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Trying it yourself May 24th, 2020 by

Helping to write a script for a farmer training video on vermiwash triggered my interest in trying it out myself, as I began to wonder if ideas from tropical India could work in temperate Belgium.

As the video explains, vermiwash is the liquid that is collected after water passes through compost made by earthworms. It is rich in plant growth hormones, micro-nutrients like iron and zinc, and major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vermiwash increases the number of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil and helps plants to grow healthy.

After showing the problem of declining soil health due to the overuse of agrochemicals, the video quickly moves on to some powerful, motivational interviews by some local farmers in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

‚ÄúWhen you want to mix vermicompost with the soil, you need large quantities. But vermiwash can be applied directly to plant leaves, so you need less and you can see the effect on plant growth faster. It is also cheaper than compost,‚ÄĚ says farmer Sivamoorthi.

Besides the liquid vermiwash, I had also helped another of our Indian partners, WOTR, develop a video on vermicompost, which is solid, and stronger than normal compost . But, I was more attracted to the idea of making vermiwash, as it requires little space and I could easily use it as a foliar spray on my vegetables, berry shrubs and fruit trees.

At the local hardware store, I bought a barrel with a tap at the bottom. The first drafts of the script mentioned that it is best to fill the bottom of the barrel with small stones, so the tap doesn‚Äôt get blocked. I did exactly that. In the final version of the video, this part was removed. When I asked Shanmuga Priya, who made this video, she said: ‚ÄúAfter I talked to farmers it seems no one is doing this, because after three months they empty the barrel, remove the earthworms and then put the compost on their field. Of course, they don‚Äôt want stones to be mixed with the compost.‚ÄĚ

Indian farmers just use a small piece of mosquito netting or cotton cloth as a filter. Right, that was a good lesson; farmers always find a way to improve any technique they learn from extension staff. I still have the bottom of my barrel filled with pebbles, and so far so good. I will have to make the extra effort of sorting out the stones when setting up a new batch of vermiwash.

The video says to fill the bottom with some 10-15 centimetres of dried leaves, not green ones, which would slow down decomposition. As I had plenty of dried oak leaves, and even though they decompose slowly, I wondered if they would work, but hey, that’s what I have, so that’s what I will try.

Then the video shows how an equal amount of rice straw is added. Instead, I used wheat straw, as I still have plenty of bundles in the attic of our shed.

The next part was also a little tricky. While the video suggested using 5 to 10 kg of decomposed cow dung, I wondered if the dung of my sheep would work just as well. It was a discussion I had had several times with Indian partners, who always say that only cow dung is a useful source of beneficial microorganisms. I asked a friend of mine, who is soil scientist, and still did not get a clear answer to this. Soil scientists are trained more in the physical and chemical properties of soil and are less familiar with its complex biology. But that is food for another blog story.

After adding some water to the barrel, I collected a few handfuls of earthworms from my compost and put them into the barrel. I would soon see if my set up would work or not. While farmers in India can collect vermiwash after just 10 days, I realised that the early days of spring in Belgium are still too cold, so the worms are not that active yet. Six weeks later, though, we happily collected our first litre of brown vermiwash.

After diluting it with ten litres of water, I sprayed the vermiwash on the leaves of my rhubarb as an experiment, before putting it on any other plants. In just a few days the leaves turned a shiny, dark green. The plants looked so healthy, that neighbours even remarked on it and asked what I had given them.

My wife, Marcella, had been rearing vegetable seedlings in a small glass house, and when the time came to transplant them to the garden, she decided to set up a small experiment. One batch of mustard leaf seedlings would be planted straight in the soil, the other batch she would soak the roots of the seedlings for 15 minutes in pure vermiwash. After all, the video shows that this works with rice seedlings, so why not with vegetable seedlings?

And again, the effect was striking: all of the seedlings dipped in the vermiwash took root quickly, while in the other batch only a fraction did.

As Jeff has written in some earlier blogs, the Covid-19 crisis has stopped people from travelling, affecting many farmers (see: Travelling farmers), students (see: A long walk home) and society at large. It has also forced people to creatively use their time. Like many other people, we have been able to spend more time in the garden, and in our case, we were able try out some of the things we learned from farmers in the global South.

As we tried oak leaves, wheat straw and sheep dung instead of the ingredients used by Indian farmers, we found that vermiwash works as well in Flanders as it does in Tamil Nadu. Good training videos inspire people to experiment with new ideas and adapt these to their own conditions. That is the philosophy and approach of Access Agriculture: using video as a global source of inspiration.

Related blogs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Related videos, freely downloadable from www.accessagriculture.org

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Good microbes for plants and soil

Offbeat urban fertilizer May 17th, 2020 by

Some urbanites in Covid lockdown are rediscovering their neglected gardens. Living in or near the city also gives you access to some products that are hard to find in farm country. For example, cabinet makers in the city may be able to give you wood shavings that you can use to make beds for pigs or chickens.

I‚Äôve written before about the Taqui√Īa brewery that releases waste water‚ÄĒsometimes with a fine head of beer on it‚ÄĒwhile at other times it has detergent, or barley hulls, or it is clear. An irrigators‚Äô association channels the water to grow carnations and other high value crops.

