmers July 12th, 2020 by

Last week I wrote about the migrations of our hunter-gatherer ancestors out of Africa. By 10,000 years ago people had colonized Eurasia, the Americas, Africa, Australia and the large islands near Southeast Asia without developing agriculture. What happens next is described in the second half of Peter Bellwood’s First Migrants.

Complementary studies by archaeologists and plant geneticists give a good picture of early agriculture in various parts of the world. Food plants such as wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas and lentils, were cultivated rather than gathered from the wild around 9,500 years ago, starting in the Fertile Crescent. People also kept cattle, sheep and goats.

Crop plants varied by region, as agriculture began to spread, depending on which food plants occurred naturally.

Center of origin Some key species domesticated
Fertile Crescent
(Middle East)
Wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas, lentils, cattle, sheep, goats
China (Yellow &
Yangtze River Basins)
Rice, broomcorn millet, foxtail millet, soy, pigs
New Guinea Highlands Taro, bananas, sugar cane
Sub-Saharan Africa
(north of the rainforest)
Pearl millet, African rice, sorghum, yams
Andes Potatoes, sweetpotatoes, other roots and tubers, llamas, alpacas
Southern Mexico Maize, beans
Eastern USA Sunflowers, other crops (now mostly lost)

Bellwood argues that ancient farmers spread their languages and their crops together, across large regions. As farming produced more food per hectare of land than hunting and gathering, populations of agrarian peoples grew, and within a few centuries began to expand into the lands of their hunter-gatherer neighbors. Over thousands of years, farming peoples colonized much of the world, before states or grand civilizations appeared. Along the way farmers absorbed at least some of the native peoples they met. When a language is spread over a large area, it can eventually break up into several different languages. Each generation makes small changes in their speech, which accumulate over the centuries, evolving into different languages.

Starting in the Fertile Crescent, speakers of Indo-European languages took their wheat, barley, peas, sheep, goats and cattle to cover most of Europe, Persia and eventually Northern India.

As many as six language families began in what is now China and spread from there to most of East Asia.   Most spectacularly, one of these language families, Austronesian, was spread by farmers who took boats from the Asian mainland to Taiwan, then to the Philippines, and on to the Bismarck Archipelago. In the islands of Southeast Asia, the Austronesians abandoned rice cultivation in favor of the fruits and roots domesticated in New Guinea. Armed with double-hulled canoes and a deep knowledge of navigation, the Austronesian speakers then went on the settle the Oceanic Islands from Polynesia in the east to Madagascar in the west, bringing bananas to Africa fifteen centuries ago.

On the other hand, some crops have spread from one neighboring group of people to the next, without the mass movement of people and languages. Maize, for one, was domesticated in southern Mexico, and spread north, into the southwestern US by 2100 BC, as the seed of this high-yielding crop was spread from one group to the next. Yet in many cases, ancient farmers did migrate across large areas, taking their native languages, and their familiar crops with them.

Further reading

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Merrill, W. L., Hard, R. J., Mabry, J. B., Fritz, G. J., Adams, K. R., Roney, J. R., & MacWilliams, A. C. 2009 The diffusion of maize to the southwestern United States and its impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.106(50), 21019-21026.

Related blog stories

Our African ancestors

Anasazi beans

The sunflower: From Russia with love, and oil

The old cat and mouse game

Design by Olean webdesign