WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

Zoom to Titicaca June 6th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Covid may be the world’s most spectacular emerging disease, but agriculture has its own new pests and diseases. Fortunately, collaboration between agronomists and farmers can offer solutions, as I saw in a recent meeting on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

This is 2021, so we met on Zoom, but I was struck by how much the meeting resembled others I have attended in person with farmers and agronomists.

Ing. Sonia Laura, a researcher from Prosuco who works closely with farmers, had driven out to the village of Iquichachi, a couple of hours from La Paz. Sonia set up the call on her laptop, and the farmers (Sra. Cristina, Sra. Arminda, Sr. Juan, Sr. Paulino, Sr. Zenobio, and Sr. Fidel) all managed to squeeze onto the screen. Bundled up in coats and hats against the high Andean cold, they explained how several years ago, they noticed a new worm eating the potatoes they store at home.

The moth lays its eggs on stored potatoes, and on potato plants in the field. The eggs hatch into caterpillars that go back and forth: from field to home in the harvest, and from storage to field with the seed.

The farmers showed some graphs of data they had been collecting with Sonia, under advice from Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, an agronomist from Proinpa, who joined the call from his office in La Paz. Reinaldo and the farmers had been using the sex scent (pheromone) of female moths to attract and trap the male moths. Each moth species has its own unique sex pheromone. Reinaldo had identified the pests, two related species of tuber moths, native to the Andes, but usually found in the lower, warmer valleys. Both species belong to a moth family that specializes in infesting stored foods.

The agronomist Raúl Ccanto joined us from Peru, from the NGO Yanapai. Raúl explained that Peruvian farmers had suffered from these two moths for many years. Over the years of working with the farmers, Yanapai and others had developed some practical solutions.

As Raúl explained, select the seed carefully. When you take seed from the house to plant in the field, make sure that you only plant healthy tubers, not the ones full of worms.

Also rotate your crops. “This is something you farmers have always done, but it’s important to say that it is a good thing.” Growing potatoes one year, followed by other roots and tubers (such as oca and papalisa, which are not of the potato family), and then other legumes and cereals, helps to keep the soil free of potato pests.

Raúl’s PowerPoint included the results of experiments, done in collaboration with Peruvian farmers, where they tried various ways to manage the moths in stored seed potato. One idea that worked well, and was also cheap, was to dust healthy seed potatoes with talc, which keeps the moths from laying their eggs in potatoes. The talc worked almost as well as malathion, the insecticide.

Raúl skipped lightly over the malathion, barely mentioning it, and for good reason. He had included the chemical treatment in the experiment as a comparison, but he was not promoting it. As Reinaldo explained, farmers often prefer insecticides and use them even in stored potatoes, which one should not do.

In fact, medical schools in Bolivia teach their third-year students to diagnose and treat malathion poisoning, because it is common. “This is something you’ll see,” the older doctors tell their students.

With any new pest or disease, it’s important to know where it came from. Raúl explained that the moths may have recently colonized the cold Altiplano, not just because of climate change, but also because people are bringing wormy seed in from fairs in distant parts of the country. And they are growing more potatoes. As more of the land is planted more often and over larger areas, to meet market demand, a more attractive environment is created for potato pests.

Yes, the farmers agreed, potatoes are being grown more often. And that is why it is crucial for scientists and farmers to put their heads together, to confirm useful ideas, from different perspectives.

The farmers wanted to know if there was something they could apply to their potatoes, to kill the moth. Raúl and Reinaldo both explained that there is no one thing that will manage the pest. It will have to be managed by rotating crops, and by selecting healthy seed. Other ideas like dusting the potatoes with talc will also help. The good news is that the moths can be managed.

It may be in human nature to yearn for simple solutions. Many of us have simply wished that Covid would go away, and that things would go back to normal. Like Covid, managing the tuber moth will require several good ideas, well explained, widely shared and applied.

