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Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

What counts in agroecology August 18th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Measuring the costs and benefits of a small farm can be harder than on a large one, especially if the small farm includes an orchard and makes many of its own inputs, as I saw on a recent visit to Sipe Sipe, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a faith-based organization, AgroecologĂ­a y Fe (Agroecology and Faith) is setting up ecological orchards.

The director of Agroecology and Faith, Germán Vargas, explained that a forest creates soil, gradually building up rich, black earth under the trees, while agriculture usually exposes the soil to erosion. A farm based on trees, with organic fertilizer, and with vegetables growing beneath the trees, should be a way to make a profit while conserving the soil. 

Extensionist Marcelina AlarcĂłn showed us the apple trees that she and local farmers planted in August, 2018. They started by terracing the one hectare of gently sloping land. In one week of hard work they built a 200,000 liter, circular water reservoir of stone and concrete (gravity-fed with stream water) to irrigate the terraces and three additional hectares. The cost was 64,000 Bs. ($9,275), which seems like a big investment, but similar reservoirs built 30 years ago are still working.

Lush beds of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, wheat, onions (some plants grown for their seed) are thriving beneath the apple trees. When one crop is harvested another takes its place, in complex rotations over small spaces. No chemicals are used, but the group makes calcium sulphate spray and liquid organic fertilizers to improve the soil, prevent crop diseases and enhance the production and quality of the apples and vegetables.

The group has harvested vegetables four times and sold them directly to consumers at fairs organized by Agroecology and Faith for a total gross receipt of 4,380 Bolivianos ($635).

I was visiting the farm at Sipe Sipe with a small group organized by Agroecology and Faith and some of their allies. Some of the lettuce, onions and tomatoes from the farm end up in a tub during our visit, to make a salad for the visitors—part of a fabulous lunch (complete with fresh potatoes and mutton cooked underground) offered at a modest cost. Produce cooked on site and sold informally on the farm are probably not counted when estimating profitability. After the tour of the farm and before the lunch, Marcelina set up a table with some vegetables for sale. She was kept quite busy writing down each transaction as we bought small bags of tomatoes and other produce for amounts less than a dollar each.

The sale of half a kilo of tomatoes is as much work to document as the sale of twenty tons of rice. A small farm has many more sales than a large farm and it takes a lot of administrative work to keep track of produce that is not sold because it goes into seed, feed or onto the family table.

The cost:benefit of a conventional field is simpler to tabulate: so much labor, machinery, seed and chemicals, all purchased, and single crop yields measured with relative ease. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. Loss of soil due to erosion, or carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere, or pollution from fertilizer run-off all have a cost, even if they are often dismissed as “externalities.”

An agroforestry system like the hectare of apples and vegetables we visited starts with a large investment in irrigation and terracing. Many of the inputs are labor, or home-made fertilizers, and their cost is not always counted. The apple trees have not yet borne fruit, and some of the vegetables may escape the bookkeeper’s tally. Yet here the “externalities” have a positive and valuable contribution: soil is being created, chemical pollution is nil, and livelihoods are enriched as local farmers, mostly women, learn to work together to produce healthy food to sell. Classical economic comparisons with conventional farms fail to take account of these benefits.

Even a small farm can have a lot to consider in estimating returns, with many crops and activities and environmental services. Until we learn to measure the environmental efficiency as well as financial profitability of agroforestry or agroecological farms properly, they will never look as good as they really are.

Further reading

A recent report from the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) concludes that yield data is too poor a parameter to compare conventional (over-plowed, chemical intensive) agriculture with agroecology, a beyond-organic agriculture with soil conservation and respect for local communities.

HLPE Report on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Extract from the Report: Summary and Recommendations (19 June 2019). Rome: FAO http://www.csm4cfs.org/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

Related blogs

Out of space

Enlightened agroecology

Apple futures

Gardening against all odds

LO QUE CUENTA EN LA AGROECOLOGĂŤA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de agosto del 2019

Medir los costos y los beneficios de una pequeña finca puede ser más difícil que en una grande, especialmente si la pequeña incluye árboles y produce muchos de sus propios insumos, como vi en una reciente visita a Sipe Sipe, cerca de Cochabamba, Bolivia, donde la organización eclesial “Asociación Agroecología y Fe” (AAF) está estableciendo huertos ecológicos agroforestales.

El director de la AAF, Germán Vargas, explicĂł que un bosque crea suelo, acumulando gradualmente tierra negra y rica bajo los árboles, mientras que la agricultura suele exponer el suelo a la erosiĂłn. Una finca basada en árboles, con abonos orgánicos, y con hortalizas que crecen debajo de los árboles, deberĂ­a ser una forma de obtener beneficios al mismo tiempo que se conserva el suelo. 

