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The goldenberry January 17th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The goldenberry, or Cape gooseberry, is a bright yellow-orange fruit, about the size of a grape, sweet and tangy, rich in vitamins A, B and C. It is enclosed in a sheath, or calyx, which hides the fruit from view and protects it from insect pests. Like a banana, you can open the wrapper and eat the fruit unwashed.

The golden berry was known to the Incas, but little else is known of its prehistory. In the Andes, the plant has many names, including: uchuva (Colombia), aguaymanto (Peru) and chilto (in Bolivia). Not a true berry, but a member of the tomato family (Solanaceae), the fruit was grown in England by 1774, and soon appeared from South Africa to Kenya, Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii, besides the Andes from Chile to Colombia, now the world’s top producer.

A minor crop everywhere it is grown, I had never seen the goldenberry until I moved to Cochabamba, where I learned to love its unique flavor. I never plant the goldenberry, but most years it appears somewhere in my garden, where it can grow to over a meter tall, especially if it can find another plant to lean on. It flowers and bears fruit for months on end.

As aptly described in Lost Crops of the Incas, the goldenberry is wild and weedy. In many places, such as Hawaii, where it is called poha, the plant is an invasive weed, choking out native vegetation. I gather that ancient Andean farmers did not domesticate the berry; they just tolerated the little shrub which popped up, in disturbed soil near houses, paths and in fields.

As with any wild plant, goldenberry seed can plant itself with no help from humans. If left on the plant, the calyx gradually thins away, leaving just a net bag. Then the fruit decomposes, except for the seeds. As the wind moves the bag, it scatters the seeds on the ground.

There have been some recent suggestions to breed larger fruits, and to remove the slight, bitter aftertaste. But some of us savor that lingering flavor, and a bigger fruit might burst through its little paper envelope, spoiling the fruit’s visual appeal and exposing it to bugs, rot and dust.

I’m happy to have the goldenberry just as it is, a weed that makes itself welcome with a gift of fruit.

Scientific name

Physalis peruviana

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Achojcha: An Inca vegetable

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Further reading

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

For more on the goldenberry as an invasive weed, see CABI’s Invasive Species Compendium.

EL CHILTO, CULTIVO Y MALEZA

Por Jeff Bentley

17 de enero del 2021

Llamado “uchuva” en Colombia, “aguaymanto” en el PeĂș, el chilto tiene muchos otros nombres, como “goldenberry”, o “Cape gooseberry” en inglĂ©s. Es un fruto amarillo-anaranjado, mĂĄs o menos el tamaño de una uva, dulce y ĂĄcido, rico en vitaminas A, B y C. EstĂĄ envuelto en una cobertura, o un cĂĄliz, que esconde el fruto y lo protege de plagas insectiles. Igual que un plĂĄtano, se lo puede pelar y comer sin lavarlo.

Los Incas conocieron el chilto, pero se sabe poco mĂĄs de su prehistoria. Miembro de la familia del tomate (Solanaceae), la fruta se cultivaba en Inglaterra para el 1774, y rĂĄpidamente apareciĂł de SudĂĄfrica a Kenia, Australia, Filipinas y Hawai, y en los Andes de Chile hasta Colombia, hoy en dĂ­a el primer productor a nivel mundial.

Un cultivo menor en todos los lugares donde se cultiva, yo nunca habĂ­a visto el chilto hasta que vine a Cochabamba, donde aprendĂ­ a amar su sabor Ășnico. Nunca planto la uchuva, pero casi cada año aparece en algĂșn lugar de mi jardĂ­n, donde puede llegar a tener mĂĄs de un metro de alto, especialmente si se apoya en una planta vecina. Florece y da frutos durante meses.

Como dicen en “Lost Crops of the Incas, el chilto es una planta silvestre, una maleza. En muchos lugares, como Hawai, donde se llama poha, la planta es una invasora, que ahoga la vegetaciĂłn nativa. Deduzco que los antiguos agricultores andinos no domesticaban la baya; sĂłlo toleraban el pequeño arbusto que aparecĂ­a en el suelo removido cerca de las casas, los caminos y en los campos.