In this case, the new information motivated the farmers to set up their own experiments. Sonia told me that after our call, the farmers met to reflect and take action. They decided that each one of them would select their seed, clean their potato storeroom, and sprinkle talc on the selected seed. They will keep using the pheromone traps, among other things. Later, they will explain these practices to their other community members, to take action as a group.

Scientific names

The tuber moths are Phthorimaea operculella and Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) are native Andean crops, not widely grown outside the region. The papalisa is also called “olluco” in Peru.

Talc is a clay mineral, magnesium silicate, a natural stone that is ground to make a powder.

Acknowledgements

Sonia Laura works with María Quispe at Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) in La Paz.

Raúl Ccanto works at Grupo Yanapai (meaning “to help” in Quechua), in Peru.

Reinaldo Quispe works at Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), Bolivia.

The work with the Andean tuber moths is supported by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program).

Thanks to Sonia Laura and to Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.

Photos

Thanks also to Sonia Laura for her beautiful photographs.

ZOOM AL TITICACA

Por Jeff Bentley, 6 de junio del 2021

El Covid-19 podría ser la enfermedad nueva más espectacular del mundo, pero la agricultura tiene sus propias plagas y enfermedades emergentes. Afortunadamente, la colaboración entre agrónomos y agricultores puede ofrecer soluciones, como vi en una reciente reunión a orillas del Lago Titicaca.

Estamos en el 2021, así que nos reunimos por Zoom, pero me sorprendió lo mucho que se parecía la reunión a otras a las que he asistido en persona con agricultores y agrónomos.

La Ing. Sonia Laura, una investigadora de Prosuco, que trabaja estrechamente con los agricultores, había ido en camioneta hasta la comunidad rural de Iquicachi, a un par de horas de La Paz. Sonia organizó la llamada en su laptop, y los agricultores (las y los señores Cristina, Arminda y Juan, Paulino, Zenobio, Fidel,) se hicieron entrar todos en la pantalla. Abrigados con chompas y gorros contra el frío altoandino, explicaron que hace pocos años se dieron cuenta de que un nuevo gusano se comía las papas que almacenaban en sus casas.

La polilla de papa pone sus huevos en las papas almacenadas y en las plantas de papas en el campo. De los huevos nacen gusanos del campo, que van a casa en la cosecha, y del almacén regresan a la chacra con la semilla.

Los agricultores mostraron algunos gráficos de datos que habían estado recopilando con Sonia, bajo la orientación del Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, de Proinpa, quien se unió a la llamada desde su oficina en La Paz. Sonia y los agricultores habían estado usando el olor sexual (feromona) de las polillas hembras para atraer y atrapar a las polillas macho. Cada especie de polilla tiene su propia feromona sexual. Reinaldo había identificado las plagas, dos especies relacionadas de polillas del tubérculo, nativas de los Andes, pero que suelen encontrarse en los valles más bajos y cálidos. Ambas especies pertenecen a una familia de polillas especializada en infestar alimentos almacenados.

Desde Perú nos acompañó el agrónomo Raúl Ccanto, de la ONG Yanapai. Raúl explicó que los agricultores peruanos habían sufrido estas dos polillas durante muchos años. A lo largo de sus años de trabajo con los agricultores, Yanapai y otros han desarrollado algunas soluciones prácticas.

Como explicó Raúl, hay que seleccionar la semilla con cuidado. Cuando saques la semilla de la casa para sembrarla, asegúrate de plantar sólo los tubérculos sanos, no los que están llenos de gusanos.

También hay que rotar los cultivos. “Esto es algo que ustedes los agricultores siempre han hecho, pero es importante decir que es bueno que lo hagan”. Lo que ayuda a mantener el suelo libre de plagas de la papa es cultivarlas solo un año, seguido de otras raíces y tubérculos (como la oca y la papalisa, que no son de la familia de la papa), y luego sembrar leguminosas y cereales.

