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Community and microbes December 5th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

“In grad school they taught us budding plant pathologists that the objective of agriculture was to ’feed the plants and kill the bugs,” my old friend Steve Sherwood explained to me on a visit to his family farm near Quito, Ecuador. “But we should have been feeding the microbes in the soil, so they could take care of the plants,”

When Steve and his wife, Myriam Paredes, bought their five-hectare farm, Granja Urkuwayku, in 2000, it was a moonscape on the flanks of the highly eroded IlalĂł Volcano. The trees had been burned for charcoal and the soil had been stripped down to the bedrock, a hardened volcanic ash locally called cangahua that looked and felt like concrete. A deep erosion gulley was gouging a wound through the middle of the farm. It was a fixer-upper, which was why Steve and Myriam could afford it.

Now, twenty years later, the land is covered in rich, black soil, with green vegetable beds surrounded by fruit trees and native vegetation.

The first step to this rebirth was to take a tractor to the cangahua, to break up the bedrock so that water and compost could penetrate it. This was the only time Steve plowed the farm.

To build the broken stone into soil, Steve and Myriam added manure, much of it coming from some 100 chickens and 300 guinea pigs – what they describe as the “sparkplugs of the farm’s biological motor.”

By 2015, Urkuwayku seemed to be doing well. The farm has attracted over 300 partners, families that regularly buy a produce basket from the farm, plus extras like bread, eggs, mushrooms, honey, and firewood, in total bringing in about $1,000 a week. Besides their four family members, the farm also employs four people from the neighborhood, bringing in enough money to pay for itself, so Steve and Myriam don’t have to subsidize the farm with their salaries, from teaching. The nasty gulley is now filled in with grass-covered soil, backed up behind erosion dams. Runoff water collects into a 500,000-liter pond, used to irrigate the crops during the dry season.

But in 2015 Myriam and Steve tested the soil and were surprised to see that it was slowly losing its fertility.

They think that the problem was too much tillage and not enough soil cover. Hoeing manure into the vegetable beds was breaking down the soil structure and drying out the beds, killing the beneficial fungi. As Steve explains, “the fungi are largely responsible for building soil particles through their mycelia and sweat, also known as glomalin, a carbon-rich glue that is important for mitigating climate change.” The glomalin help to remove carbon from the air, and store it in the soil.

Then Steve befriended the administrator of a local plywood factory. The mill had collected a mountain of bark that the owner couldn’t get rid of. Steve volunteered to take it off their hands. The two top advantages of peri-urban farming are greater access to customers, and some remarkable sources of organic matter.

So the plywood factory started sending Steve dump-truck loads of bark (mostly eucalyptus). To get the microbes to decompose the bark, Steve composts sawdust with some organic matter from the floor of a local native forest. The microbe-rich sawdust is then mixed with the bark and carefully spread in deep layers between the rows of vegetables, which were now tilled as little as possible. The vegetables are planted in trays, and then transplanted to the open beds.

No matter how much bark and sawdust Steve and his team lay down, the soil always absorbs it. The soil seems to eat the bark, just as in a forest. The soil microbes thrive on the bark to create living structures, like mycelia: fungal threads that reach all the way through the vegetable beds, in between the bark-filled paths. Steve and Myriam have learned that the microbes have a symbiotic relationship with plants; microbes help a plant’s roots find moisture and nutrients, and in turn, the plant gives about a third of all of its energy from photosynthesis back to the microbes.

Myriam and Steve have seen that as the soil becomes healthier, their crops have fewer problems from insect pests and diseases. In large part, this is because of the successful marriage between plants and the ever-growing population of soil microbes. Urkuwayku is greener every year. It produces enough to feed a family and employ four people, while regularly supplying 300 families with top-notch vegetables, fruits, and other produce. A community of consumers supports the farm with income, while a community of microorganisms builds the soil and feeds the plants.