Como con cualquier planta silvestre, la semilla de la uchuva puede plantarse a sĂ­ misma sin la ayuda humana. Si permanece en la planta, el cĂĄliz se adelgaza gradualmente, dejando sĂłlo una bolsa de red. Entonces el fruto se descompone, excepto por las semillas. El viento mueve la bolsa, dispersando las semillas en el suelo.

Actualmente algunos sugieren que los fitomejoradores deben crear un chilto bien domesticado, con frutos mås grandes, y eliminar el sutil sabor amargo que el fruto deja en el paladar. Pero a algunos nos gusta ese dejo, y si la fruta fuera mås grande podría reventar su pequeño sobre de papel, arruinando la belleza de la fruta y exponiéndola a los bichos, la pudrición y el polvo.

Estoy feliz de tener el chilto tal como es, una maleza que se hace bienvenida con un regalo de fruta.

Nombre cientĂ­fico

Physalis peruviana

Previos blogs de Agro-Insight

La achojcha: hortaliza inca

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Lectura adicional

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

Para mĂĄs informaciĂłn sobre la uchuva como maleza invasora, vea Invasive Species Compendium por CABI.

Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

A revolution for our soil

Reviving soils

The intricacies of mulching

Stop erosion

What counts in agroecology

The big mucuna

Farming with trees

Videos on soil health practices

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Good microbes for plants and soil

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Making a vermicompost bed

Grass strips against soil erosion

Intercropping maize with pigeon peas

Intercropping pineapples

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Flying pest control robots September 13th, 2020 by

My friend Steve Peck is a novelist and a professor of evolutionary ecology, whose work on mathematical models of insect populations led him to the topic of one of his short stories, about a tiny flying robot, modelled after a dragonfly. The robots would cruise the countryside, looking for insect pests, which it killed, while sparing the beneficial insects. The story seemed pretty far-fetched when it was published in 2012.

I recently told the dragonfly robot story to another friend, Keith Andrews, an entomologist with years of experience in pest control in Central America. Keith immediately seized on the robot idea. “How did it run, on photovoltaic cells? Did it collect its prey in a kind of stomach or just kill them?”

The story doesn’t say what powered the dragonflies, just that they snipped off bits of their prey to store in a mechanical stomach, so that researchers could identify the bugs later from their DNA.

Real life dragonflies do hunt and kill other insects, to eat. But once a predatory insect is full it rests. A robot wouldn’t need to pause and digest, and could be programmed to just keep up the slaughter all day.

“A robot would be great for that plague of locusts in Africa,” Keith said. “It wouldn’t have to damage an insect much to disable it. A good zap right between the eyes or even to the thorax or abdomen would put a grasshopper out of business.”

A pest control robot could be instructed to target only the pest species of interest, and not kill anything else. It would be the ultimate ecological pest control strategy.

Since Steve published his story eight years ago, the pieces for a dragonfly robot have started to come together.

For starters, flying robots are getting better.

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little writes that inventors already have a prototype weed-killing robot called See & Spray, that uses a large set of digital photos to distinguish cotton seedlings from weeds. As a tractor pulls See & Spray across the field, the device spots the weeds and squirts them with herbicide. (No doubt future generations of the technology may invent alternatives to herbicide; the point is that the robot can recognize weeds).

Little also describes a robot, already in commercial use, that kills sea lice, parasites of farmed salmon, by zapping the pests with a laser (in the recent blog The Fate of Food).

If you’re wondering if digital software could work to identify pests on small farms, it’s already being done. Researchers at IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) in Kenya have invented an app called Nuru (Swahili for “light”) that instantly compares thousands of photos of diseased and healthy plants to distinguish between cassava brown streak disease, cassava mosaic disease and cassava green mite damage. The app is already being tested by 28,000 farmers in Kenya.

Art can inspire technology ahead of its time. Novels fueled the idea of space travel, but engineers made it happen. I can only hope that some young robotics designers will read Steve Peck’s story.

Further Reading

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

Peck, Steven L. 2012 Dragonfly Miscalculations. The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.

RTB 2019 Smarter farming: Using apps to diagnose crop health problems. In RTB 2019 Building for better science. Annual Report 2019. Lima, Peru. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. Available online at: www.rtb.cgiar.org/2019-annual-report

Building a better fruit fly trap August 16th, 2020 by

The Mediterranean fruit fly is a worthy enemy. This pest, also known as the medfly, is widespread over the tropics, attacking and spoiling oranges, mangos and many other fruits. Each female can lay 200 eggs in her brief lifetime—allowing rapid population growth. The medfly damages so much high value fruit, that many people would like to eradicate it entirely.