Taqui√Īa has its factory in the foothills above Cochabamba, Bolivia, where spent, fermented barley mash, the grain solids left over from beer brewing, is heaped into large piles. We occasionally notice the mash when we park at the brewery to hike in the mountains. Ana always said it would make a good organic fertilizer, but it wasn‚Äôt until February last year that she decided to do something about her idea. The brewery was happy for her to take the mash, on one condition: she had to take it all.

Ana rented a vintage truck and hired a driver, then returned to the brewery with a shovel and a hired helper. The mash was golden brown, with a light, yeasty smell, and all appeared fine until they dug into it. Inside the pile was rotten and flies had laid their eggs in it, the result of staying out too long in the rain. Peri-urban farmers use the mash to feed their pigs, but they hadn’t been to collect it for some time.

Ana and her helpers made three trips home with around ten tons of mash. The mash smelled like sewage and it had the thick, sticky consistency of children’s modelling clay. I called it the stinky playdough.

Our neighbors had some choice words about the stench. Eventually we managed to get all of the stinky playdough spread over our small garden and the stench gradually disappeared. The flies went away, the plants grew and we forgot about the rotten mash. Until we were quarantined.

By March of this year our garden was overgrown with weeds. But then I found time in the evenings and the weekends to pull up the weeds and plant some vegetable beds. Years ago, the dirt in our garden was dull red, and lifeless, but after taking on the stinky playdough, the soil was rich and black, full of earthworms and just right for growing organic vegetables.

If I had to do it again, I would look for smaller, fresher batches of barley mash. Even so, the obnoxious, stinky playdough turned out to be a great fertilizer. Ana also collects a few other sources of organic matter, including lawn clippings from the neighbors. A lady who sells fresh-squeezed juice in the park gives us orange rinds, which compost quickly in Cochabamba.  

Cities have abundant organic matter, partly from urban gardens, but mainly pulled in from the countryside. With a little creativity, you can grow your own healthy food in the city at low cost, without the need for chemical fertilizer.

Related blog stories

Smelling is believing

Trash to treasure

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

On using wood shavings to raise chickens near the city:

Working together for healthy chicks and

Making a business from home raised chicks

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 ‚ÄúFlowers Watered with Beer.‚ÄĚ Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Friendly germs April 5th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

At a recent event in Cochabamba, just before Bolivia went into lockdown over coronavirus, I had a rare opportunity to see how to make products or inputs used in agroecological farming.

The organizers (the NGO Agroecología y Fe) were well prepared. They had written recipes for the organic fertilizers and natural pesticides, an expert to explain what each product did and to show the practical steps. The materials for making the inputs were neatly laid out in a grassy meadow. We had plenty of space to build fires, mix materials such as cow dung with earth and water, and to stand and chat. Agronomist Freddy Vargas started by making bokashi, which extensionists have frequently demonstrated in Latin America for decades, especially among environmentally sensitive organizations.

Bokashi is sometimes described as fertilizer, but it is more than that; it is also a source of minerals and a culture of microorganisms. Freddy explained that for the past 25 years, ever since university, he has been making bokashi. He uses it on his own farm, and teaches it to farmers who want to bring their soil back to life.

Freddy mixes leaf litter and top soil from around the base of trees (known as sach‚Äôa wanu (‚Äútree dung‚ÄĚ) in Quechua. The tree dung contains naturally occurring bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter, add life to the soil and help control plant diseases. Freddy adds a few packets of bread yeast for good measure. As a growth medium for the microbes, he adds rice bran and rice husks, but any organic stuff would work. Next, raw sugar is dissolved in water, as food for the microorganisms. He also adds minerals: rock flour (ground stone) and ‚Äúfosfito‚ÄĚ (rock flour and bone flour, burned on a slow fire). The pile of ingredients is mixed with a shovel, made into a heap and covered with a plastic tarpaulin, to let it ferment. Every day or so it gets hot from fermentation, and has to be turned again. The bokashi will be ready in about two weeks, depending on the weather.

This elaborate procedure is why it has taken me some time to accept bokashi.  It seemed like so much work. Freddy explained that he adds bokashi to the surface of the soil on his farm, and over the years this has helped to improve the soil, to allow it to retain water. ‚ÄúWe used to have to water our apple trees every two days, but now we only have to irrigate once a week,‚ÄĚ he explained. His enthusiasm and clear evidence of benefits made me re-assess my previous skeptical view of bokashi.

Next, agronomist Basilio Caspa showed how to make biol, a liquid culture of friendly microbes. He mixed fresh cow dung, raw sugar and water with his hands, in a bucket, a demonstration that perplexes farmers. ‚ÄúHow can an educated man like you mix cow dung with your hands?‚ÄĚ But Basilio enjoys making things, and he is soon up to his elbows in the mixture before pouring it into a 200-liter barrel, and then filling it the rest of the way with water.

Basilio puts on a tight lid, to keep out the air, and installs a valve he bought for 2 pesos at the hardware store, to let out the methane that is released during the fermentation. The biol will be ready in about four weeks, to spray on crops as a fertilizer and to discourage disease (as the beneficial microorganisms control the pathogens).  Basilio has studied biol closely and wrote his thesis on it. He found that he could mix anything from half to two liters of biol into a 20 liter back pack sprayer. Higher concentrations worked best, but he always saw benefits whatever the dilution.

We also learned to brew a sulfur lime mix, an ancient pesticide. This is easy to make: sulfur and lime are simply boiled in water.

But do farmers actually use these products?