Previous Agro-Insight blog stories

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Enlightened agroecology, about Pacho Gangotena, ecological farmer in Ecuador who influenced Steve and Myriam

The guinea pig solution

Living Soil: A film review

Dung talk

A market to nurture local food culture

Experiments with trees

Related training videos on the Access Agriculture platform

Good microbes for plants and soil

Turning fish waste into fertiliser

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Mulch for a better soil and crop

COMUNIDAD Y MICROBIOS

“En la escuela de posgrado nos enseñaron a los futuros fitopatĂłlogos que el objetivo de la agricultura era ‘alimentar a las plantas y matar a los bichos’”, me explicĂł mi viejo amigo Steve Sherwood durante una visita a su granja familiar cerca de Quito, Ecuador. “Pero deberĂ­amos haber alimentado a los microbios del suelo, para que ellos cuidaran a las plantas”.

Cuando Steve y su esposa, Myriam Paredes, compraron su finca de cinco hectáreas, Granja Urkuwayku, en el año 2000, era un paisaje lunar en las faldas del erosionado volcán Ilaló. Los árboles habían sido quemados para hacer carbón y del suelo no quedaba más que la roca madre, una dura ceniza volcánica llamada “cangahua” que parecía hormigón. Una profunda cárcava erosionaba un gran hueco en el centro de la granja. La propiedad necesitaba mucho trabajo, y por eso Steve y Myriam podían acceder a comprarla.

Ahora, veinte años después, el terreno está cubierto de una rica tierra negra, con camellones verdes rodeados de árboles frutales y nativos.

El primer paso de este renacimiento fue meter un tractor a la cangahua, para romper la roca para que el agua y el abono pudieran penetrarla. Esta fue la Ăşnica vez que Steve arĂł la finca.

Para convertir la piedra rota en suelo, Steve y Myriam añadieron estiĂ©rcol; mucho venĂ­a de unas 100 gallinas y 300 cuyes, lo que la pareja describe como las “bujĂ­as del motor biolĂłgico de la granja.”

En 2015, Urkuwayku parecía ir bien. La granja ha atraído a más de 300 socios, familias que compran regularmente una canasta de productos de la granja, además de extras como pan, huevos, champiñones, miel y leña, en total aportando unos 1.000 dólares a la semana. Además de los cuatro miembros de su familia, la granja también da trabajo a cuatro personas locales. Ya que los ingresos a la granja pagan sus gastos, Steve y Myriam no tienen que subvencionarla con los sueldos que ganan como docentes. Barreras de conservación han llenado el barranco con tierra, ahora cubierta de pasto. El agua de escorrentía se acumula en un estanque de 500.000 litros, usado para regar los cultivos durante la época seca.

Pero en 2015 Myriam y Steve analizaron el suelo y se sorprendieron al ver que lentamente perdĂ­a su fertilidad.

Creen que el problema era el exceso de labranza y la falta de cobertura del suelo. La introducciĂłn de estiĂ©rcol en los camellones hortalizas estaba rompiendo la estructura del suelo y secando el suelo, matando los hongos beneficiosos. Como explica Steve, “los hongos se encargan en gran medida de construir las partĂ­culas del suelo a travĂ©s de sus micelios y su sudor, tambiĂ©n conocido como glomalina, un pegamento rico en carbono que es importante para mitigar el cambio climático”. La glomalina ayuda a eliminar el carbono del aire y a almacenarlo en el suelo.

Entonces Steve se hizo amigo del administrador de una fábrica local de madera contrachapada (plywood). La fábrica había acumulado un montonazo de corteza y el dueño no sabía cómo deshacerse de ello. Steve se ofreció a quitárselo de encima. Las dos grandes ventajas de la agricultura periurbana son un mayor acceso a los clientes y algunas fuentes fabulosas de materia orgánica.

Así que la fábrica de contrachapados empezó a enviar a Steve volquetadas de corteza (sobre todo de eucalipto). Para hacer que los microbios descompongan la corteza, primero Steve descompone aserrín con un poco de materia orgánica del suelo de un bosque nativo local. Luego, el aserrín rico en microbios se mezcla con la corteza y se esparce cuidadosamente en capas profundas entre los camellones de hortalizas, donde ahora se mueve el suelo lo menos posible. Las hortalizas se siembran en bandejas y luego se trasplantan al campo abierto.