The medfly has inspired some bizarre responses, such as spraying suburban Los Angeles with Malathion (insecticide) in the 1980s. Then there is the sterile male technique, which has been used from South America to South Africa to the US citrus belt, where billion of the flies are reared in labs, and treated with enough nuclear radiation to make the males sterile. These hapless males are then dropped from airplanes to mate with wild females, who then have no offspring. These programs to eradicate fruit flies over all of Guatemala, for example) are often described as successful, cost-effective and environmentally friendly. They are also large, expensive and highly technical affairs.

Low technology has also been tried. In Bolivia, the soda pop bottle trap has been around for perhaps 20 years, although it has not been widely adopted. You take a plastic drink bottle, punch some fly-sized holes in the side, pour in half a cup of orange juice and hang the bottle from an orchard tree, about shoulder height. The flies come for the juice, fly into the hole, but usually can’t find their way out of the bottle again and drown in the juice.

It’s fine in theory, but when I saw the traps being used in the field, the farmers had quickly given up on them, allowing the orange juice to decay to a black rot. The farmers had tried a trap or two and abandoned the idea. The traps may have needed some further tweaking.

Our personal battle with the medfly began three years ago, when we couldn’t get them out of our guava tree. Entomologist Luis Crespo told us that the flies love guava so much that peach growers have to cut down their guava trees as a first step to managing the pest (The best knowledge is local and scientific). But Luis kindly gave us a pheromone trap, which attracts flies with a sexual scent lure. The flies land on the trap’s sticky surface and die.

Pheromones typically trap one particular species of fly, but we had several, and by then the soil around our guava tree was full of pupating and highly fertile fruit flies. We reluctantly pruned our guava so it wouldn’t bear fruit, but by last year we were getting fruit fly larvae in our tomatoes and even in our avocados, (not a major fruit fly host).

The war was on. We loathed the thought of fruit flies in our avocados, and this was our last chance to stamp out the fly. We uprooted all our tomatoes. Ana and her dad made dozens of traps. Even a technology made from a pop bottle can evolve. We had seen improved models displayed by students at the local fair sponsored by the agricultural college.

You can make a better trap by painting a yellow stripe around the entry holes. Fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow. Take two bottles and make a T-shaped trap. As the flies ascend from the juice to the top of the bottle, they fly into the second bottle and cannot find their way out again. During the mild winter, we may have two to four flies in each pop bottle trap, while the old traps made from a single bottle would catch one or two medflies.

It seemed like a waste to squeeze fresh juice for flies, but we learned with experience that even when the orange juice was a month old, the fruit flies still swarmed to it because they are attracted to fermenting fruits and vegetables.

Traps might also work in a commercial orchard, if you could get hundreds of pop bottles. People are starting to manufacture yellow traps and there are alternative baits (like chicha, a local, low-alcohol brew, which is already fermented and easier to get than orange juice). In spite of our improvements, one has to attack fruit flies with several weapons at once. Our traps are better for monitoring than for total fruit fly control. If not for the Covid lockdown, we would buy some low-toxic insecticide to make more lethal food traps. And we won’t know until our next avocado crop comes in if we have eradicated our fruit flies or not, but at least we have a better fly trap.

Scientific name

The Mediterranean fruit fly is Ceratitis capitata, but other fruit fly genera in Bolivia include Anastrepha and Bactrocera.

Related blog story

Guardians of the mango

Related videos

Killing fruit flies with food baits

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Collecting fallen fruit against fruit flies

Integrated approach against fruit flies

Further reading

Enkerlin, W. R., J. M. GutiĂ©rrez Ruelas, R. Pantaleon, C. Soto Litera, A. Villaseñor CortĂ©s, J. L. Zavala LĂłpez, D. Orozco DĂĄvila et al. 2017 The Moscamed Regional Programme: Review of a Success Story of Area‐Wide Sterile Insect Technique Application. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 164(3):188-203.