La presentación de Raúl incluyó los resultados de los experimentos, realizados en colaboración con agricultores peruanos, en los que se probaron varias formas de controlar las polillas en los almacenes de semillas de papa. Una idea que funcionó bien, y que además era barata, fue rociar la papa seleccionada con talco, que impide que las polillas pongan sus huevos en las papas. El talco funcionaba casi tan bien como el malatión, el insecticida.

Raúl pasó por alto el malatión; apenas lo mencionó, y con razón. Había incluido el tratamiento químico en el experimento como comparación, pero no lo promovía. Como explicó Reinaldo, los agricultores suelen preferir los insecticidas y los usan incluso en las papas almacenadas, lo cual no se debe hacer.

De hecho, las facultades de medicina de Bolivia enseñan a sus estudiantes de tercer año a diagnosticar y tratar la intoxicación por malatión, porque es algo común. “Esto es algo que van a ver”, dicen los doctores a sus alumnos.

Con cualquier plaga o enfermedad nueva, es importante saber de dónde viene. Raúl explicó que las polillas pueden haber colonizado recientemente el frío Altiplano, no sólo por el cambio climático, sino también porque la gente está trayendo semillas agusanadas de ferias en otras partes del país. Y están cultivando más papas sobre mayor superficie. A medida que se siembra más seguido y en más área, para satisfacer la demanda del mercado, se crea un ambiente más atractivo para las plagas de la papa.

Sí, los agricultores reconocieron que hoy en día las papas se cultivan más seguido. Y por eso es crucial que científicos y agricultores compartan sus ideas, para confirmar las que son útiles.

Los agricultores querían saber si había algo que pudieran aplicar a sus papas para matar la polilla. Raúl y Reinaldo explicaron que no hay una sola cosa que la pueda manejar. Habrá que controlar la plaga mediante la rotación de cultivos y la buena selección de semillas. Otras ideas, como aplicar talco a las papas, también ayudarán. La buena noticia es que las polillas sí tienen solución.

Tal vez algo en la naturaleza humana anhela las soluciones sencillas. Muchos hemos deseado que el Covid desaparezca de una sola vez, y que las cosas vuelvan a la normalidad. Al igual que el Covid, el manejo de la polilla de la papa requerirá varias buenas ideas, bien explicadas, ampliamente compartidas y competentemente aplicadas.

En este caso, la nueva información motivó la gente a armar sus propios experimentos. Sonia me informa que se reunieron para reflexionar y tomar acuerdos. Decidieron que cada persona del grupo haría la selección de semilla. Limpiaría su almacén de papas, y pondría talco en las papas seleccionadas. Seguirán con las trampas con feromonas, entre otras cosas. Luego comunicarán estas prácticas en una reunión con toda la comunidad para tener un trabajo comunal en el control de esta plaga.

Nombres científicos

Las polillas de la papa son Phthorimaea operculella y Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

La oca (Oxalis tuberosa) y la papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) son cultivos nativos andinos, poco cultivados fuera de la región. La papalisa también se llama “olluco” en el Perú.

El talco es silicato de magnesio. Es una piedra natural que se muele para obtener el polvo. Como explica Raúl Ccanto, es un “mineral no metálico”.

Agradecimientos

Sonia Laura trabaja con María Quispe en Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) en La Paz.

Raúl Ccanto trabaja en el Grupo Yanapai (que significa “ayudar” en quechua), en el Perú.

Reinaldo Quispe trabaja en Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), en Bolivia.

El trabajo con las polillas de la papa está apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos) de la Fundación McKnight.

Gracias a Sonia Laura y a Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa de este relato.

Fotos

Gracias también a Sonia Laura por sus hermosas fotos.

A Greener Revolution in Africa May 2nd, 2021 by

After settling in the USA in the 1990s, Isaac Zama would visit his native Cameroon almost every year, until war broke out in late 2016, and it became too dangerous to go home. About that same time a new satellite TV company, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation (SCBC), was formed to broadcast news and information in English. (Cameroon was formed from a French colony and part of a British one in 1961).