Then Mar√≠a Omonte, an agronomist with profound field experience, shared a doubt. With help from Agroecolog√≠a y Fe, she had taught farmers in Sik‚Äôimira, Cochabamba to make these inputs, and then helped the communities to try the inputs on their farms. “In Sik‚Äôimira, only one farmer had made bokashi, but many had made biol.‚ÄĚ This seasoned group agreed. The farmers tended to accept biol more than bokashi, but they were even more interested in the brews that more closely resembled chemicals, such as sulfur lime, Bordeaux mix (a copper-based fungicide) and ash boiled with soap.

The group excitedly discussed the generally low adoption by farmers of these products. They suggested several reasons: first, the products with microbes are often made incorrectly, with poor results and so the farmers don’t want to make them again. Second, the farmers want immediate results, and when they don’t get them, they lose heart and abandon the idea. Besides, making biol and bokashi takes more time to prepare than agrochemicals, which is discouraging.

Bokashi and biol do improve the soil, otherwise, agronomists like Freddy would not keep using them on their own farms. But perhaps farmers demand inputs that are easier to use. The next step is to study which products farmers accept and which ones they reject. Why do they adopt some homemade inputs while resisting others? An agroecological technology, no matter how environmentally sound, still has to respond to users’ demands, for example, it must be low cost and easy to use. Formal studies will also help to show the benefits of minerals, microbes and organic matter on the soil’s structure and fertility.

Related blogs

A revolution for our soil

Strawberry fields once again

Farming with trees

The bokashi factory

Apple futures

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Acknowledgements

The event I attended was the Congress of the Regional Soils Platform in Cochabamba, organized by the NGO Agroecología y Fe. Thanks to María Omonte, Germán Vargas, Eric Boa, and Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.

MICROBIOS AMIGABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 5 de abril del 2020

En un reciente congreso en Cochabamba, justo antes de que Bolivia entrara en cuarentena por el corona virus, tuve la rara oportunidad, como parte de un grupo peque√Īo, de ver c√≥mo hacer insumos o productos para la agricultura agroecol√≥gica.

Los organizadores (la ONG Agroecología y Fe) estaban bien preparados con recetas escritas para los abonos y plaguicidas naturales, con un experto para cada insumo para explicar qué hacía cada producto y para mostrar los pasos prácticos. También tenían sus materiales debidamente preparados de antemano.

En un campo de pasto, teníamos mucho espacio para hacer hogueras, mezclar materiales como estiércol de vaca con tierra y agua, y para observar y charlar. El Ing. Freddy Vargas comenzó haciendo bocashi, que los extensionistas han demostrado muchas veces en América Latina durante varias décadas, especialmente entre las organizaciones sensibles al medio ambiente.

El bocashi se describe a veces como fertilizante, pero en realidad es m√°s que abono org√°nico; es tambi√©n una fuente de minerales, y microorganismos para el suelo.  Freddy explic√≥ que desde que √©l estuvo en la universidad, durante los √ļltimos 25 a√Īos, ha estado fabricando bocashi. Lo usa en su propia finca, y lo ense√Īa a los agricultores que quieren devolver la vida a su suelo.

Freddy mezcla la hojarasca y con tierra que recoge debajo de los √°rboles (conocido como sach’a wanu, en quechua, “esti√©rcol de √°rbol”). El esti√©rcol de √°rbol contiene bacterias y hongos naturales que descomponen la materia org√°nica, dan vida al suelo, y controlan las enfermedades de las plantas. Freddy agrega unos cuantos paquetes de levadura de pan por si acaso. Pone salvado de arroz y cascarilla de arroz como un medio de cultivos, pero podr√≠a usar cualquier cosa org√°nica. Tambi√©n pone minerales: harina de roca (piedra molida) y fosfito (harina de roca y harina de hueso, quemado a fuego lento). √Čl a√Īade chancaca disuelta en agua, como alimento para los microbios, luego da vuelta a todos los ingredientes con una pala, y se cubre con una lona, para dejarla fermentar. M√°s o menos cada d√≠a el bocashi se calienta por la fermentaci√≥n, y de nuevo hay que darle vuelta a la mezcla. El bocashi estar√≠a listo en unas dos semanas, seg√ļn la temperatura ambiental.

Es un procedimiento exigente, que parece mucho trabajo, pero Freddy explic√≥ que √©l agrega bocashi a la superficie del suelo en su finca para liberar los microorganismos en la tierra. A lo largo de los a√Īos esto ha ayudado a mejorar el suelo, para que retenga m√°s humedad. “Antes ten√≠amos que regar nuestros manzanos cada dos d√≠as, pero ahora s√≥lo tenemos que regar una vez a la semana”, explic√≥. Su entusiasmo y la clara evidencia de los beneficios me ayud√≥ a reevaluar mi opini√≥n esc√©ptica del bocashi.

A continuaci√≥n, el Ing. Basilio Caspa mostr√≥ c√≥mo hacer biol, un cultivo l√≠quido de microbios amistosos. En un balde, mezcl√≥ esti√©rcol fresco de vaca, chancaca y agua, explicando que cuando muestra a los agricultores c√≥mo mezclar el biol, se oponen. “¬ŅC√≥mo es que un hombre educado como t√ļ puede mezclar esti√©rcol de vaca con sus manos?” Pero a Basilio le gusta hacer cosas con las manos, y pronto est√° hasta los codos en la mezcla, antes de echarla en un barril de 200 litros, y luego llenarlo el resto con agua.