No importa cuánta corteza y aserrín que Steve y su equipo pongan, la tierra siempre la absorbe. El suelo parece comerse la corteza, como en un bosque. Los microbios del suelo se alimentan de la corteza para crear estructuras vivas, como micelios: hilos de hongos que llegan hasta los camellones, entre los senderos llenos de corteza. Steve y Myriam han aprendido que los microbios tienen una relación simbiótica con las plantas; los microbios ayudan a las raíces de las plantas a encontrar humedad y nutrientes y, a su vez, la planta devuelve a los microbios la tercera parte de toda la energía que obtiene de la fotosíntesis.

Myriam y Steve han comprobado que a medida que el suelo se vuelve más sano, sus cultivos tienen menos problemas de plagas de insectos y enfermedades. En gran parte, esto se debe al exitoso matrimonio entre las plantas y la creciente población de microbios del suelo. Urkuwayku es más verde cada año. Produce lo suficiente para alimentar a una familia y emplear a cuatro personas, al tiempo que provee regularmente verduras, frutas y otros productos de primera calidad a 300 familias. Una comunidad de consumidores apoya a la granja con ingresos, mientras que una comunidad de microorganismos construye el suelo y alimenta a las plantas.

Previos blogs de Agro-Insight

Una revoluciĂłn para nuestro suelo

La luz de la agroecologĂ­a, acerca de Pacho Gangotena, agricultor ecolĂłgico en el Ecuador quien ha sido una influencia para Steve y Myriam

Experimentos con árboles

Reviving soils

The guinea pig solution

Living Soil: A film review

Dung talk

A market to nurture local food culture

Videos sobre temas relacionados en la plataforma de Access Agriculture

Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

El mulch mejora el suelo y la cosecha

Turning fish waste into fertiliser

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

 

Experimenting with intercrops November 28th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

For thousands of years, farmers have been mixing crops in their fields to meet the diverse needs of their families and to reduce the risk of crop failure. But to know which crops combine well with each other is not an easy matter, and often requires some experimentation to find out what works best for you, as I found out this year in our home garden.

Three years ago, when we moved into our renovated house in Peer, Belgium, we established a raised garden bed from partially rotted woody material and plant debris topped with compost and soil. As this so-called hĂĽgelkultur is a great way to keep the soil fertile and moist, we figured this was a good way for us to grow plants without the need for watering them, especially as we are often away from home for several weeks to produce training videos with farmers.

As with many people, Covid has kept us grounded for the past two years. Without international travels we decided we should spend more time growing our own food.

On our 10 meters long, 2 meters wide and 1.5-meter-high bed, my wife Marcella has been growing a diversity of herbs, spices, vegetables and sweet maize. While we tried to anticipate which plants would prefer to grow where exactly on the bed (on the lower end or on top, on the south or north-facing side, in partial shade of the nearby goat willow or in full sunlight), this was clearly something that needed us to try out and observe as we went along.

Last winter, I decided to establish three new raised beds, each aligned north-south and 1.5 meters apart. On one bed I would grow goose berries, blue honeysuckle and red currant; the middle bed would be for my red and yellow raspberries and on the bed closest to the little forest, I would grow a few varieties of blackberries. Unlike with annual plants which you can put in a different location each season, deciding on where to plant which shrub and which variety took some careful thinking. One needs to take into account the plant’s architecture, how vigorous it grows, how it copes with strong winds and what level of shade it tolerates.

Having planted all my shrubs, I felt we could do a little more. Leaving the soil bare while the shrubs were still young did not seem like a good idea. I still had some strawberry plants that I wanted to give a new location. The fast-growing raspberries would soon crowd out my strawberries. And strawberries do not  thrive well in shade, so I decided to plant them on the first bed.

A few months later, in the spring, Marcella thought that her tomato seedlings that she had raised in the warmth of the house were ready for transplanting. Again, we brainstormed around the kitchen table where best we could plant them. “Tomato plants have deep roots and tomatoes need a lot of sun, so let us plant them in between our strawberry plants,” I suggested. To keep the mature tomato plants from shading out the newly planted berry shrubs, we planted them on the north side of the shrubs.

