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Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

The red bucket March 31st, 2019 by

I recently had a chance to visit some dairy farmers near Cochabamba. They live in a small community and are members of a dairy cooperative which was able to buy a refrigerated milk storage tank with support from the Bolivian government. Twice a day the farmers bring their metal milk cans to the collection center, a small brick building which houses a 1,000 liter storage tank.

The stainless-steel tank has an electric cooler to chill the milk and a paddle that gently stirs it. This keeps the milk fresh until a tank truck from the dairy collects the milk later in the day. After each milking, the farmer simply takes her milk to the center, avoiding the work of selling it door-to-door, or of making it into cheese.

The farmers are organized in groups of a dozen or so households, and they take turns running the collection center. This involves measuring the density of each delivery of milk with a little gadget that looks like a pistol (a density meter) to make sure that no water has been added, and jotting down how many liters each person brings in.

Every two weeks the co-op pays each farmer for their milk produced. It sounds simple but the reality is different, particularly in calculating the volume of milk each farmer delivers.

The farmers bring in one or two milk cans each time they come. The factory that makes the milk can labels each one “40 liters” but they only physically hold 39 liters. The staff at the co-op are not sure why this is. The farmers at the collection center have been known to naively give a neighbor credit for 40 liters, because the can looked full. Besides, the cans are not always full, so the milk from each family has to be measured accurately, in a special pail. Pouring the milk into the pail (while trying not to spill any) is a tedious task, and another transaction cost. But it has to be done well. The dairy and the cooperative will fine the farmers if they report more milk than they deliver.

Another problem is that farmers report whole liters to the dairy, often rounding down actual volumes.

At the meeting I attended, one young farmer complained bitterly about this. “Sometimes I bring in almost five liters, and they write down four!”

She went on to say that sometimes the person in charge is nice, and gives her credit for five liters, but most of her fellow farmers won’t do that. She singled out one other farmer, doña Irma, as being especially strict.

But doña Irma had a solution for that. “That’s why we have the red bucket,” she politely reminded the group. If someone has a little extra milk, they pour it into the red bucket. If someone needs milk to make up a liter, then can take it from the red bucket.”

Transaction costs can be higher for smaller producers. It may take as much time and effort to deliver 40 liters as to bring in 400. The collection center makes it easier to deliver milk, but it introduces a few new costs, such as the time it takes to run the center, and the risks of mis-measuring the milk.

The young farmer was still angry. No doubt some producers are more motivated to take milk from the red bucket than to add milk. Still, the red bucket was a local if imperfect solution to a nagging transaction cost.

Smallholders will make marketing and institutional innovations, like the red bucket, to stay profitable in a world where food systems are getting every more complex. At a time when many people are leaving the countryside, and multinational corporations are monopolizing the food supply, it’s good to know that at least some cooperatives are trying to work with smallholders so they can earn a decent living in their home communities.

Related blogs

Trust that works

It takes a family to raise a cow

Related videos

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Taking milk to the collection centreKeeping milk clean and fresh

Kicking the antibiotic habit March 24th, 2019 by

Humanity may be on the verge of a scary new world where antibiotics no longer work. An infected wound, for example from a scratch on a rusty nail, could be potentially fatal. Surgery would become much riskier. Common diseases such as tuberculosis would once more threaten the lives of millions.

The problem is that some disease-causing bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. The more antibiotics are used, the sooner these resistant bacteria are selected and the quicker they multiply. Over-prescription and the indiscriminate use of antibiotics are the main causes of the current crisis, both in people and in animals.

Research to develop new antibiotics is an expensive business and drug companies no longer find it profitable. However, there are immediate recommendations to follow:

1. Don’t use or prescribe antibiotics for people or livestock unless they are really needed.

2. Don’t give antibiotics to livestock unless they have a bacterial disease. And never put antibiotics in animal feed on a routine basis (a common practice to promote rapid growth of the young animals).

3. Wait five to seven days after giving antibiotics to dairy cows before using her milk, to ensure there are no more drugs in the milk.

So, recently when I was invited to visit a dairy cooperative near Cochabamba, I happily went to show them a video about how to keep milk free of antibiotics. A friendly extensionist, who worked for the co-op, showed me to their meeting hall.

The video was filmed in Nigeria, which the farmers didn’t mind, but when I said it was in English there was an audible groan of dismay from the audience. I solved that by translating the video out loud into Spanish.

The questions from an audience tell you a lot about how they perceived a talk or a video. And in this case, they were fully on topic. One young man, who works with his parents’ dairy herd, asked if mastitis (an udder infection caused by bacteria) could be cured with herbal remedies. He had understood the message about avoiding antibiotics, but the video had not explicitly mentioned mastitis, the most common disease of dairy cows and routinely treated with antibiotics.