Basilio pone una tapa herm√©tica al turril, para que no entre el aire, e instala una v√°lvula que compr√≥ por 2 pesos en la ferreter√≠a para dejar salir el metano que el biol liberar√° al fermentar. En un mes, el biol estar√° listo para fumigar los cultivos como fertilizante foliar y para evitar las enfermedades (por que los microorganismos ben√©ficos controlan a los pat√≥genos).  En realidad, Basilio escribi√≥ su tesis sobre el biol. Encontr√≥ que pod√≠a mezclar desde medio litro de biol hasta 2 litros en una bomba de mochila de 20 litros, y que entre m√°s biol que pone, m√°s fuertes son las plantas. En base a eso, √©l recomiendo poner dos litros de biol para arriba en una bomba de 20 litros.

También aprendimos a preparar una mezcla de azufre y cal (caldo sulfocálcico), un antiguo plaguicida. Es fácil hacerlo; se hierve cal y azufre en agua.

¬ŅPero los agricultores realmente usan estos productos?

Entonces Mar√≠a Omonte, una ingeniera agr√≥noma con profunda experiencia de campo, comparti√≥ una duda. Con la ayuda de Agroecolog√≠a y Fe, ella hab√≠a ense√Īado a los agricultores de Sik’imira, Cochabamba, a fabricar estos insumos y luego ayud√≥ a las comunidades a probar los insumos en sus fincas. “En Sik‚Äôimira, solo un agricultor ha hecho bocashi, pero muchos han hecho biol”. Este experimentado grupo estuvo de acuerdo; as√≠ era. Los agricultores tend√≠an a aceptar el biol, m√°s que el bocashi, pero m√°s que eso, est√°n interesados en los caldos que parecen m√°s a los qu√≠micos, como el caldo sulfoc√°lcico, el caldo bordel√©s (un fungicida c√ļprico) y el caldo ceniza (ceniza hervida con jab√≥n).

El grupo discutió animadamente la poca adopción que en general hacen los productores de estos preparados. Decían que hay varias razones: una es que no siempre se hace correctamente los mezclados con microbios, y los resultados no son buenos y los productores no quieren hacerlos nuevamente. Otra razón es que los campesinos quieren resultados inmediatos, y al no ver esto desconfían y lo dejan. Además, hacer biol y bocashi requiere mayor tiempo y esfuerzo en su preparación que los agroquímicos y eso los desmotiva.

El bocashi y el biol s√≠ mejoran el suelo, si no fuera as√≠, ingenieros como Freddy no los seguir√≠an usando en su propia finca. Pero tal vez los agricultores demandan insumos m√°s f√°ciles de hacer. El siguiente paso es hacer un estudio m√°s al fondo para averiguar qu√© insumos aceptan los agricultores y cu√°les no. ¬ŅPor qu√© adoptan algunos insumos caseros y se resisten a usar otros? Una tecnolog√≠a agroecol√≥gica, por m√°s sana que sea, todav√≠a tiene que responder a las demandas de los usuarios, por ejemplo, de tener bajo costo y ser f√°cil de hacer. Este tema tambi√©n merece estudios formales sobre los efectos de los minerales, materia org√°nica y microbios a la fertilidad y estructura del suelo.

Blogs relacionados

Una revolución para nuestro suelo

En el frutillar de nuevo

La agricultura con √°rboles

The bokashi factory

Manzanos del futuro

Videos relacionados

Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Agradecimientos

El Congreso de la Plataforma Regional de Suelos en Cochabamba fue organizado por la ONG Agroecología y Fe. Gracias a María Omonte, Germán Vargas, Eric Boa, y Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa.

A revolution for our soil March 22nd, 2020 by

la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Degraded soil can be repaired, and replenished with nutrients, until it produces abundant harvests at lower costs, while removing carbon from the atmosphere, and putting it back into the ground. This is the optimistic message of David Montgomery’s book, Growing a Revolution.

In many parts of the world, soils have been degraded by frequent plowing. The benefits of releasing a burst of nutrients for the crops and killing weeds are overcome by exposure of the soil to erosion by wind and water (see Out of space on Montgomery’s earlier book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations). In the Midwestern USA perhaps half of the original prairie soil, and most of its organic matter, have been lost in little more than a century of conventional tillage. Chemical fertilizers provide the major nutrients of phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen in the short run, but they undermine the soil’s long-term health by suppressing mycorrhizal fungi.

These mycorrhizal fungi feed plants while making glomalin, a protein that binds soil particles together. Plowing destroys the soil structure created by beneficial fungi and their glomalin.

Montgomery, a professional geologist, explains that most soils don’t need chemical fertilizer. They have enough phosphorous, potassium and all the minor nutrients like iron and zinc that plants need, but these minerals are locked up in stone particles and other forms not accessible to the plants. The key to using these nutrients are beneficial microbes, like the mycorrhizal fungi that extract mineral nutrients from rock fragments and help to break down organic matter so plants can use it. Microbes trade phosphorous to plants for sugars. Predatory arthropods, nematodes and protozoa then feast on the microbes and release the nutrients back to the soil. A diverse soil life makes soil more fertile. Synthetic fertilizers interrupt these interactions, and the mycorrhizal fungi die, so the crop becomes chemical-dependent. Soil that is rich in organic matter (that is, in carbon) is healthier and supports a thriving community of beneficial microorganisms.