Pay and learn July 19th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación Extensionists often give information away for free, but selling it may get you a more tuned-in audience. This is the conclusion of researcher Gérard Zoundji and colleagues in a recent paper published in Experimental Agriculture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

Related blog stories

Private screenings

Call anytime

Sorghum and millets on the rise

Watch the videos

The 11 fighting striga videos

And the 9 vegetable videos:

Managing vegetable nematodes

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

PAGAR Y APRENDER

por Jeff Bentley, 19 de julio del 2020

Los extensionistas a menudo dan informaciĂłn gratis, pero se puede conseguir un pĂșblico mĂĄs atento si cobra. Esta es la conclusiĂłn del investigador GĂ©rard Zoundji y sus colegas en un reciente artĂ­culo publicado en Experimental Agriculture.

Zoundji comparó tres grupos de personas en África occidental que habían recibido un DVD con videos de aprendizaje para agricultores. Había una colección de videos sobre la producción de hortalizas y otra del manejo de la estriga, una maleza parasítica. Los videos podían mostrarse en varios idiomas locales, o en inglés o francés.

Cuando las ONGs de BenĂ­n entregaron los DVDs a los agricultores organizados, tendĂ­an a ver los videos y experimentar con los estilos de siembra y otras ideas que se apreciaban en los videos. Pero algunos agricultores que recibieron los DVDs gratis no mostraron los videos a amigos y vecinos, quejĂĄndose de que necesitaban combustible para sus generadores, u otro tipo de apoyo.

La apreciaciĂłn del pĂșblico mejorĂł cuando los DVD fueron compartidos por ONGs comprometidas con el tema y las comunidades. En MalĂ­, las organizaciones que habĂ­an enseñado el manejo de la estriga se dieron cuenta de la importancia de la maleza y organizaron proyecciones de los videos en las aldeas. El personal profesional de las ONGs estaba disponible para responder a las preguntas de la gente despuĂ©s de la proyecciĂłn. Las ONGs dejaron copias del DVD con los habitantes locales, que por lo general se organizaron por su cuenta para volver a ver los videos mĂĄs tarde, para estudiar el contenido. Los agricultores experimentaron intensamente con las ideas que habĂ­an aprendido, como sembrar leguminosas entre los surcos de cereales, para controlar la estriga de forma natural.

Pero la gran recompensa era cuando los agricultores compraron los DVDs por su cuenta, en las tiendas. La mayorĂ­a sĂłlo pagĂł un dĂłlar o dos por los DVDs sobre las hortalizas, pero el comprar la informaciĂłn le dio valor. Todos los clientes que pagaron vieron los videos y la mayorĂ­a los mostraron en casa a amigos y vecinos. Les servĂ­an las ideas agrĂ­colas; algunos compraron equipos de riego por goteo que habĂ­an visto en la pantalla. Otros aprendieron a manejar nematodos (gusanos microscĂłpicos) sin plaguicidas quĂ­micos.

Los agricultores que compraron los DVDs también experimentaron con la tecnología digital que se usa para mostrar los videos. Casi el 15% compró lectores de DVD para ver los videos. Algunos prestaron los DVD a sus hijos en la universidad, quienes copiaron los videos del disco, los convirtieron a un formato apto para teléfonos (3gp) y luego cargaron los videos en los dispositivos móviles de amigos y colegas.

La venta de informaciĂłn atrae a un pĂșblico auto seleccionado: personas interesadas que se tomarĂĄn el contenido en serio. Los extensionistas expertos que aprecian los videos tambiĂ©n demuestran su valor organizando programas de video de forma respetuosa con las comunidades y sus lĂ­deres. Pero cuando los DVDs se regalan asĂ­ no mĂĄs, aunque contengan videos de calidad cinematogrĂĄfica sobre temas cruciales, los agricultores pueden ver los videos y valorarlos, o no. Las personas que pagan por la informaciĂłn aprecian su importancia.

Lectura adicional

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

Historias de blog sobre temas relacionados

Private screenings

Call anytime

Sorghum and millets on the rise

Vea los videos

Los 11 videos: fighting striga

De los cuales algunos estån en español:

La micro dosis

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

Animales, ĂĄrboles y cultivos

Y los 9 videos sobre hortalizas:

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas                

Redes contra insectos en almĂĄcigo

Riego por goteo para el tomate

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

Manejo de la fertilidad del suelo

Making a chilli seedbed

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

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