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Farming with trees January 19th, 2020 by

On a rocky hillside an hour from the city of Cochabamba, agronomist Germán Vargas points out a molle tree. It’s growing from a crack in a sandstone boulder with little or no soil. Native trees are well adapted to such conditions and don’t need much to survive, Germán observes.

Molle can be cut for good firewood, but it also casts an inviting shade, with a thick carpet of fallen leaves. Trees grown on farms also have multiple uses. Some have deep roots that bring up nutrients from beneath the top soil. Even in places like Cochabamba, with a long dry season, many trees stay green all year round. The trees have found water to keep their leaves moist, despite the bone-dry subsoil. Germ√°n explains that farming with trees, or agroforestry, mimics natural forests, where rich soils are created without irrigation or fertilizer.

Four years ago, Germ√°n and two colleagues bought some land to put their ideas on agroforestry into practice. They now have 1500 apple trees in a 4-hectare orchard, on a former onion farm, where the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had depleted the soil of nutrients.

Germ√°n and his friends bought some apple seedlings from a local nursery. They chose improved Brazilian apple varieties, such as Eva and Princesa, which do well in the highland tropics of South America, where it can get cool, but does not freeze.

Germ√°n and his colleagues plant a few more trees every year. They start each new planting by digging a trench every two to three meters (depending on the slope), to let water infiltrate the soil. They throw the soil just uphill of the trench to create a barrier, slowing down the runoff of water and trapping sediment.

Germ√°n is careful not to scrape the soil surface with hand tools; the top soil is so thin that rough handling could remove it all. They add a little compost to the soil, mimicking a natural forest, where fallen leaves and trees rot and release nutrients back into the soil. However, forests also have an understory, so potatoes, maize, lettuce, amaranth, rye and other plants are sown between the trees. After planting the vegetables, a straw mulch keeps down the weeds.

Other trees are planted among the apples, including natives like molle and exotic species, which are monitored to see if they can make a positive contribution. Germ√°n brought seed of the chachafruto tree from Colombia, for example. The plant is adapting well. When the only date palm in Cochabamba, another non-native species, dropped a cluster of dates in a city park, Germ√°n salvaged the seed and planted some on the farm. The non-fruit trees make useful leaf litter, adding nutrients and helping to keep the soil moist.

The apples were remarkably free of mildew, mites, fruit flies and other common pests, but even if they were to appear, Germ√°n avoids using pesticides. The team managing the orchard makes a spray with cow manure, raw sugar, bone meal, sulfur, ash and lime. Reasoning that all stone has mineral nutrients, they add a little ‚Äúrock flour,‚ÄĚ made by grinding a soft, local, sedimentary stone (shale). A culture of beneficial microorganisms is added to ferment the mix in sealed drums. The agroforesters culture the microorganisms themselves, but they get the starting culture in the local forest, bringing in a few handfuls of fallen leaves that have started to decompose. The sulfur and the lime come from the farm supply store. This sulfur blend is sprayed about 5 times a year on the trees, and it seems to be working, since the apples have almost no pests, except for birds, and the annual plants are thriving.

This innovative agroforestry system needs regular attention and it is obviously a lot of work, especially at first, because it is established by hand, without machinery. Some of the radishes have gone to seed, and in a few beds the weeds are lush and healthy, waiting to be cut down for the next vegetable crop.

Farmers can learn from forests to make better use of water, conserve the soil and manage pest and disease naturally, thanks to the diversity of plants. Farming with trees can yield a good harvest of fruits and vegetables, while building and sustaining soils.

Related blog stories

Apple futures

What counts in agroecology

Gardening against all odds

Enlightened agroecology

Watch some related videos

SLM02 Fanya juu terraces shows how to make infiltration trenches, that form terraces.

SLM03 Grevillea agroforestry

SLM08 Parkland agroforestry

Scientific names

The molle tree is Schinus molle

The chachafruto tree (widespread in South America) is Erythrina edulis

Note

Sulfur deficiency is a problem in apples. The symptoms are similar to nitrogen deficiency, including pale leaves. Sulfur deficiency can be corrected by sprays (Westwood 1993: 200-201).

Westwood, Melvin Neil 1993 Temperate-Zone Pomology: Physiology and Culture. Third edition. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Germán Vargas, Marcelina Alarcón and Freddy Vargas, the agroforesters. Germán is the executive administrator of the NGO Agroecología y Fe.