Friends and family said it would not work: growing tomatoes outdoors is asking for trouble, as the tomatoes would rot before they ripen. This may have been true with our traditional wet summers, but given the changing climate I figured it could work. After all, we didn’t have a choice as we don’t have a greenhouse.

One day, I was discussing with Bram Moeskops who manages the Organic Farm Knowledge platform for IFOAM Organics Europe. While he was giving me a virtual guided tour on their excellent platform, it was a real coincidence that he showed me one particular factsheet:

“On this factsheet,” Bram explained, “we show a new technology that we are trying to promote, namely tomato-strawberry intercropping. As the strawberries provide a living mulch, it avoids splashing rainwater to get on the tomato plants”. This was a great new insight. This added benefit hadn’t occurred to me even though

I knew that spores of various soil fungi are typically spread by splashing rain and cause tomato diseases.

Our tomato plants thrived, and surprised every visitor. After three years of extremely warm and dry summers, this year turned out to be the opposite. And in the end, months of high humidity also affected our plants. It was of some comfort to hear that all gardeners had faced the same problem, even those with greenhouses.

As our climate is changing, we will need to continue to experiment with cropping patterns. And the more we learn the better. Experimenting with permanent crops can take years, so it will be all the more important to share the results widely. Innovative platforms such as the Organic Farm Knowledge platform and the Access Agriculture video platform offers great ideas and needed scientific insights to help us make better decisions.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Experiments with trees

Repurposing farm machinery

From Uniformity to Diversity

The rules and the players

Inspiring knowledge platforms

The Organic Farm Knowledge platform: https://organic-farmknowledge.org contains a wide range of tools and resources about organic agriculture in Europe.

Access Agriculture: https://www.accessagriculture.org is a specialised video platform with freely downloadable training videos on ecological farming with a focus on the Global South.

EcoAgtube: https://www.ecoagtube.org is the alternative to Youtube where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to ecological farming and circular economy.

 

Experimenteren met mengteelten

Al duizenden jaren mengen boeren gewassen op hun akkers om te voorzien in de uiteenlopende behoeften van hun gezinnen en om het risico op mislukte oogsten te verkleinen. Maar weten welke gewassen goed met elkaar combineren is geen eenvoudige zaak en vereist vaak wat experimenteren om uit te zoeken wat voor jou het beste werkt, zoals ik dit jaar in onze eigen tuin ontdekte.

Drie jaar geleden, toen we verhuisden naar ons gerenoveerde huis in Peer, BelgiĂ«, hebben we een verhoogd tuinbed aangelegd van gedeeltelijk verrot houtmateriaal en plantenresten, aangevuld met compost en aarde. Aangezien deze zogenaamde hĂĽgelbedden de grond vruchtbaar en vochtig houden, vonden we dit een goede manier om planten te kweken zonder dat we ze water hoefden te geven, vooral omdat we vaak enkele weken van huis zijn om trainingsvideo’s met boeren te maken.

Zoals bij veel mensen heeft Covid ons de afgelopen twee jaar met beide voeten op de grond gehouden. Zonder internationale reizen besloten we dat we meer tijd moesten besteden aan het verbouwen van ons eigen voedsel.

Op ons 10 meter lange, 2 meter brede en 1,5 meter hoge hĂĽgelbed, heeft mijn vrouw Marcella een verscheidenheid aan kruiden, specerijen, groenten en zoete maĂŻs gekweekt. Hoewel we probeerden in te schatten welke planten waar precies op het bed het liefst zouden groeien (onderaan of bovenaan, op het zuiden of op het noorden, in de halfschaduw van de nabijgelegen boswilg of in het volle zonlicht), was dit duidelijk iets dat we moesten uitproberen en gaandeweg observeren.