But with proper care, soil can be brought back to good health in just a few years. The right techniques can boost soil carbon from 1% (typical of degraded soils) to 4% (as in undisturbed forest) or even up to 6%. There are many such techniques and they go by various names, including ‚Äúconservation agriculture,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúagroecology‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúregenerative agriculture,‚ÄĚ and they are based on simple principles: 1) Use cover crops (or mulch) to keep the soil covered all the time; 2) Complex crop rotations of grasses, legumes and other crops; and 3) no-till, planting seeds directly into the unplowed earth.

Montgomery takes his readers to meet farmers from Kansas to Pennsylvania, from Ghana to Costa Rica, who are practicing and profiting from these three principles. Some are organic farmers; others apply small amounts of nitrogen fertilizer directly into the soil, near the seed, where the plant can efficiently take it up. We learn that some use earthworms, while others like Felicia Echeverría in Costa Rica make their own brews of beneficial microorganisms, to add life to dead soil. Gabe Brown in North Dakota rotates cattle in small paddocks, on large fields. As the cows graze, they fertilize the soil with manure.

Montgomery and soil scientist Rattan Lal estimate that conservation agriculture could offset a third to two thirds of current carbon emissions, by putting organic matter back into the soil, while tilling less and so lowering fuel expenses. Stumbling blocks to adoption of conservation agriculture include subsidies and crop insurance that keep farmers plowing and dependent on chemical fertilizer. Another is formal research, which continues to favor studies of products that companies can sell: chemical solutions to biological problems, as Montgomery puts it. Only 2% of US agricultural research goes to regenerative agriculture (and only 1% globally). Much of the innovation to revive the soil is driven not by funded research, but by the farmers themselves, who have shown that conservation agriculture, agroecology and permaculture can be more productive, with fewer pest problems. Conservation agriculture saves on expenses for inputs, so it is more profitable than conventional tillage agriculture. Properly conserved soil has little erosion; it soaks up the rain in wet years and holds the moisture for drought years.

Montgomery is concerned that when large-scale, industrialized farmers convert from tillage to conservation agriculture there must be a transition period when profits sag, before the soil improves enough to bring yield back up. He fears that this can discourage farmers from switching to conservation agriculture. Yet I am sure that the farmers themselves will work this out. As the natural experimenters that they are, farmers can try ecological farming practices with reduced tillage, first on one field, or on part of one, gradually creating the practices they need, one plot at a time. The good news is that conservation agriculture can be adopted on large farms or small ones, conventional or organic, mechanized or not. Farming can rebuild the soil, and does not need to destroy it.

Further reading

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

Related blog stories

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Effective micro-organisms

Farming with trees

Out of space

The big mucuna

From uniformity to diversity

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Reviving soils with mucuna (how to use a popular cover crop, mucuna, or velvet bean)

Intercropping maize with pigeon peas

Making a vermicompost bed

The wonder of earthworms (rearing earthworms to fertilize fields and gardens)

Animals & trees for a better crop

SLM00 Introduction (an introduction to a series of 12 videos on conservation agriculture)

Grow more, earn more (small machinery to reduce tillage)

Till less to harvest more (no-till and minimum tillage)

And many other videos on www.accessagriculture.org

UNA REVOLUCI√ďN PARA NUESTRO SUELO

Por Jeff Bentley, 22 de marzo del 2020

El suelo degradado puede ser reparado, devolviendo sus nutrientes, hasta que produzca cosechas abundantes a costos más bajos, mientras que se saca carbono de la atmósfera, para ponerlo en el suelo. Este es el mensaje optimista del libro de David Montgomery, Growing a Revolution.

En muchas partes del mundo, el arar frecuentemente ha degradado los suelos. El arado trae los beneficios de liberar nutrientes repentinamente para los cultivos y matar las malezas, pero el da√Īo es mayor debido al exponer el suelo a la erosi√≥n del viento y del agua (ver Out of space sobre el libro anterior de Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations). En el Medio Oeste de los Estados Unidos, quiz√°s la mitad del suelo original de la pradera, y la mayor parte de su materia org√°nica, se han perdido en poco m√°s de un siglo de labranza convencional. Los fertilizantes qu√≠micos proporcionan los principales nutrientes de f√≥sforo, potasio y nitr√≥geno a corto plazo, pero socavan la salud del suelo a largo plazo al suprimir los hongos micorriza.

Estos hongos micorriza alimentan a las plantas mientras fabrican glomalina, una proteína que une las partículas del suelo. El arado destruye la estructura del suelo creada por los hongos benéficos y su glomalina.

Montgomery, un ge√≥logo profesional, explica que la mayor√≠a de los suelos no necesitan fertilizantes qu√≠micos. Tienen suficiente f√≥sforo, potasio y todos los nutrientes menores como el hierro y el zinc que las plantas necesitan, pero estos minerales est√°n encerrados en part√≠culas de piedra y est√°n en otras formas no accesibles para las plantas. La clave para el uso de estos nutrientes son los microbios buenos, como las micorrizas que extraen nutrientes minerales de los fragmentos de roca y ayudan a descomponer la materia org√°nica para que las plantas puedan usarla. Los microbios intercambian f√≥sforo a las plantas por az√ļcares. Los artr√≥podos, nematodos y protozoos depredadores comen los microbios y liberan los nutrientes de vuelta al suelo. Una vida diversa en el suelo lo hace m√°s f√©rtil. Los fertilizantes sint√©ticos interrumpen estas interacciones y las micorrizas mueren, por lo que el cultivo se vuelve qu√≠micamente dependiente. El suelo rico en materia org√°nica (es decir, en carbono) es m√°s saludable y sostiene una pr√≥spera comunidad de microorganismos buenos.