La extensionista Marcelina Alarcón nos mostró los manzanos que ella y la gente local plantaron en agosto del 2018. Comenzaron haciendo terrazas en una hectárea en suave pendiente. En una semana de trabajo duro construyeron un reservorio circular de agua de 200.000 litros de piedra y concreto (llenado por gravedad de agua de riachuelo) para regar las terrazas y tres hectáreas adicionales. El costo fue de 64.000 Bs. ($9,275), que parece una inversión grande, pero reservorios similares construidos hace 30 años siguen funcionando.

Camellones exuberantes de lechuga, repollo, brócoli, trigo, cebollas (algunas cultivadas para su semilla) prosperan bajo los manzanos. Cuando se cosecha un cultivo, otro ocupa su lugar, en complejas rotaciones sobre pequeños espacios. No aplican productos químicos, pero el grupo fabrica caldo mineral sulfocálcico y abonos orgánicos líquidos para mejorar el suelo, prevenir las enfermedades de los cultivos y mejorar la producción y calidad de los manzanos y de las hortalizas.

El grupo ha cosechado verduras cuatro veces y las ha vendido directamente a los consumidores en ferias organizadas por la AAF (en una canasta solidaria y saludable) por un total de 4.380 bolivianos (635 dĂłlares).

Yo visitaba la finca agroforestal de Sipe Sipe con un pequeño grupo organizado por la AAF y algunos de sus aliados. Algunas de las lechugas, cebollas y tomates de la finca terminaron en una bañera durante nuestra visita, para hacer una ensalada para los visitantes, parte de un fabuloso almuerzo (con papas frescas y cordero cocido bajo tierra en un pampaku) ofrecido a un precio modesto. Los productos cocinados en el sitio y vendidos informalmente en la finca probablemente no se contabilizan. Después del recorrido por la finca y antes del almuerzo, Marcelina organizó una mesa para vender algunas verduras. Se mantuvo ocupada apuntando cada transacción mientras comprábamos pequeñas bolsas de tomates y otros productos por cantidades menos de un dólar cada una.

La venta de medio kilo de tomates es tanto trabajo como la venta de veinte toneladas de arroz. Una finca pequeña tiene muchas más ventas que una grande y se requiere mucho trabajo administrativo para hacer un seguimiento de los productos que no se venden porque van a parar como semilla, para alimentar a los animales o a la mesa de la familia.

El costo:beneficio de un campo convencional es más simple de tabular: tanta mano de obra, maquinaria, semillas y productos quĂ­micos, todos comprados, y el rendimiento de un solo cultivo medido con relativa facilidad. Sin embargo, esto no cuenta toda la historia. La pĂ©rdida de suelo debido a la erosiĂłn, o el carbono y nitrĂłgeno a la atmĂłsfera, o la contaminaciĂłn por la escorrentĂ­a de los fertilizantes, todos ellos tienen un costo, aunque a menudo se desestimen como “externalidades”.

Un sistema agroforestal, como la hectárea de manzanas y hortalizas que visitamos comienza con una gran inversiĂłn en riego y terrazas. Muchos de los insumos son mano de obra, o abonos caseros, y su costo no siempre se cuenta. Los manzanos aĂşn no han dado fruto, y algunas de las verduras pueden escaparse de la cuenta del contable. Sin embargo, aquĂ­ las “externalidades” tienen una contribuciĂłn positiva y valiosa: se está creando el suelo, la contaminaciĂłn quĂ­mica es nula y los medios de subsistencia se enriquecen a medida que los agricultores locales, en su mayorĂ­a mujeres, aprenden a trabajar juntas para producir alimentos saludables para vender. Las comparaciones econĂłmicas clásicas con las explotaciones convencionales no tienen en cuenta estos beneficios.

Incluso una pequeña granja puede tener mucho que considerar al estimar los rendimientos, con muchos cultivos y actividades y servicios ambientales. Hasta que no aprendamos a medir la eficiencia ambiental y la rentabilidad financiera de las granjas agroforestales o agroecológicas de manera adecuada, nunca se verán tan bien como realmente son.

Para leer más

Un informe reciente de la FAO (Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura) concluye que los datos sobre el rendimiento son muy pobres para poder comparar la agricultura convencional (sobre arado, con uso intensivo de químicos) con la agroecología, una agricultura que vas más allá de la orgánica, con conservación del suelo y respeto para las comunidades locales.

Resumen y recomendaciones del informe del GANESAN sobre AgroecologĂ­a y otras innovaciones (19 de junio 2019). Roma: FAO. http://www.csm4cfs.org/es/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

Historias de blog relacionadas

Out of space

La luz de la agroecologĂ­a

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The vanishing factsheet July 21st, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Villagers the world over are buying smart phones, getting on line and eagerly using and sharing information electronically. It might seem like print is going out of fashion, but paper can still be an important medium.