Afgelopen winter besloot ik drie nieuwe verhoogde bedden aan te leggen, elk noord-zuid gericht en 1,5 meter uit elkaar. Op het ene bed zou ik kruisbessen, honingbes en rode bes telen; het middelste bed zou bestemd zijn voor mijn rode en gele frambozen en op het bed dat het dichtst bij het bosje lag, zou ik een paar bramensoorten telen. Anders dan bij eenjarige planten, die je elk seizoen op een andere plaats kunt zetten, moet je goed nadenken over waar je welke struik en welk ras wilt planten. Je moet rekening houden met de architectuur van de plant, hoe sterk hij groeit, hoe hij tegen sterke wind kan en hoeveel schaduw hij verdraagt.

Nadat ik al mijn struiken had geplant, vond ik dat we nog wel wat meer konden doen. De grond kaal laten terwijl de struiken nog jong waren, leek me geen goed idee. Ik had nog een paar aardbeiplanten die ik een nieuwe plek wilde geven. De snelgroeiende frambozen zouden mijn aardbeien snel verdringen. En aardbeien gedijen niet goed in de schaduw, dus besloot ik ze op het eerste bed te planten.

In de lente, brainstormden we rond de keukentafel waar we het beste onze tomatenzaailingen konden uitplanten. “Tomatenplanten hebben diepe wortels en tomaten hebben veel zon nodig, dus laten we ze tussen onze aardbeienplanten planten,” stelde ik voor. Om te voorkomen dat de volgroeide tomatenplanten de pas geplante bessenstruiken in de schaduw zouden stellen, plantten we ze aan de noordkant van de struiken.

Vrienden en familie zeiden dat dit niet zou werken: tomaten in de openlucht kweken is vragen om problemen, omdat de tomaten zouden rotten voordat ze rijp waren. Dat was misschien waar met onze traditionele natte zomers, maar gezien het veranderende klimaat dacht ik dat het zou kunnen werken. We hadden tenslotte geen keus, want we hebben geen serre.

Op een dag was ik in gesprek met Bram Moeskops, die het platform voor biologische landbouwkennis van IFOAM Organics Europe beheert. Terwijl hij me een virtuele rondleiding gaf op hun uitstekende platform, was het een echt toeval dat hij me Ă©Ă©n specifieke factsheet liet zien:

“Op deze factsheet,” legde Bram uit, “laten we een nieuwe technologie zien die we proberen te promoten, namelijk de tomaat-aardbei mengteelt. Omdat de aardbeien een levende mulch vormen, wordt vermeden dat opspattend regenwater op de tomatenplanten terechtkomt”. Dit was een geweldig nieuw inzicht. Dit extra voordeel was niet bij me opgekomen, hoewel ik wist dat sporen van verschillende bodemschimmels gewoonlijk worden verspreid door opspattend regenwater en alzo tomatenziektes veroorzaken.

Onze tomatenplanten floreerden, en verrasten iedere bezoeker. Na drie jaren van extreem warme en droge zomers, was dit jaar het tegenovergestelde. En jammer genoeg hebben de maanden van hoge vochtigheid uiteindelijk ook onze planten aangetast. Het was een troost te horen dat alle tuiniers met hetzelfde probleem te kampen hadden gehad, zelfs die met serres.

Aangezien ons klimaat verandert, zullen we moeten blijven experimenteren met teeltpatronen. En hoe meer we leren, hoe beter. Experimenteren met blijvende teelten kan jaren duren, dus is het des te belangrijker om de resultaten op grote schaal te delen. Innovatieve platforms zoals het platform Organic Farm Knowledge en het videoplatform Access Agriculture bieden goede ideeën en de nodige wetenschappelijke inzichten om ons te helpen betere beslissingen te nemen.

Inspirerende kennisplatformen

The Organic Farm Knowledge platform: https://organic-farmknowledge.org met informatie over biolandbouw in Europe.

Access Agriculture: https://www.accessagriculture.org  is een gespecialiseerd videoplatform met gratis te downloaden opleidingsvideo’s over ecologische landbouw met een focus op het Zuiden.

Principles matter July 18th, 2021 by

In this age of restricted travel, when webinars have taken the place of conferences, at first I missed face-to-face meetings a lot. But virtual events do allow one to get exposed to far more ideas than before. This is also the case when digital learning is introduced to farmers. Farmers are increasingly getting information online, like videos. But the videos have to be properly designed. Unlike following a cooking recipe on a Youtube video, in agriculture, recipes must be accompanied by basic principles, so that farmers can decide how to experiment with the new ideas.