In 2018, Isaac approached SCBC to start a TV program on agriculture to help Southern Cameroonians who could no longer work as a result of the war, and the thousands of refugees who sought refuge in Nigeria. The broadcasters readily agreed. With his PhD in agriculture and rural development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his roots in a Cameroonian village, Isaac was well placed to find content that farmers back home would appreciate. “I did some research on the Internet, and I found Access Agriculture,” said Isaac. “I liked it so much that I watched every single video.”

Isaac soon started a TV program, Amba Farmers’ Voice, which began to air every Sunday at 4 PM, Cameroon time. It is rebroadcast several times a week to give more people a chance to watch the program. With frequent power cuts many are not able to tune in on Sundays.

The program is broadcast live from Isaac’s studio in Virginia. He starts with a basic introduction in West African Pidgin. “If I’m going to show a video on rabbits, I start by explaining what a is rabbit,” Isaac explains. “And that we can learn from farmers in Kenya how to build a rabbit house, and to care for these animals.” After playing an Access Agriculture video on the topic (in English), Isaac comments on it in Pidgin, for the older, rural viewers who may not speak English. His remarks are carefully scripted, and based on background reading and research.

The show lasts an hour or more and allows Isaac to play several videos. Amba Farmers’ Voice has its own Facebook and YouTube pages. While his program is on the air, Isaac checks out the Facebook page to get an idea of how many people are watching. A popular topic like caring for rabbits may have 1,000 viewers just on Facebook. But most people watch the satellite broadcast. SCBC estimates that two to three million people watch Amba Farmers’ Voice in Cameroon, but many others also watch it in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and even in some Francophone countries, like Benin and Gabon.

Some farmers reciprocate, sending Isaac pictures and videos that they have shot themselves, showing off their own experiments, adapting the ideas from the videos to conditions in Cameroon. Isaac heard from one group of “mothers in the village” who showed how they were using urine to fertilize their corn, after watching an Access Agriculture video from Uganda.

People in refugee camps watched the video on sack mounds, showing how to grow vegetables in a large, soil-filled bag. But gunny sacks were scarce in the refugee camp, so people improvised, filling plastic bags with earth and growing tomatoes in them, so they could grow some food within the confines of the camp.

Isaac mentioned that people were installing drip irrigation after seeing the video from Benin about it.

“That can be expensive,” I said. “People have to buy materials.”

“Not really,” Isaac answered. Gardeners take used drink bottles from garbage dumps, fill them with water, poke holes in the cap, and leave them to drip slowly on their plants.

After seeing the video from Benin on feeding giant African snails (for high-quality meat), one young man in the Southern Cameroons got used tires and stacked one on top of the other to make the snail pen. It’s an innovation he came up with after watching the Access Agriculture video. He puts two tires in a stack, puts the snails in the bottom, and feeds them banana peels and other fruit and vegetable waste. Isaac tells his audience “We don’t need to buy anything. Just open your eyes and adapt. See what you can find to use.”

Solar dryers were another topic that people adapted from the videos. To save money, they made the dryers from bamboo, instead of wood, and shared one between several families. As a further adaptation, people are drying grass in the solar dryer. Access Agriculture has four videos on using solar dryers to preserve high value produce like pineapples, mangoes and chillies, but none show grass drying. Isaac explains that you sprinkle a little salt on the grass as you dry it. Then, in the dry season you put the grass in water and it turns fresh again. Now he is encouraging youth to form groups so they can dry grass to store, to sell to farmers when forage is scarce.

I was delighted to see so many local experiments, just from people who watch videos on television, with no extension support.

All of this interaction, between Isaac Zama and his compatriots, the teaching, feedback and organisation, is all happening on TV and online. He hasn’t been to Cameroon since he started his program.  Isaac’s interaction with his audience amazes me. It’s a testimony to his talent, but also to the improved connectivity in rural Africa.