LA AGRICULTURA CON √ĀRBOLES

En una ladera rocosa a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba, el ingeniero agr√≥nomo Germ√°n Vargas se√Īala un molle. Crece en una grieta de una roca arenisca, con poca o ninguna tierra. Los √°rboles nativos est√°n bien adaptados a estas condiciones y no necesitan mucho para sobrevivir, observa Germ√°n.

El molle hace buena le√Īa, pero tambi√©n da una rica sombra, con una gruesa alfombra de hojas ca√≠das. Los √°rboles en el agro tambi√©n tienen m√ļltiples usos. Algunos tienen ra√≠ces profundas que traen los nutrientes de debajo del suelo. Incluso en lugares como Cochabamba, con una larga √©poca seca, muchos √°rboles se mantienen verdes durante todo el a√Īo. Los √°rboles han encontrado agua para mantener sus hojas h√ļmedas, a pesar del subsuelo seco. Germ√°n explica que la agricultura con √°rboles, o la agroforester√≠a, imita a los bosques naturales, donde se crean suelos ricos sin irrigaci√≥n ni fertilizantes.

Hace cuatro a√Īos, Germ√°n y dos colegas compraron un terreno para poner en pr√°ctica sus ideas sobre agroforester√≠a. Ahora tienen 1500 manzanos en un huerto de 4 hect√°reas, en una antigua granja de cebollas, donde el uso intensivo de fertilizantes qu√≠micos y pesticidas hab√≠a agotado los nutrientes del suelo.

Germ√°n y sus compa√Īeros compraron algunos plantines de manzana en un vivero local. Escogieron variedades mejoradas de manzanos brasile√Īos, como Eva y Princesa, que se desarrollan bien en los tr√≥picos de las alturas de Am√©rica del Sur, donde puede hacer fr√≠o, pero no se congela.

Germ√°n y sus colegas plantan unos pocos √°rboles m√°s cada a√Īo. Comienzan cada nueva plantaci√≥n cavando una zanja cada dos o tres metros (dependiendo de la pendiente), para dejar que el agua se infiltre en el suelo. Lanzan la tierra justo cuesta arriba de la zanja para crear una barrera, frenando el escurrimiento de agua y atrapando el sedimento.

Germ√°n tiene cuidado de no raspar la superficie del suelo con herramientas; el suelo negro de la superficie es tan delgado que sin tener cuidado ser√≠a posible quitarlo todo. A√Īaden un poco de abono al suelo, imitando un bosque natural, donde las hojas y los √°rboles ca√≠dos se pudren y liberan nutrientes de nuevo al suelo. Sin embargo, los bosques tambi√©n tienen un sotobosque, por lo que las papas, el ma√≠z, la lechuga, el amaranto, el centeno y otras plantas se siembran entre los √°rboles. Despu√©s de plantar las verduras, un mantillo de paja mantiene las malas hierbas.

Entre las manzanas se plantan otros √°rboles, incluyendo especies nativas como el molle y especies ex√≥ticas, que son monitoreadas para ver si pueden hacer una contribuci√≥n positiva. Germ√°n trajo semillas del √°rbol de chachafruto de Colombia, por ejemplo. La planta se est√° adaptando bien. Cuando la √ļnica palmera datilera de Cochabamba, otra especie no nativa, dej√≥ caer un racimo de d√°tiles en un parque de la ciudad, Germ√°n recuper√≥ algunas semillas y las plant√≥ en la finca. Los √°rboles no frutales botan hojas, a√Īadiendo nutrientes y ayudando a mantener el suelo h√ļmedo.

Las manzanas estaban notablemente libres de mildiu, √°caros, moscas de la fruta y otras plagas comunes, pero incluso si aparecieran, Germ√°n evita el uso de pesticidas. El equipo que maneja el huerto fumiga con un biol hecho de esti√©rcol de vaca, chancaca, huesos molidos, azufre, cenizas y cal. Razonando que toda piedra tiene nutrientes minerales, le agregan un poco de “harina de roca”, hecha al moler una piedra sedimentaria suave, local (lutita). Para fermentar la mezcla, agregan un cultivo de microorganismos buenos a los tambores sellados. Los agroforestales cultivan sus propios microorganismos, pero obtienen la cultura inicial en el bosque local, trayendo unos pocos pu√Īados de hojas ca√≠das que han comenzado a descomponerse. Compran el azufre y la cal en la tienda agropecuaria. Fumigan el biol con azufre unas 5 veces al a√Īo en los √°rboles, y parece que funciona, ya que las manzanas casi no tienen plagas, excepto los p√°jaros, y las plantas anuales est√°n prosperando.