Pero con el cuidado adecuado, el suelo puede volver a tener buena salud en pocos a√Īos. Las t√©cnicas correctas pueden aumentar el carbono del suelo del 1% (t√≠pico de los suelos degradados) al 4% (como en los bosques v√≠rgenes) o incluso hasta el 6%. Existen muchas de esas t√©cnicas y tiene diversos nombres, como “agricultura de conservaci√≥n”, “agroecolog√≠a” o “agricultura regenerativa”, y se basan en principios sencillos: 1) Sembrar cultivos de cobertura (o mulch) para mantener el suelo cubierto todo el tiempo; 2) rotaciones complejas de cultivos de pastos y cereales, leguminosas y otros cultivos; y 3) la labranza cero, sembrando las semillas directamente en la tierra sin arar.

Montgomery lleva a sus lectores a conocer a agricultores de Kansas a Pensilvania, de Ghana a Costa Rica, que practican rentablemente estos tres principios. Algunos son agricultores org√°nicos; otros aplican peque√Īas cantidades de fertilizante de nitr√≥geno directamente en el suelo, cerca de la semilla, donde la planta puede absorberlo eficazmente. Aprendemos que algunos usan lombrices de tierra, mientras que otros, como Felicia Echeverr√≠a en Costa Rica, elaboran sus propias soluciones de microorganismos ben√©ficos, para dar vida al suelo muerto. Gabe Brown, en Dakota del Norte, rota el ganado en peque√Īos potreros, en grandes campos. Cuando las vacas pastan, fertilizan el suelo con esti√©rcol.

Montgomery y el cient√≠fico del suelo Rattan Lal estiman que la agricultura de conservaci√≥n podr√≠a compensar entre un tercio y dos tercios de las actuales emisiones de carbono, devolviendo la materia org√°nica al suelo, a la vez que se labra menos y se reducen as√≠ los gastos de combustible. Entre los obst√°culos para la adopci√≥n de la agricultura de conservaci√≥n hay los subsidios y los seguros de los cultivos que mantienen a los agricultores arando y dependiendo de los fertilizantes qu√≠micos. Otro es la investigaci√≥n formal, que sigue favoreciendo los estudios de productos que las empresas venden: soluciones qu√≠micas a problemas biol√≥gicos, como dice Montgomery. S√≥lo el 2% de la investigaci√≥n agr√≠cola estadounidense se destina a la agricultura regenerativa (y s√≥lo el 1% a nivel mundial). Gran parte de la innovaci√≥n para revivir el suelo no est√° impulsada por la investigaci√≥n acad√©mica, sino por los propios agricultores, que han demostrado que la agricultura de conservaci√≥n, la agroecolog√≠a y la permacultura pueden ser m√°s productivas, con menos problemas de plagas. La agricultura de conservaci√≥n ahorra gastos en insumos, por lo que es m√°s rentable que la agricultura de labranza convencional. El suelo conservado adecuadamente tiene poca erosi√≥n; absorbe la lluvia en los a√Īos h√ļmedos y retiene la humedad en los a√Īos secos.

A Montgomery le preocupa que cuando los grandes agricultores industrializados pasen de la agricultura de labranza a la de conservaci√≥n, debe haber un per√≠odo de transici√≥n no rentable, antes de que el suelo mejore lo suficiente como para que vuelva a rendir bien. El teme que esto pueda desalentar a los agricultores a cambiar a la agricultura de conservaci√≥n. Sin embargo, estoy seguro de que los propios agricultores lo solucionar√°n. Como experimentadores naturales que son, los agricultores pueden probar pr√°cticas de agricultura ecol√≥gica con labranza reducida, primero en una parcela, o en un rinc√≥n, creando gradualmente las pr√°cticas que necesitan, una parcela a la vez. La buena noticia es que la agricultura de conservaci√≥n puede adoptarse en fincas grandes o peque√Īas, convencionales u org√°nicas, mecanizadas o no. La agricultura puede reconstruir el suelo, en vez de destruirlo.

Leer m√°s

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

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Adem√°s de muchos otros videos en https://www.accessagriculture.org/es

Strawberry fields once again March 15th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Like many Bolivians, Diego Ramírez never thought about remaining in the village where he was born, and starting a business on his family’s small farm. As a kid, he loved picking fruit on his grandparents’ small strawberry patch in the village of Ucuchi, and swimming with his friends in a pond fed with spring water, but he had to leave home at a young age to attend high school in the small city of Sacaba, and then he went on to study computer science at the university (UMSS) in the big city of Cochabamba, where he found work after graduation.

Years later, Diego‚Äôs dad called his seven children together to tell them that he was selling their grandparents‚Äô farm. It made sense. The grandparents had died, and the land had been idle for about 15 years. Yet, it struck Diego as a tragedy, so he said ‚ÄúI‚Äôll farm it.‚ÄĚ Some people thought he was joking. In Ucuchi, people were leaving agriculture, not getting into it. Many had migrated to Bolivia‚Äôs eastern lowlands or to foreign countries, so many of the fields in Ucuchi were abandoned. It was not the sort of place that people like Diego normally return to.