“People think that Africans don’t have cell phones,” Isaac says, “but 30% of the older farmers in villages have android phones. Their adult children, living in cities or abroad, buy phones for their parents so they can stay in touch and so they can see each other on WhatsApp.” Isaac adds that what farmers need now is an app so they can watch agricultural videos cheaper.

Dr. Isaac Zama wants to encourage other stations to broadcast farmer learning videos: “Those videos from Access Agriculture will revolutionize agriculture in Africa in two or three years, if our national leaders would just broadcast them on TV. The farmers would do it themselves, just from the information they can see on the videos.” Isaac is willing to collaborate with other TV stations across the world, to share his experience or to broadcast Amba Farmers Voice, but particularly with broadcasters in Africa who are interested in agricultural development

Related Agro-Insight blogs

To drip or not to drip

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

Cell phones for smallholders

A connecting business

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana

Watch the Access Agriculture videos mentioned in this story

How to build a rabbit house

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Drip irrigation for tomato

Feeding snails

Solar drying pineapples, Making mango crisps, Solar drying of kale leaves and Solar drying of chillies

 

Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Khipu, a story tied in knots

Digital African agriculture

Friends you can trust

Pay and learn

Private screenings

Translate to innovate

Pony Express December 13th, 2020 by

From April 1860 to October 1861, a private mail service, called the Pony Express, carried letters by horseback. By running at full throttle day and night, horses and riders could relay a mail pouch, called a mochila, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento California, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah: over 1,900 miles (3,100 km) away in ten days. Depending on the terrain, “swing stations” were placed about ten miles apart, where a stock tender kept a corral full of small, swift horses. The rider would gallop into the station, swing his mochila over the saddle of a fresh horse, and ride off. After some 70 miles, he would hand his mochila to the next man at a “home station” where the riders ate and slept.

The riders were just boys; “orphans preferred” said one classic ad (perhaps written to entice teens with the thrill of danger). Riders were small men, who could weigh no more than 125 pounds (57 kilos), to be light on the ponies.

As a teenager, I also worked briefly on the Pony Express, not riding it, but digging it. I was 19, about the same age as the riders had been. I worked as an archaeological laborer for one of my professors, Dale Berge, under a government contract to excavate the Pony Express home station at Simpson Springs in the Great Basin, southwest of Salt Lake City.

The sagebrush stretched for miles, rimmed by distant mountains, a bit like it must have looked when the ponies still ran. The ruined station was easy to spot. The lower walls of a three-room cabin and a corral were clearly visible.

For all its originality, the Pony Express did rely on some earlier endeavors, especially existing roads, like the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City. Some of the stations were already in place, including the one at Simpson Springs, founded in 1859 when entrepreneur George Chorpenning set up a tent on a stone foundation to serve his mail freight line from Utah to California. In 1860, the Pony Express simply bought Chorpenning’s station after the government conveniently cancelled his mail contract that same year.

The Pony Express built the stone cabin and installed a station keeper named George Dewees, to cook the bacon and beans, and to bake bread for the boys. No booze was allowed on the Pony Express.

In spite of the lure of sudden death, the Pony Express was well organized and dependable, operated by the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. Yet expenses were high and the Pony Express never made money. The enterprise stopped taking mail two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed on 24 October 1861, linking the Eastern USA with California. The ponies’ last letters were delivered in November. The Pony Express was killed by the telegraph, a faster information and communication technology (ICT).

Bits of the Pony Express system lingered for a while. The telegraph was like the email of the 1860s. It carried text, but parcels had to go by snail mail, or in this case, by stage coach. Wells Fargo kept delivering mail to California in wagons along the old Pony Express route until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. A family named Mulliner was living at Simpson Springs in 1890, operating a local stage line. But by 1891 even the station was abandoned.