The friendly extensionist said that the video was important, because the farmers were reluctant to discard any milk. When the dairy rejected their milk, farmers often made it into fresh cheese and sell it locally.

The Bolivian farmers liked this Nigerian dairy video. The circumstances are a bit different in Bolivia, for example farmers bring their own milk to the dairy, while the Fulani herders in the video send the milk with young men on motorbikes. But the basic recommendations to limit the development of antibiotic resistance are similar all over the world. Videos can be an important way to educate the public about the dangers of misusing antibiotics.

Related blog stories

Big chicken, little chicken

Trust that works

Further reading

The antibiotic resistance crisis

Watch the video

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Coming soon A video on mastitis on www.accessagriculture.org

Slow recovery March 3rd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

When a landscape has been stripped and ravished, like the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, recovery can take decades. In a previous story we met Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio and colleagues who were figuring out how to rear the wild native species of plants. But reforestation also takes social innovation.

Milton Villca is an agronomist from Chita, a village 45 kilometers from the town of Uyuni. Now he has returned to Chita to teach his relatives and former neighbors how to grow native plants as windbreaks to keep the fierce winds from carrying off the soil and burying the young quinoa plants.

The local farmers are starting to see the need to conserve the soil. It has taken a while. People are scattered thinly over the landscape, so when they first started plowing up the brushland to grow quinoa, in the 1970s, they thought of the land as a freebie, like air, so abundant that it had no value. They didn’t see that in the long run they would lose their fertile soil.

That is changing. Milton explains that two of the local farmers’ associations (APROA, AFNAQUI) are encouraging farmers to grow organic quinoa, and one requirement is to conserve the soil with live barriers of plants.

Just learning to establish live barriers like this can take years. First, people have to see the need. Community member Nilda Paucar explains that until 20 years ago, the wind came reliably after 4 October and for the rest of the year the wind was gentle enough to winnow the harvested quinoa grain, not like now, when the wind can blow up a dust cloud at any time of year, burying crops.

After seeing the need for windbreaks, people have to learn how to grow the native plants that form the live barriers. That is where a little local knowledge and some agronomic help can be a good thing. Paul and Marcella and I went with Milton and the community of Chita as they collected the tiny seed of khiruta, a wild shrub. Local people knock the seed off the plant into tubs. Then they sift and winnow the thousands of tiny seeds from the chafe.

As we watch, the people go right to work. This is a relatively new task for them, but they have mastered it.

The seed still has to be germinated in a nursery, which Milton manages in the nearby village of Chacala, with a local farmer, Teodocia Vásquez. Local farmer and llama herder, Ever Villca (Milton’s brother), explains that planting live barriers is only possible if people have support from an organization, for rearing the native plants in nurseries and delivering them to the community.

The experience with native plants has caught farmers’ imagination. Local resident Crecencio Laime has tried experimenting with wild plant seed, spreading it by hand on the ground and watering it, but germination was poor. “We have to keep trying,” he said, “We won’t always have the support of Milton or of an institution.”

Later, Modesta Villca (Milton’s aunt) told us that her husband has left five-meter wide, unplowed strips of native vegetation every 25 meters or so in his fields. We went to see these natural live barriers and they were beautiful, green hedgerows where wild vicuñas could browse and birds could nest. The family’s quinoa is also doing well, protected from the wind by these natural windbreaks.

As we watch (and film), the community plants seedlings of wild plants to make another live barrier. We see again that they know exactly what they are doing. Two people put the little shrubs in two parallel lines, while two men dig planting holes and two women gently lower the plants into the soil, removing the little black plastic bags from the nursery and thoughtfully collecting them so as not to leave any trash.

In the future it will be important to show the value of leaving natural windbreaks, and to appreciate the native flora. Making live barriers will still need to be made easier, but experiences like this are how farmers and researchers learn together to solve a problem. Their good attitudes and close-knit community will also go a long way. Next, the people of Chita are thinking of banding together to start their own nursery to grow native plants, so save their soil from the wind.

Watch the video

This video on live barriers has just been released. You can watch it or download it from free in English, or Spanish.

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Acknowledgement

Agronomist Milton Villca works for the Proinpa Foundation. His work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foudation.

Related blog stories

Awakening the seeds

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

RECUPERACIĂ“N LENTA

por Jeff Bentley, 3 de marzo del 2019

Cuando la vegetación natural ha sido despojada y destruida, como el sur del Altiplano boliviano, la regeneración puede tomar décadas. En una historia anterior conocimos al Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio y sus colegas que están descubriendo cómo multiplicar plantas silvestres nativas. Pero la reforestación también requiere innovación social.