I was reminded of this recently during a webinar on the Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India. One of the speakers was Vijay Kumar, one of the driving forces behind the programme, which aims to scale up agroecology to millions of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Vijay is a humble, highly-respected former civil servant. He is much in demand, so meeting him in person would be a challenge, but introduced by a mutual colleague, I was fortunate to have already met him several times on Zoom. Vijay appreciates that Access Agriculture stands for quality training videos that enable South-South learning. According to him, the collaboration with Access Agriculture offers opportunities to help scale community-based natural farming from India to Africa and beyond. It is fortunate to have strong allies who understand the challenges of scaling and that to be cost-effective, one cannot simply visit all the world’s farmers in person.

Still, many people think that farmers can only learn from fellow farmers who live nearby and speak the same language, and that training videos are only useful when they are made locally. The many experiences from local partners with Access Agriculture training videos show that farmers do learn from their peers across cultures, on different continents. Farmers are motivated when they see how fellow farmers in other parts of the world solve their own problems. Access Agriculture videos are effective across borders in part because they explain the scientific principles behind technologies, and not just show how to do things. Vijay is convinced that scientific knowledge and farmer knowledge need to go hand in hand to promote agroecology.

The second speaker at the natural farming conference was Walter Jehne, a renowned Australian soil microbiologist, who talked about the need to build up soil organic matter and micro-organisms as a way to revive soils and cool the planet. I was pleased that he also stressed the importance of principles. When one of the Indian participants asked Walter if he could provide the recipe, he smilingly and patiently explained: “We should focus on the underlying principles, as principles apply across the globe, irrespective of where you are. You need organic matter, you need to build up good soil micro-organisms and make use of natural growth promotors. If a recipe tells you to use cow dung, but you don’t have cows, what can you do? If for instance you have reindeer, their dung will work just as well. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it.”  In two of my earlier blogs (Trying it yourself and Reviving soils) I did exactly do that back home: use ingredients that were available to me: sheep dung, leaves of oak trees in the garden, wheat straw, and so on, but building on ideas from Indian farmers.

Farmers have creative minds and this creativity is fed by basic principles: while recipes surely help, a better understanding of underlying scientific principles are what matter most when it comes down to adaptation to local contexts. We, at Access Agriculture are thrilled to join Andhra Pradesh’s efforts to spread Community-Based Natural Farming across the globe.

Related webinars

365 Days Green Cover & Pre-Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) – Walter Jehne – Streamed on 6th July 12:30 pm

Restoring the water cycles to cool the climate

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring video platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Coconut coir dust July 4th, 2021 by

Many years ago, I wrote one of my first articles, on “Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics” and published it in Humus News, a trilingual (Dutch, French, English) magazine from Comité Jean Pain, a Belgian non-profit association that has trained people from across the globe on compost making since 1978.

So recently, when one of our Indian video partners decided to make a training video on composting coir dust, I dug up my old article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still contained useful information.

Coconut coir dust or coir pith is the material that is left over after the fibres have been removed from the coconut husk. Coconut factories often have no idea what to do with this waste, so in many coastal areas in the humid tropics one can find heaps of this natural resource.

Whether economical or ecological motives are the driving force, in low external input agriculture systems in the tropics, farmers often use biowaste for soil conservation and sustainable land use.

While coir dust has negligible amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, making it a poor source of nutrients, it can store up to 8 times its dry weight in water. By applying a 15 cm thick layer of coir dust mulch around coconut seedlings in Sri Lanka, irrigation needs could be reduced by up to 55 %. In a pineapple coconut intercrop during the dry season, my coir paper reported that the top soil layer had a moisture content of 49 % under the mulch, compared to 10 % under a sandy ridge of the same height.

When coir dust mulch is applied to salt-sensitive plants care, has to be taken that the concentration of salt is not too high. The highest salt concentrations, though still low, are mainly observed in coir dust which is fresh and from coastal coconut trees. This salt concentration can be reduced by leaving the material in the rain, before applying the mulch in the field or nursery.