Este innovador sistema agroforestal necesita atención regular y obviamente es mucho trabajo, especialmente al principio, porque se establece a mano, sin maquinaria. Algunos de los rábanos han empezado a echar semilla, y en algunas camas las hierbas silvestres son exuberantes y saludables, esperando ser cortadas para el siguiente cultivo de hortalizas.

Los agricultores pueden aprender de los bosques a hacer un mejor uso del agua, conservar el suelo y manejar las plagas y enfermedades de forma natural, gracias a la diversidad de plantas. La agricultura con √°rboles puede producir una buena cosecha de frutas y verduras, a la vez que construye y mantiene los suelos.

Otros blogs sobre el tema

Manzanos del futuro

Lo que cuenta en la agroecología

Un mejor futuro con jardines

La luz de la agroecología

Videos relacionados

SLM02 Terrazas fanya juu muestra cómo hacer zanjas de infiltración, que forman terrazas.

SLM03 Agroforestería con grevillea

SLM08 Agroforestería del bosque ralo

Nombres científicos

El molle es Schinus molle

El chachafruto (árbol bien distribuido en Sudamérica) es Erythrina edulis

Nota

La deficiencia de azufre es un problema com√ļn en los manzanos. Los s√≠ntomas son parecidos a los de la deficiencia de nitr√≥geno, incluso las hojas p√°lidas. La deficiencia de azufre puede ser corregida con fumigaciones (Westwood 1993: 200-201).

Westwood, Melvin Neil 1993 Temperate-Zone Pomology: Physiology and Culture. Third edition. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Germán Vargas, Marcelina Alarcón y Freddy Vargas, por su ejemplo con la agroforestería. Germán es el administrador ejecutivo de la ONG Agroecología y Fe.

Wicked seed January 5th, 2020 by

A recent story in The Economist (28 September 2019, page 18) highlights the low maize yields in Africa, and urges for greater use of hybrid maize seed. The Economist also has harsh words for NGOs: ‚ÄúAfrican governments have mostly ignored the arguments from some charities, that old-fashioned farming is best and that wicked, profit-seeking seed firms should be barred.‚ÄĚ

This caricature is misleading in two ways: many NGOs promote modern seed; and seed companies have more serious enemies than any ‚Äúcharity‚ÄĚ.

Cassava is a big staple food in Africa, like maize. Unlike maize, which is planted using true seed, cassava is propagated with stem cuttings. Seed companies rarely sell stems or other vegetative planting material, even for major crops, other than potato. This is mainly for practical reasons; cuttings, vines and roots are bulky, and perishable. Farmers usually trade for cassava stems, get them from friends for free, or buy them from producers or traders.

Donor-funded projects, such as UPOCA and the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, have also played an important part in making cassava planting material available, worked closely with NGOs to distribute the stems of new, disease-resistant varieties of cassava to farmers in various African countries. This progressive and modern system is neither old-fashioned nor wicked.

It‚Äôs not just cassava where such initiatives have helped make planting material available.  In Kenya, public research, like the 3G Seed Strategy, supported the production of high-quality seed potatoes (not true seed, but the small tubers that farmers plant). The project purposefully channeled the production and sale of the little seed potatoes through private companies and commercial farms, to promote sustainable business.

The real enemies of private seed companies include crooks who sell fake seed. To its credit, The Economist did mention counterfeit seed as a problem, but it is worse than the newspaper let on. In a visit to Premier Seed, a Nigerian company, I was impressed by their expertise and competence. They had a professional plant breeder, a tidy lab growing maize seedlings in rows of dishes, and an orderly warehouse stacked with bags of seed. I never heard Premier or other Nigerian seed enterprises complain about NGOs or ‚Äúcharities‚ÄĚ.  The real problem was counterfeit seed. Criminals would buy cheap maize grain in the market, dye it to make it look like treated seed, and package it in bags printed to look like those of a real company. Farmers only realized they‚Äôd been sold a dud at harvest time. Counterfeit seed smeared the good name of the legitimate companies, whose packaging had been copied.