Milton Villca es un agrónomo de Chita, un pueblo a 45 kilómetros de la ciudad de Uyuni. Ahora ha regresado a Chita para enseñar a sus parientes y antiguos vecinos cómo cultivar plantas nativas como rompevientos o barreras vivas para evitar que los fuertes vientos se lleven la tierra y entierren a las jóvenes quinuas.

Los agricultores locales están empezando a ver la necesidad de conservar el suelo. Ha sido un aprendizaje costoso en tiempo. La gente vive dispersa sobre el paisaje, así que cuando comenzaron a arar la tierra para cultivar quinua, en la década de 1970, pensaron que la tierra era gratis, como el aire, tan abundante que no tenía valor. No vieron venir las consecuencias a largo plazo, especialmente la pérdida de suelo fértil.

Eso está cambiando. Milton explica que dos de las asociaciones de agricultores locales (APROA, AFNAQUI) están alentando a los agricultores a cultivar quinua orgánica, y un requisito es conservar el suelo con barreras vivas de plantas.

Aprender a establecer barreras vivas puede llevar años. Primero, la gente tiene que ver la necesidad. Nilda Paucar, miembro de la comunidad, explica que hasta hace 20 años, el viento venía siempre después del 4 de octubre y que durante el resto del año el viento era suave como para aventar el grano de quinua cosechado, no como ahora, cuando el viento puede soplar con una nube de polvo en cualquier época del año, enterrando los cultivos.

Después de ver la necesidad de las barreras vivas, la gente tiene que aprender a cultivar las plantas nativas que las forman. Ahí es donde un poco de conocimiento local y ayuda agronómica sirve mucho. Paul, Marcella y yo fuimos con Milton y la comunidad de Chita mientras recogían la pequeña semilla de khiruta, un arbusto nativo, silvestre. Los lugareños ponen la semilla de la planta en bañadores. Avientan y limpian los miles de diminutas semillas.

Mientras observamos, la gente se pone manos a la obra. Esta es una actividad nueva para ellos, pero lo saben hacer muy bien.

La semilla es germinada en un vivero, que Milton maneja en la cercana aldea de Chacala, con una agricultora local, Teodocia Vásquez. Ever Villca (hermano de Milton), agricultor local y pastor de llamas, explica que plantar barreras vivas sólo es posible si la gente tiene el apoyo de una organización, para cultivar las plantas nativas en viveros y entregar las plantas a la comunidad.

La experiencia con plantas nativas ha captado la imaginaciĂłn de los agricultores. Crecencio Laime, un agricultor de la zona, ha intentado experimentar con semillas de plantas silvestres, esparciĂ©ndolas a mano en el suelo y regándolas, pero la germinaciĂłn fue pobre. “Tenemos que seguir intentándolo”, dijo, “No siempre tendremos el apoyo de Milton o de una instituciĂłn”.

Más tarde, Modesta Villca (tía de Milton) nos dijo que su marido ha dejado franjas de vegetación nativa sin ararlas de cinco metros de ancho a más o menos cada 25 metros en sus parcelas. Fuimos a ver estas barreras naturales vivas y eran hermosos arbustos verdes donde las vicuñas salvajes podían comer y los pájaros podían anidar. La quinua está protegida del viento por estos rompevientos naturales.

Mientras vemos (y filmamos), la comunidad planta plantines de arbustos nativos para hacer otra barrera viva. Vemos de nuevo que saben exactamente lo que están haciendo. Dos personas colocan los pequeños arbustos en dos líneas paralelas, mientras que dos hombres cavan agujeros para plantar y dos mujeres bajan suavemente las plantas en el suelo, sacando las pequeñas bolsas de plástico negro del vivero y recolectándolas cuidadosamente para no dejar basura.

En el futuro se valorará el dejar barreras vivas naturales. Y a apreciar la flora nativa. Tendrá que ser más fácil plantas barreras vivas, pero gracias a experiencias como ésta, los agricultores y los investigadores aprenden juntos a resolver un problema. Su buena disposición y su comunidad unida también serán de gran ayuda. Después, la gente de Chita está pensando en unirse para comenzar su propio vivero para cultivar plantas nativas, para salvar su suelo del viento.

Ver el video

Para ver más sobre el contexto de este blog, puede ver el video recién publicado en inglés y en español

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Agradecimientos

El Ing. Milton Villca trabaja para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Su trabajo es financiado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn de Cultivos de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Related blog stories

Despertando las semillas

Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua

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