In a commercial tree nursery in Kenya, germination of cashew seeds is enhanced by applying a coir dust mulch. Besides, roots are not damaged after transplanting, thanks to the loose structure of the coir dust. Weeds in cashew plantations in India are suppressed by applying a layer of 7.5 cm of mulch in a 1.5 m radius around the trees. In Sri Lanka, this kind of mulch is mainly used in semi-perennial crops like pineapple and ginger. Coir dust mulch suppressed some of the world’s worst weeds, namely goatweed, purple nutsedge and the sensitive mimosa plant.

Besides suppressing weeds, coir dust mulch also helps to establish cover crops. Herbaceous legumes are often used as cover crop under coconut in Sri Lanka, but they are suppressed by weeds in dry weather. Applying coir dust tackles the weeds, but favors the leguminous cover crop during the dry season.

Coir dust consists mainly of lignin, a woody substance which is poorly biodegradable. About 90 % is organic matter and the C/N ratio is extremely high (> 130). The low pH of 4.5 – 5.5 offers an extra protection against biodegradation, as many micro-organisms do not survive once the pH drops below 4. Slow biodegradation of organic mulches has been recently more and more looked for, especially in the humid and sub-humid tropics, where fast mineralization of the organic matter and leaching of minterals are big problems. While coir dust can easily be applied as a mulch, the recently produced video suggests that it is better to compost the coir dust first when one wants to use it to improve the soil structure. The video shows how one can easily make one’s own organic decomposer that is rich in good microbes to break down the lignin.

Coir dust, being important to control weeds, improve soil physical conditions and increase water retention capacity, should be regarded as an important resource for soil conservation and sustainable land use in integrated cropping systems, and not as waste. The use of coir dust in the tropics, however, is not only hindered by a lack of knowledge, which the video aims to share, but is also seriously threatened as coir dust is increasingly exported to Europe where it is used as an horticulture substrate.

Further reading

Van Mele, P. 1997. Utilization of Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics. Humus News, 13(1), p. 3-4.

Related blogs

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related video

Coir pith – from waste to wealth

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Our valuable garbage June 27th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivia may have the world’s only singing garbage men. Three times a week, a garbage truck pulls up to our corner blaring the tune: Viva Cochabamba! That’s our signal that all the neighbors should take out the trash.

This bit of fun hides a serious problem. There’s nowhere to take all of that garbage. The landfill at Q’ara Q’ara, south of the city, is full, and is becoming a tower of sculpted refuse. Neighborhood organizations often block the road into the landfill (in protest of any number of grievances, not all of which are even related to the garbage). When that happens, trash piles up in mounds on Cochabamba’s streets.

There is not really another good site for a new landfill, since the valley is prime farmland, rapidly being paved over for streets and houses. Land is too expensive for the city to buy another big chunk to make another trash dump.

Some citizen’s groups are offering a solution. For example, Denis de la Barra has recently made a video, suggesting that people stop thinking of their organic refuse as garbage. Instead, Denis urges us to think of it as valuable raw material to make compost.

To make a motivational video, Denis wanted to interview people in Cochabamba and surrounding municipalities who had made compost for years and applied it to their gardens. He found some of these gardeners in the outer municipalities, but fewer in the city of Cochabamba, which has about a million people. Not everyone in town has space for a garden. Those who do, tend to have a manicured lawn and ornamental plants.

Ana and I have always made compost and several years ago we turned most of our front lawn into a vegetable garden, so Denis filmed part of his video at our house.

As Denis and colleagues explained later, on a radio panel discussion:

  • We all generate refuse, and local governments and citizens should take some responsibility for it.
  • Everything organic, from apple cores to lawn trimmings, can be recycled as valuable compost, and used as fertilizer, to grow healthy vegetables.
  • Citizens should share their experiences on composting and gardening.
  • Separate plastics from organic waste and only discard the non-organics, saving space in landfills.
  • We can all stop bringing home one-use plastic bags from the shops.

