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Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

Related blog stories

Her mother’s laugh

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

Learn by eating

Read more

Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

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

Keep your cows in the family October 27th, 2019 by

In the 1980s, the Portuguese farmers I lived with kept two or three cows per household. Instead of hosing down the barns—the greatest use of water on dairy farms—the cows were stabled in a large room on the ground floor of the farm house. Every couple of days, farmers would lay down a clean bed of gorse, fern, heather and other wild plants. Instead of creating toxic lagoons of manure, the families would dig the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields as organic fertilizer.

The parish of Pedralva, near Braga, Portugal, had four milking parlors. Twice a day the farmers (almost all women) would walk their cows down the lane to the milking parlor, where the operator, also a young woman, would milk the cows mechanically, record the amount of milk (clearly visible in a large, glass jar) and pipe the milk into a cold storage tank, to be picked up later by the dairy.

The milking parlor became a place where the farmers would chat and exchange ideas as they stood in line with their cows. I realize now that it was also a chance for the cows to get out of the house and take a stroll. The cows were not pets, but they all had names, enough to eat and drink, and they were never caged. The cows were usually fed on leftover maize stalks and pasture grass, although a handful of farmers with a dozen cows were starting to make silage. So, most of the feed was a byproduct of food production, rather than a diversion of human food to livestock.

The documentary film “Cowspiracy,” by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, tells of the complacency of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana: large, environmental organizations that ignore animal farming as a leading cause of climate change. Livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while the whole transportation sector makes up just 13%. Cows make greenhouse gas as they fart out methane while the tractors and fertilizer factories all burn fossil fuel.

Livestock in the USA produce 30 times more feces than people. Fecal slurry from cows and pigs is kept in “lagoons” that often leak into rivers. In tropical countries forests are cleared to make pastures. Much of the forest burned in Bolivia this year was being cleared to graze cows for beef exports to China.

In Eat for the Planet, journalists Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone raise similar concerns, especially about the use of water. In the USA it takes 2000 liters of water to make a liter of milk, 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of meat. More corn, soybeans and wheat is produced to feed animals than humans, requiring vast amounts of water, energy and land.

Add this all together and it makes sense that the livestock sector is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

Food and Animal Welfare, a recent book by Henry Buller and Emma Roe, raises concerns about the cruelty inflicted on the animals themselves. Cows, pigs and chickens have inherited instinctive behaviors from their wild ancestors: chickens like to build nests for their eggs, pigs love to dig into the moist earth, and cows enjoy grazing in the sunshine. The animals become stressed when they are unable to act out these behaviors.

On small, family farms, animals are usually handled in kinder, more environmentally sound ways. Adopting this approach on factory farms is costly and easy to avoid where regulation of animal welfare is poor and consumers don’t know or don’t care about the stresses animals face when penned up all day, every day, unable to move.

Cruelty to animals, deforestation, fecal pollution, the extravagant waste of water and the use of food grains to feed animals are all real problems of agriculture if the animals are just seen as cogs in the factory. But I have seen family farms in Latin America, Africa and Bangladesh where animals are treated a bit like they were in Portugal in the 1980s. The animals are kept clean without big hoses of water. The manure is used as fertilizer instead of being stored in lakes of filth. The animals eat at least some crop residues and spend at some time outdoors. The cows do still fart on family farms, but most other environmental problems are mitigated. Governments and the public should be thinking of more ways to encourage shorter food chains, decent prices for family farmers, enforcement of better standards, and research on appropriate technologies.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Buller, Henry, and Emma Roe 2018 Food and Animal Welfare. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 222 pp.

Zacharias, Nil and Gene Stone 2018 Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time. New York: Abrams Image. 160 pp.

Related blog stories

Stuck in the middle

It takes a family to raise a cow

Watching videos to become a dairy expert

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care

Salt blocks and mental blocks

The red bucket

A brief history of soy

Videos about caring for animals on smallholder, family farms

Hand milking of dairy cows

And many other livestock videos on Access Agriculture

Gauchos for hire October 6th, 2019 by

Picture a gaucho astride a horse on a homemade saddle, galloping like a centaur across the limitless plains of Argentina. Above his broad brimmed hat, he twirls three balls (bolas) tethered together, to fling at the feet of a fleeing bull. The rawhide cords of the bolas wrap around the lower legs of the bull and bring it crashing to the ground.

The gauchos are often portrayed as a romantic even mythical figure, so it is easy to forget that they were workers in commercial agriculture, supplying the world’s markets with export beef, even in the early nineteenth century.

Argentine historian Ricardo Salvatore has written a book about the final, glory days of the gauchos (1829 to 1852), when Argentina was governed by Juan Manuel de Rosas. Now largely vilified in his home country as a dictator and populist, Rosas liberalized markets and freed them from the restrictions and high prices imposed under colonial rule. He awarded government contracts in public, on the steps of the police station, to those who submitted the lowest tender. Rosas insisted that the courts give equal legal treatment to rich and poor, black and white. He created a large army and filled it with rural men, but he also fed their widows and families with beef confiscated from enemy ranchers.

The Argentine civil wars dragged on for decades. Rosas and his party, the Federales, favored less government. They would eventually lose to the rebel Unitarios, who wanted a strong central administration. During the war many rural people, paisanos, migrated to the relative calm of the province of Buenos Aires. Along the way young men were arrested on charges of deserting the army. Fragments of their defense statements, transcribed by court clerks, make up most of the source material for Salvatore’s book.

The gauchos were, by Salvatore’s definition, illiterate. They also worked as ranch and farm hands, and led a simple life. They owned little more than some simple horse-riding tack and the clothes on their back: a shirt, jacket, poncho, home-made boots and a chiripá (a woven cloth worn around the waist, and tucked between the legs).