Life is difficult for seed companies trying to survive, especially the smaller ones. Even when the Nigerian government buys large amounts of seed from private companies to distribute to smallholders, as it does from time to time, there’s a twist. The government can be slow to pay its bills, with the result that a small company’s capital cash flow is blocked and capital is tied up for a year or more. Bigger firms with deeper pockets can more easily wait to be paid.

Few NGOs argue that old-fashioned farming is best. Most promote a sensible blend of tradition and innovation in agricultural practices and respect the pioneering.

There is a reason why seed companies may be seen as wicked. As Paul and colleagues recently explained in two videos (one from Guatemala and one from Malawi), some seed laws threaten farmers’ right to use their own seed.

African seed enterprises do have real problems, but ‚Äúcharities‚ÄĚ are not among them. Governments should help national seed companies by arresting the fake seed sellers, and paying for seed on time. Farmers have a right to keep their own seed, but they need modern seed as well. NGOs and research centers often work together to provide such seed, especially for crops that private companies ignore.  

Further reading

For Nigerian seed enterprises see:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Olupomi Ajayi and Kehinde Adelugba 2011 ‚ÄúNigeria: Clustered Seed Companies,‚ÄĚ pp. 38-64. In, P. Van Mele, J.W. Bentley & R. Gu√©i (eds.) African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp.

For projects in Africa that have promoted modern seed of cassava, potatoes (and other crops) see:

Andrade-Piedra, Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

And this one on the benefits of good, commercial cassava stems

Quality cassava planting material

Trash to treasure December 29th, 2019 by

Food waste could be made into useful compost, instead of mixing it with plastic and other inorganic trash, as Ana recently explained on a panel discussion on Radio Cepra in Cochabamba. She was invited by a local NGO, Alerta Verde (Green Alert), along with two agronomists who encourage schools and families to make compost, and a student who is writing his thesis on urban families who compost. The first two panelists responded to the concerns of city dwellers: how to make compost while avoiding flies, rodents and bad smells. Old ideas from gardening manuals were recycled, such as adding a layer of barnyard manure to the compost, an impractical idea for city people who don’t have livestock.

The moderator, Arnold Brouwer, asked Ana to talk about her 20 years of experience making urban compost.  We are one of the few households that has been composting regularly in Cochabamba. There was a certain urgency to the question. During the recent unrest surrounding the Bolivian elections of 20 October 2019 (and the president‚Äôs exile), the people who live near Cochabamba‚Äôs municipal landfill blocked the entrance to the dump. It‚Äôs a long story, but the landfill‚Äôs neighbors are tired of the large, stinky dump and they took advantage of the turmoil to voice their anger. Their blockade was simply the latest in many protests.

Not for the first time, trash piled up in the streets. On 23 November, a convoy of 12 garbage trucks, with police and military escort, broke through the roadblock, but on the way out, local people attacked them and took eight soldiers hostage, besides smashing windshields and pelting the cars with stones. A settlement was negotiated the next day, but there have been constant demands since then for the city to take its waste elsewhere. Many people in the city have been left thinking that there must be a better way to manage our waste, and to make less of it.

The panelists on the radio talk show all agreed that the urban garbage is about 70% organic, including paper, garden trimmings and food waste that rots, becoming a smelly sludge that draws flies to the landfill. If the organic refuse could be composted, there would be less nuisance, and less garbage to collect and dispose of.

Arnold asked Ana how she makes compost. She explained to the radio-listeners how we dig a pit and fill it with organic waste from our kitchen. We also add old paper and some garden waste. When the pit is full, we usually cover it lightly with soil and leave it for up to year. Turning the waste definitely speeds up decomposition, and makes compost faster. But shoveling compost a lot of extra work. At our house we are not in a rush. We can wait a year for our compost to mature.

‚ÄúSo, this is relaxed composting,‚ÄĚ Arnold quipped.

Ana agreed, but went on to paint a bigger picture. The city has a debt to the countryside. We bring in valuable organic matter, as food, and we let much of it rot, untreated and unrecycled, but mixed with inorganic trash, mainly plastic. While rubbish can be composted at home, it could be tackled by the local government.

Ana reminded the listeners that the recently abandoned train tracks from Cochabamba to Aiquile (a provincial town) are still usable. The municipal government could use the tracks to haul organic refuse out of the city and compost it on large, adjacent tracts of degraded land. The compost could be covered with some soil, and when ready, trees could be planted in the reclaimed land. This would still deprive the farms of organic matter, but it would make productive use of the organic fertilizer.