I recently took part in an information fair for farmers in the village of Carrillo, Cotopaxi, in highland Ecuador. Along with colleagues, I was visiting the NGO EkoRural, which has worked for years with the farmers in this land of perpetual springtime.

Such visits can turn into a performance, where the farmers put on shows for their guests. It’s always interesting, but it can be hard to tell how much of the information came from the farmers and how much was prompted by their well-meaning extensionists. This time, EkoRural turned the idea around. We visitors were given a small space to show posters and demonstrations to the local farmers, who would rotate through our stands in eight groups of 25 people.

I set up shop in a village schoolroom. I used my 15-minute time slot to show each group a farmer-to-farmer video from Bolivia. The time limit was too short to discuss the videos with my audience. So I wrote a factsheet, telling them how to log onto www.accessagriculture.org, and download more videos for free.

At least some people read the factsheets carefully and my idea seemed to be working. But I didn’t realize how much my audience wanted the factsheets until I ran out of them. I had underestimated the turnout for the event. As I handed out the last copy of the fact sheet, I turned to apologize to one farmer who still had her hand out. She gave me a piercing look of total disappointment.

Then another man stepped in. “Don’t you have your original left? I can get it photocopied,” he said helpfully.

Problem solved, or so I thought. I gave him the original I brought from Bolivia and waited for my new friend to return with the photocopies. I never saw him or the factsheet again. At least he got the information he wanted. Even in this digital age, print is still popular. It also has some advantages: it is cheap, permanent and always available to read, as my vanishing new friend will surely agree.

Watch the videos

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Further reading

Access Agriculture publishes a fact sheet for each of its videos. The fact sheets have been popular with video viewers. In a recent on-line survey, 31% of respondents said they downloaded them.

See also:

Bentley, Jeffery W. and Eric Boa 2013 The snowman outline: fact sheets by extensionists for farmers. Development in Practice.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to EkoRural for organizing our trip to Carrillo, generously supported by the McKnight Foundation.

LA HOJA VOLANTE DESAPARECIDA

La gente rural de todo el mundo está comprando teléfonos inteligentes, conectándose al Internet y usando y compartiendo información electrónicamente. Puede parecer que los impresos están pasando de moda, pero el papel todavía sirve.

Hace poco participé en un día de campo para compartir con agricultores en la comunidad de Carrillo, Cotopaxi, en los Altos Andes de Ecuador. Junto con mis colegas, visitaba la ONG EkoRural, que ha trabajado durante años con los agricultores en esta tierra de la eterna primavera.

Estas visitas pueden convertirse en todo un show, donde los agricultores presentan espectáculos para sus invitados. Siempre es interesante, pero puede ser difícil saber cuánta información proviene de los agricultores y cuánta es motivada por sus bien intencionados extensionistas. Esta vez, EkoRural dio un giro a la idea. A los visitantes se nos dio un pequeño espacio para mostrar carteles y demostraciones a los agricultores locales, quienes rotaban por nuestros stands en ocho grupos de 25 personas.

Me instalé en una escuela del pueblo. Usé mis 15 minutos para mostrar a cada grupo un video de agricultor-a-agricultor de Bolivia. El límite de tiempo no me dejaba discutir los videos con mi audiencia. Así que escribí una hoja volante, explicándoles cómo entrar en www.accessagriculture.org, y descargar más videos gratis.

Varias personas leyeron las hojas volantes cuidadosamente y mi idea parecĂ­a funcionar. Pero cuando mis hojas volantes se acababan mi di cuenta que la gente las querĂ­a de verdad. Yo habĂ­a subestimado la participaciĂłn en el evento. Mientras repartĂ­a el Ăşltimo ejemplar de las hojas volantes, di la vuelta para disculparme con una campesina que todavĂ­a extendĂ­a su mano. Me mirĂł con una mirada penetrante de total decepciĂłn.

Entonces otro hombre intervino. “ÂżNo tienes tu copia original? Puedo fotocopiarla”, dijo amablemente.

Problema resuelto, o eso creía. Le di el original que traje de Bolivia y esperé a que mi nuevo amigo volviera con las fotocopias. Nunca lo volví a ver ni a él ni a la hoja volante. Al menos él obtuvo la información que quería. Incluso en esta era digital, el material impreso sigue siendo popular. Tiene algunas ventajas: es barato, permanente y siempre disponible para leer, como seguramente estará de acuerdo mi nuevo amigo que se hizo humo.