When Diego decided to revive his family farm two years ago, he turned to the Internet for inspiration. Although strawberries have been grown for many years in Ucuchi, and they are a profitable crop around Cochabamba, Diego learned of a commercial strawberry farm in Santo Domingo, Santiago, in neighboring Chile, that gave advice and sold plants. Santo Domingo is 2450 km from Cochabamba, but Diego was so serious about strawberries that he went there over a weekend and brought back 500 strawberry plants. Crucially, he also learned about new technologies like drip irrigation, and planting in raised beds covered with plastic sheeting. Encouraged by his new knowledge, he found dealers in Cochabamba who sold drip irrigation equipment and he installed it, along with plastic mulch, a common method in modern strawberry production.

Diego was inclined towards producing strawberries agroecologically, so he contacted the Agrecol Andes Foundation which was then organizing an association of ecological farmers in Sacaba, the small city where Diego lives (half way between the farm and the big city of Cochabamba). In that way Diego became a certified ecological farmer under the SPG PAS (Participatory Guaranty System, Agroecological Farmers of Sacaba).  Diego learned to make his own biol (a fermented solution of cow dung that fertilizes the soil and adds beneficial microbes to it). Now he mixes biol into the drip irrigation tank, fertilizing the strawberries one drop at a time.

Diego also makes his own organic sprays, like sulfur-lime brew and Bordeaux mix. He applies these solutions every two weeks to control powdery mildew, a common fungal disease, thrips (a small insect pest), red mites, and damping off. I was impressed. A lot of people talk about organic sprays, but few make their own. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not that hard,‚ÄĚ Diego shrugged, when I asked him where he found the time.

Diego finds the time to do a lot of admirable things. He has a natural flair for marketing and has designed his own packing boxes of thin cardboard, which he had printed in La Paz. His customers receive their fruit in a handsome box, rather than in a plastic bag, where fruit is easily damaged. He sells direct to customers who come to his farm, and at agroecological fairs and in stores that sell ecological products.

Diego still does his day job in the city, while also being active in community politics in Ucuchi. He also tends a small field of potatoes and he is planting fruit trees and prickly pear on the rocky slopes above his strawberry field. Diego has also started a farmers’ association with his neighbors, ten men and ten women, including mature adults and young people who are still in university.

The association members grow various crops, not just strawberries. Diego is teaching them to grow strawberries organically and to use drip irrigation. To encourage people to use these methods he has created his own demonstration plots. He has divided his grandparents’ strawberry field into three areas: one with his modern system, one with local varieties grown the old way on bare soil, with flood irrigation, and a third part with modern varieties grown the old way. The modern varieties do poorly when grown the way that Diego’s grandparents used. And Diego says the old way is too much work, mainly because of the weeding, irrigation, pests and diseases.

Ucuchi is an attractive village in the hills, with electricity, running water, a primary school and a small hospital. It is just off the main highway between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, an hour from the city of Cochabamba where you can buy or sell almost anything. Partly because of these advantages, some young people are returning to Ucuchi. Organic strawberries are hard to grow, and rare in Bolivia. But a unique product, like organic strawberries, and inspired leadership can help to stem the flow of migration, while showing that there are ways for young people to start a viable business in the countryside. Diego clearly loves being back in his home village, stopping his pickup truck to chat with people passing by on the village lanes. He also brings his own family to the farm on weekends, where he has put a new tile roof on his grandparents’ old adobe farm house.

Agriculture is more than making a profit. It is also about family history, community, and finding work that is satisfying and creative.

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EN EL FRUTILLAR DE NUEVO

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de marzo del 2019

Como muchos bolivianos, Diego Ram√≠rez nunca pens√≥ en quedarse en la comunidad donde naci√≥, y empezar un emprendimiento agr√≠cola en las peque√Īas chacras de su familia. Diego cuenta que de ni√Īo le encantaba recoger fruta en la peque√Īa parcela de frutillas de sus abuelos en la comunidad de Ucuchi, y nadar con sus amigos en una poza de riego, llena de agua de manantial, pero de joven tuvo que vivir en la ciudad peque√Īa de Sacaba para estudiar en colegio. Luego se fue a estudiar a la Universidad UMSS, la carrera de ingenier√≠a de sistemas. Culminado los estudios, empez√≥ a trabajar en la ciudad de Cochabamba.

A√Īos m√°s tarde, el padre de Diego llam√≥ a sus siete hijos para decirles que estaba vendiendo el terreno de sus abuelos. Ten√≠a sentido. Los abuelos hab√≠an fallecido, y nadie hab√≠a trabajado la tierra durante unos 15 a√Īos. Sin embargo, a Diego le pareci√≥ una tragedia, as√≠ que dijo: “Yo la voy a trabajar”. Algunos pensaron que era un chiste. En Ucuchi, la gente estaba en plan de dejar la agricultura, no meterse en ella. Prefer√≠an emigrar al Oriente de Bolivia y muchos se hab√≠an ido del pa√≠s. Por esta raz√≥n muchas de las parcelas est√°n abandonadas. No es el tipo de lugar al que la gente como Diego normalmente regresa.