It was a creative solution, well suited to the conditions of semi-arid Cochabamba. Every town and city will have its own locally appropriate ways of recycling refuse. But we must stop wasting food. Whether it’s an orange peel or an aged salad, kitchen and garden refuse are a valuable resource that should be recycled as organic fertilizer.

Increasingly in developed and developing countries alike, composting organic waste is becoming a viable business. Some municipal governments in Europe make compost from green waste (such as lawn cuttings), and burn food waste to generate electricity. With a little will and imagination, tropical municipalities could find their own, locally-appropriate ways to recycle the trash.

Related videos

Compost from rice straw

Composting to beat striga

Remembering an American king December 22nd, 2019 by

My mom was born in Moab, Utah, an area of outstanding natural beauty, famed for its mountains and red sandstone canyons. Long before Moab became one of the world‚Äôs top tourist destinations, Mom took me to visit another attraction, one that is much less well known. She drove me just north of the town to see the ‚ÄúKing of the World‚ÄĚ, a large stone relief sculpture, carved into a sandstone boulder. I vividly remember the sculpture. The boulder sat at the base of the cliff, down a dirt road, not too far from the highway. Mom explained that the sculpture was a self-portrait of the sculptor, and his horse.

I‚Äôve recently learned more about sculptor. His name was Aharron Andeew and he came to Moab in the 1930s, during the height of the Depression, a gloomy era in American history when jobs were scarce and rural poverty widespread. After his arrival, Andeew spent 15 months doing odd jobs while gardening and tending his small herd of goats. Andeew camped north of town on the ranch of a kind family, the Parriotts. This is where he carved his sculpture. It is so well done that he must have had formal training, but no one knows where. Andeew spoke with a foreign accent and my brother Scott remembers the old-timers calling him ‚Äúthe mad Russian.‚ÄĚ

The stone carving bears the following inscription:

1935

M.C.F. Hhaesus

America

Aharron Andeew

King America

King World

I have no idea what M.C.F Hhaesus means, but the self-portrait shows a man with a curved beak of a nose, wearing a Cossack’s fur hat, with a map of the world carved into it. His coat has two buttons, one carved in the shape of North and South America, while the other one represents the Old World.

Andeew had some odd behaviors. On Sundays he used to march up and down the road near his camp, carrying a rifle, with a sword in a scabbard. He was dressed in a great coat, bearing brass medals he had made himself. Andeew never threatened anyone, but in 1936 the townspeople firmly suggested that he leave town. When he got to Provo, Utah, he introduced himself as the King of the World, and he landed in a psychiatric hospital, where this gentle eccentric later died.

Few recall the people who ran Andeew out of town, but his presence is still felt through his unique piece of art. Art is often seen as a sublime form of communication, better than mere talk at revealing feelings and emotions. But art can also make a message last longer than simple verbal communication. Ancient peoples who lived off the land often left us art that depicts themselves and their animals, from cave paintings in Lascaux, to realistic stone carvings of cattle in Egypt and India, and the pre-Colombian big-horn sheep carved into boulders all around Moab itself.  Today, a stone sculpture in Moab reminds us that an immigrant sculptor, gardener and goat herder named Aharron Andeew was here 85 years ago, and that he had a grand imagination.

Visit the King

The King sculpture is no longer on the old Parriott Ranch. In 2009, the new land owner, Jennifer Speers, decided that she did not want the stone, but that it should be preserved. Speers donated the 30-ton rock to Grand County (the county that includes Moab). The sculpture was moved to the lawn of the Seniors Center, near the Allen Memorial Hospital, in Moab, Utah.

Further reading

Barker, Vicki 2010 Relocating Rock Art, A Moving Experience https://www.moabhappenings.com/Archives/historic1003RelocationRockArt_AMovingExperience.htm

Dudek, Robert 1986 The King of the World. http://www.riverguides.org/SDG/SDG1-4.pdf

Stiles, Jim 2015 Albert Christensen & Aharron Andeew: Eccentric Sculptors…& Kindred Spirits? https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/04/01/albert-christensen-aharron-andeew-eccentric-sculptors-kindred-spirits-by-jim-stiles/

Related blog

Dick’s Ice box

Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

‚ÄúHow can you stand to eat your old friend?‚ÄĚ one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,‚ÄĚ one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

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