Ver los videos

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Hacer un registro del clima

Pronosticar el clima con una aplicaciĂłn

Lectura adicional

Access Agriculture publica una hoja volante para cada uno de sus vĂ­deos. Las hojas volantes han sido muy populares entre los espectadores de vĂ­deo. En una reciente encuesta en lĂ­nea, el 31% de los encuestados dijeron que los habĂ­an descargado.

Bentley, Jeffery W. and Eric Boa 2013 The snowman outline: fact sheets by extensionists for farmers. Development in Practice.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a EkoRural por organizar nuestro viaje a Carrillo, generosamente apoyado por la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Good fungus for healthy groundnuts June 9th, 2019 by

Diseases need to be cured; this is true for people, animals and plants. In plant protection, fungicides are probably more readily seen as acceptable than insecticides, which are well known to harm the ecosystem, bees, birds and people. But plants can be protected without chemicals, as people from the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India are showing in their gradually growing series of farmer training videos.

Their latest farmer training video on root and stem rot in groundnut nicely shows how beneficial fungi like Trichoderma can control root and stem rot diseases without the need for chemical fungicides. Indian farmer Govindammal shows the viewer how she carefully coats the groundnut seed with Trichoderma, using some water to make the powder stick to the seed. She mixes it on a jute bag without using her hands, to avoid breaking the seed.

Some farmers add Trichoderma directly to the soil by mixing it in the manure. For one hectare of land, they mix two kilograms of Trichoderma with 10 baskets of farmyard manure. They leave the mix for a day in the shade before applying it to the field. The good fungi will grow faster with the manure. By broadcasting this mix on their field before sowing, farmers will grow abundant, healthy groundnuts.

Biological pest control was long restricted to insects, so when doing a Google Scholar search on root and stem rot in groundnut, I was pleasantly surprised to see that many top articles are on biological control with beneficial fungi such as Trichoderma. Indian scientists have dominated this research and hence it comes as no surprise that in India Trichoderma has become widely available as a commercial product.

Apart from their own videos, MSSRF staff have also translated farmer-to-farmer training videos that were produced in Bangladesh and Africa. MSSRF makes the Tamil versions of the videos available to farmers through its rural plant clinics and farmer learning centres.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote that “Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.” This is true, but videos can speed up this process. Besides, quality training videos will not only change the behaviour of farmers, but also extension staff, and some researchers.

Hopefully in future, we will see more research and extension in support of organic agriculture and more organic technologies will become available to farmers. As we have seen with other technologies such as drip irrigation (read: To drip or not to drip), farmer training videos can create a real demand for green technologies and trigger rural entrepreneurs to invest in them.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in English, French or Tamil

Managing mealybugs in vegetables

Managing tomato leaf curl virus

Managing bacterial leaf blight in rice

Managing aphids in beans and vegetables

Root and stem rot in groundnut (will be published in coming week)

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

A healthier way to eat groundnuts

Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Lap’iya means “dahlia” in Quechua. It’s an apt name for a village of commercial flower growers, tucked into a steep canyon in the Andes, high above the city of Cochabamba. Ana and I visited Lap’iya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don’t require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met BenjamĂ­n Vargas, a farmer, and his friend SerafĂ­n Vidal, an extension agent who are developing an agroforestry system based on apples. They are perhaps the first ones in the area to mix apples with forestry trees. They hope this combination will hold the soil on the steep slope while also providing a reliable income. Apples do well in this part of Bolivia, with a wide range of varieties that are smaller than the imported ones, but tasty. They also sell for less.

BenjamĂ­n and SerafĂ­n have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. BenjamĂ­n and SerafĂ­n wait until the apples are a few years old before planting other trees in between them, such as khishwara and pine. They prune these trees so they grow straight and tall, with fewer lower branches to cast shade on the apples.

In another small orchard, Benjamín has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. “Be careful not to step on my other plants,” he tells us. It’s only then that I spot the peas and cabbages, and the seedlings of forest trees, all growing between the apples.

Benjamín and Serafín go on to explain that they make and spray four different natural products on the apples. One they call a biofertilizer, another is biol (a fermented cow dung slurry), a third is a product that is rich in micro-organisms, and finally they use a sulfur-lime brew. The men say that all of these are fertilizers, although I think of the sulfur-lime spray as more of a homemade pesticide). Benjamín said that his kids run in and out of the trees, picking vegetables to eat, and he doesn’t want to spray anything unhealthy on the trees.

These innovators say that their idea was to control pests by keeping the trees well fertilized. The men say that they are not out to fight insect pests: “This is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.”

Benjamín and Serafín said that they learn from each other; they did seem more like partners than like teacher-student. They are intercropping apples with vegetables and with forest trees to sell produce and to help conserve the soil. It will take years to see if their innovations work. Trees take a long time to grow, but I’d like to come back in a few years to see if the apples found a market, if the pests stayed at bay, and if the soil stayed firm on the mountainside.

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