For all its originality, the Pony Express only lasted a year and a half. The Western Union telegraph that replaced it lasted for 145 years, until 27 January 2006. A communication technology that is carried on by many actors, like book publishing, can evolve for centuries, but a complex system like the Pony Express that is centrally controlled, complicated, and serves a narrow, localized demand, can end as suddenly as it began. Still, any enterprise as romantic and audacious as the Pony Express may stay in the public memory for a long time.

Further reading

My main source of information was Dr. Berge’s site report on Simpson Springs. Ever the gentleman, in his acknowledgements Professor Berge was kind enough to mention me, although I was just a 19-year-old student.

Berge, Dale L. 1980. Simpson Springs Station Historical Archaeology in Western Utah 1974-1975. Salt Lake City: Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Cultural Resource Series No. 6. https://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=45926

Related blog stories

Book rate

Lions, leopards and overnight delivery

The talking wires

Dick’s ice box

Khipu: A story tied in knots

Photos

Pony Express Route by Jkan997 source: http://sharemap.org/public/Pony%20Express%20Route

Pony Express recruitment poster from Berge (1980).

Book rate November 29th, 2020 by

Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General of the United States, during the second Continental Congress. He had experience, having been Deputy Postmaster General for all the American colonies under the British (1753-1774). But even in 1775, Franklin was one of the most respected of the founding fathers, and older than most of the others; he could have rejected the mail job. But he took it in part because he saw that a postal service would knit the States together. As a printer, writer and publisher, Franklin also understood the strategic advantage of the post for newspapers, and he established a special, low rate for publications. Newspapers could be sent through the mail for just a penny, or a penny and a half, while a letter could cost the fat sum of 25 cents. For its first 50 years, the post office was largely a newspaper delivery system, owned by the federal government, but financed by the sale of postage.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, added to Franklin’s ideal by guaranteeing mail delivery at a uniform rate of postage, even to the new, distant states out west. Blair was clearly a visionary who also proposed the first international postal conference (held in Paris in 1863) and created the postal money order, to cut down on cash going through the mails, to avoid robberies. In recognition of these achievements, on 12 July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early burned down Blair’s home in Silver Springs, Maryland.

During the Great Depression, president Franklin Roosevelt introduced a special “book rate,” endowed with a subsidy from Congress in 1933, to allow anyone to mail any publication at a special, low fee. A book could go across the country for a few cents.

I had my first brush with the book rate as a little boy, when my mom sent me to the post office alone with a package. “Be sure and tell them it’s a book, and they will charge you less,” mom said.

I handed the clerk the book, wrapped in brown paper. I hesitated and added, “It’s a book.”

“Alright dear,” she said. “Then that will be …” and she quoted me some ridiculous price, low enough to surprise even a kid.

The book rate lives on in the USA, now called the “Media Mail Service”, in recognition that a nation should promote information and learning.

Now, in 2020, educational materials are increasingly shared online, not through the postal system. Millions of smallholders in Southern countries now have a smart phone, and are online for the first time, getting an unprecedented amount of information, from sports, and science to nonsense.

Fortunately, there is a lot of free educational material online. Wikipedia is well written, by citizen scholars. Respected British newspaper, The Guardian, posts online stories for anyone to read, as does the BBC, the Smithsonian Institution and many others. And Access Agriculture has posted over 200 well-researched training videos for farmers, for free, in over 80 languages. The spirit of the book rate lives on.

Related blog stories

Lions, leopards and overnight delivery

The talking wires

Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1958 The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 434 pp.

For some history of the US postal service, see: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/

Photo credits

Benjamin Franklin. Colored aquatint by P. M. Alix, 1790, after C. P. A. van Loo. From the Wellcome Library. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Portrait_of_Benjamin_Franklin._Wellcome_L0017902.jpg

Smallholders reading, by Paul Van Mele, Bangladesh, 2013.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Keith Andrews for suggesting the book rate as a topic and for reading an earlier version of this story. Thanks also to Paul Van Mele for his insightful comments.

Design by Olean webdesign