Cuando Diego decidi√≥ revivir su finca familiar ya hace dos a√Īos, busc√≥ inspiraci√≥n en el Internet. Aunque la frutilla es un cultivo ancestral de la comunidad de Ucuchi y muy rentable en Cochabamba, Diego se enter√≥ de una empresa productora de frutillas en Santo Domingo, Santiago, en el vecino pa√≠s de Chile, que daba consejos y vend√≠a plantas. Santo Domingo est√° a 2450 km de Cochabamba, pero Diego se tom√≥ tan en serio las frutillas que fue all√≠ un fin de semana y trajo 500 plantas de frutillas. Crucialmente, tambi√©n aprendi√≥ sobre el cultivo tecnificado de frutillas, aplicando el riego por goteo y plantado en camas tapadas con pl√°stico. Movido por sus nuevos conocimientos, busc√≥ distribuidores en Cochabamba que vend√≠an equipos de riego por goteo y los instal√≥, junto con el mulch pl√°stico, un m√©todo com√ļn en la producci√≥n moderna de fresas.

Diego se inclin√≥ m√°s en la producci√≥n agroecol√≥gica para producir frutillas, as√≠ que se contact√≥ con la Fundaci√≥n Agrecol Andes que estaba organizando una asociaci√≥n de productores ecol√≥gicos en Sacaba, la peque√Īa ciudad donde Diego vive, a medio camino entre su terreno y la ciudad grande de Cochabamba. Diego ya tiene certificaci√≥n de productor ecol√≥gico con SPG PAS (Sistema Participativo de Garant√≠a Productores Agroecol√≥gicos Sacaba), Diego aprendi√≥ a hacer su propio biol (una soluci√≥n fermentada de esti√©rcol de vaca que fertiliza el suelo mientras a√Īade microbios buenos). Ahora mezcla el biol en el tanque de riego por goteo, fertilizando las frutillas una gota a la vez.

Diego tambi√©n hace sus propias soluciones org√°nicas, como el sulfoc√°lcico y el caldo bordel√©s. Fumiga estas preparaciones cada dos semanas para controlar el o√≠dium, los thrips (un peque√Īo insecto), la ara√Īuela roja, y la pudrici√≥n de cuello. Me impresion√≥. Mucha gente habla de aplicaciones org√°nicos, pero pocos hacen las suyas. “No es tan dif√≠cil”, Diego dijo cuando le pregunt√© de d√≥nde hallaba el tiempo.

Diego encuentra tiempo para hacer muchas cosas admirables. Tiene un talento natural para el marketing y ha dise√Īado sus propias cajas de cart√≥n delgado, que ha hecho imprimir en La Paz. Sus clientes reciben la fruta en una bonita caja, en lugar de en una bolsa de pl√°stico, donde la fruta se da√Īa f√°cilmente. Vende directamente a los clientes que vienen a la misma parcela, en las ferias agroecol√≥gicas y en tiendas que comercializan productos ecol√≥gicos.

Diego todav√≠a hace su trabajo normal en la ciudad, mientras que tambi√©n tiene una cartera en la comunidad de Ucuchi. Tambi√©n cultiva una peque√Īa chacra de papas y est√° plantando √°rboles frutales y tunas en las laderas pedregosas arriba de su frutillar. Diego tambi√©n ha iniciado una asociaci√≥n de agricultores con sus vecinos, diez hombres y diez mujeres, incluidos adultos mayores y j√≥venes que todav√≠a est√°n en la universidad.

Los miembros de la asociaci√≥n cultivan diversos cultivos, no s√≥lo frutillas. Diego les ense√Īa a cultivar frutillas org√°nicamente y a usar el riego por goteo. Para animar a la gente a usar estos m√©todos, ha creado sus propias parcelas de demostraci√≥n. Ha dividido el frutillar de sus abuelos en tres √°reas: una con su sistema moderno, tecnificado, otra con variedades locales cultivadas al estilo antiguo en suelo desnudo, con riego por inundaci√≥n, y una tercera parte con variedades modernas cultivadas a la manera antigua. Las variedades modernas no rinden bien cuando se cultivan al estilo de los abuelos. Y Diego dice que la forma antigua es mucho trabajo, principalmente por el desmalezado, el riego y las enfermedades adem√°s de las plagas.

Ucuchi es una atractiva comunidad en las faldas del cerro, con electricidad, agua potable, una escuela primaria y un peque√Īo hospital. Est√° justo al lado de la carretera principal a Santa Cruz, a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba donde se puede comprar o vender casi cualquier cosa. En parte por estas ventajas, algunos j√≥venes se est√°n volviendo a la comunidad de Ucuchi. Las frutillas org√°nicas son dif√≠ciles de cultivar, y son raras en Bolivia. Pero un producto √ļnico, como las frutillas org√°nicas, y un liderazgo inspirado pueden ayudar a frenar el flujo de la migraci√≥n, al mismo tiempo de mostrar que hay maneras viables para que los j√≥venes empiecen con un emprendimiento personal en el campo. A Diego le encanta estar de vuelta en su comunidad: para su camioneta para charlar con la gente que pasa por los caminos del pueblo. Tambi√©n trae a su propia familia a la finca los fines de semana, donde ha puesto un nuevo techo de tejas en la vieja casa de adobe de sus abuelos.

La agricultura es m√°s que la b√ļsqueda de lucro. Tambi√©n se trata de la tradici√≥n familiar, la comunidad y de sentirse realizado con un trabajo satisfactorio y creativo.

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