When people’s ideal garden is flowers around a smooth, green lawn (fertilized with chemicals), it may take a while to give compost and vegetables a chance. But this new video will get some people to start thinking about the connections between garbage, gardening and healthier food.

Related Agro-Insight blog story

Municipal compost: teaching city governments

Watch Denis’s video

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Produced by the Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ—Working Group on Climate Change and Justice), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel discussion

Denis discussed the video in a panel on Radio CEPRA, a community radio station in Cochabamba, hosted by Arnold Brouwer, featuring Tania Ricaldi, of the local public university (Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn), and Ana Gonzales, agronomist and home gardener.

Access Agriculture Videos on making compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

NUESTRA BASURA VALIOSA

Por Jeff Bentley 27 de junio del 2021

Puede que Bolivia tenga los únicos basureros cantantes del mundo. Tres veces por semana, un carro basurero llega a nuestra esquina haciendo sonar la canción: ¡Viva Cochabamba! Es nuestra señal para que todos los vecinos saquemos la basura.

Este momento divertido esconde un grave problema. No hay dĂłnde llevar toda esa basura. El botadero de Q’ara Q’ara, al sur de la ciudad, está lleno y se está convirtiendo en una torre de basura. Las organizaciones vecinales suelen bloquear la carretera de acceso al basurero (en protesta por cualquiera demanda no satisfecha, no siembre relacionada con la basura). Cuando eso ocurre, la basura se amontona en las calles de Cochabamba.

En realidad, no hay otro lugar adecuado para un nuevo botadero, ya que el valle es tierra agrícola de primera, que se está pavimentando rápidamente para construir calles y casas. El terreno es demasiado caro para que la ciudad compre otro pedazo grande para hacer otro basurero.

Algunos grupos de ciudadanos ofrecen una solución. Por ejemplo, Denis de la Barra ha realizado recientemente un video en el que sugiere que la gente deje de considerar sus residuos orgánicos como basura. En su lugar, Denis nos insta a pensar en ella como una valiosa materia prima para hacer compost.

Para hacer un video motivador, Denis quiso entrevistar a personas de Cochabamba y de los municipios cercanos que habían hecho compost ya hace varios años y que lo habían aplicado a sus huertos. Encontró a algunos de estos jardineros en los municipios exteriores, pero menos en la ciudad de Cochabamba, que tiene cerca de un millón de habitantes. No todos los habitantes de la ciudad tienen espacio para un huerto. Los que lo tienen, suelen tener pasto y plantas ornamentales.

Ana y yo siempre hemos hecho compost y hace varios años convertimos la mayor parte de nuestro césped en un huerto, por lo que Denis filmó parte de su video en nuestra casa.

Como explicaron Denis y sus colegas más tarde, en una mesa redonda de la radio:

– Todos generamos residuos, y los gobiernos locales y los ciudadanos deberĂ­an asumir alguna responsabilidad al respecto.

– Todo lo orgánico, desde las cáscaras de las manzanas hasta el pasto cortado, puede reciclarse como valioso compost, y usarse como abono, para cultivar verduras sanas.

– Los ciudadanos deberĂ­an compartir sus experiencias sobre compostaje y jardinerĂ­a.

– Separar los plásticos de los residuos orgánicos y desechar sĂłlo los no orgánicos, para ahorrar espacio en los botaderos.

– Todos podemos dejar de llevar a casa bolsas de plástico de un solo uso de las tiendas.

Cuando el jardín ideal de la gente son las flores en torno a un césped liso y verde (abonado con productos químicos), puede ser difícil dar una oportunidad al compost y las verduras. Pero este nuevo video hará que algunas personas empiecen a pensar en las conexiones entre la basura, el huerto y los alimentos más saludables.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Compost municipal: una escuela para las alcaldĂ­as

Vea el video de Denis

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Producido por el Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel

Denis hablĂł sobre su video en un panel en Radio CEPRA, una radio comunitaria en Cochabamba, moderado por Arnold Brouwer, con Tania Ricaldi de la Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn y Ana Gonzales, ingeniero agrĂłnomo que tiene su huerto casero.

Videos de Access Agriculture sobre el hacer compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

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