The vast pampas may have been unfenced but they were policed by small town judges (jueces de paz), and owned by ranchers, who employed the gauchos to raise cattle, and to grow a few crops. Products like dried beef, hides and tallow were carted to Buenos Aires and exported, mainly to Europe. Live cattle were herded to the city. On one single day, 27 February 1847, a whopping 19,073 animals were slaughtered. It’s not clear if this was a routine toll or just a bad day for cows. In those days the meat was salted and exported, before the invention of tinned food and refrigerated shipping.

During the long, violent wars of independence from Spain (about 1809 to 1825), all of the mainland Spanish-American countries, from Mexico to Argentina, emerged as self-governing republics. In Argentina, the struggle for independence had fostered an ideology of equality, which the gauchos held onto during the civil wars that broke out soon after independence was granted. Labor shortages also strengthened the gaucho’s position with their employers. Some would demand advance pay and then vanish. Others insisted on being paid daily, to earn more than the monthly salaries that ranch owners preferred. Employers also lured the gauchos into jobs with rations of beef, tobacco, and sugar. But money and rations weren’t enough to keep gauchos on the job. They insisted on being addressed respectfully. A foreman who barked out orders like a rude command could be challenged to a knife duel by a weather-worn gaucho.

In the mid 1800s, the Argentine ranch owners purposefully played down differences in social status. The ranchers wore the same clothes as their workers, ate almost nothing but meat, and lived in houses where the only furniture was a saddle hanging on the wall.

After the Argentine civil wars ended, Salvatore says that the gauchos faded from history. Deserters were no longer of interest to the small-town judges. And the distinction between Federal and Unitario was less important, so rural travelers stopped being arrested and questioned. Gauchos appear infrequently in the police records, now mostly described as “vagabonds.”

After the 1860s, the beef economy rapidly modernized, with the introduction of barbed-wire fences and railroads. Scottish, Irish and English migrants took over many of the gaucho’s jobs in the countryside. Italians worked in the city in commerce and in packing plants.

The gauchos migrated to the towns and to the frontiers and eventually intermarried with the newcomers. The gauchos were no longer a distinct social group by the end of the 19th century. Gone but not forgotten. Modern Argentina still has an egalitarian touch; even the waiters approach their customers tall and proud, addressing their customers like friends.  Perhaps the tough, friendly spirit of the gauchos lives on, at least a bit.

Further reading

Although Salvatore is Argentine, he wrote in English. Mateo García Haymes and Luisa Fernanda Lassaque’s Spanish translation is so cleverly done that it reads as though it had been written in Spanish.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2018 Paisanos Itinerantes: Orden Estatal y Experiencia Subalterna en Buenos Aires durante la Era de Rosas. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros.

Original version:

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2003 Wandering Paysanos: State Order and Subaltern Experience in Buenos Aires Province during the Rosas Era. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Enlightened Agroecology August 4th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena grew up in the countryside of Ecuador and decided that the best way to help smallholder farmers was to get an education. So, he went abroad for a Ph.D. in anthropology. He came home feeling like “the divine papaya”, he says, thinking that he could change the world with his doctorate.

After a year of teaching at the university, Pacho wanted do something more practical, so he and his wife Maritza sold the house and the car and bought four hectares of land for farming not too far from Quito. But making this work was going to be a huge challenge. The land had no trees and the soil was degraded.

From day one, the family decided that they would use no agrochemicals. They gradually improved the soil by recycling the crop residues and manure back into the soil. Pacho estimates that in this way the family has applied the equivalent of 4000 truckloads of compost since he first began farming here over 35 years ago.

I met Pacho recently on his farm in Puembo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, where he happily showed me and a few other visitors his four dairy cows. He puts sawdust in their stall to absorb their manure and urine. Each cow eats 90 kilos of feed daily and produces about 70 kilos of waste every day, equivalent to 25 tons of organic fertilizer each year for every cow. A single cow can fertilize one hectare of crops. All the manure goes onto the farm, along with all of the composted crop residues.

Pacho rotates his vegetable crops on his four-hectare farm. Potatoes are followed by broccoli, lettuce, radishes and green beans. He employs ten people and is proud that his small farm can give jobs to local families by producing healthy vegetables to sell direct to consumers in the local markets.

His grown son and daughter have also found work on the farm. Pacho jokes that he has retired and that now his daughter is his boss—and a pretty demanding one.

Besides recycling organic matter, Pacho also has some more unusual strategies for building up the soil. He enriches it with wood ash from pizzerias and with powdered rock from quarries. As the quarries cut stone, they leave behind a lot of powdered rock, as waste, which Pacho collects. Rocks are rich in minerals (with up to 80 elements) and are one of nature’s main components of soil.

Pacho is up front about his limitations, which adds to his credibility. A new phytoplasma disease (punta morada) is sweeping Ecuador, wiping out potato fields, including his. He also has to import vegetable seed from the USA and Europe.

But Pacho’s vegetable fields are lush, like gardens, and now surrounded by trees that the family has planted “providing room, board and employment for the birds and for beneficial insects,” Pacho explains. An ornithologist friend counted 32 bird species on the farm, including 22 insectivores. Pacho is convinced that the birds help him to control pests without the need for insecticides. Predatory insects also provide a natural biological control of pests.

He also thinks that it is important to share what he has learned, welcoming around 32,000 smallholders to visit his farm over the years. It helps that he was the director of Swiss Aid in Ecuador for 20 years and has built a large network of collaborating farmers. Many come in groups, and some stay for several days to learn about organic farming and agroecology.

The farm’s family and staff feed us a big lunch of kale salad, potato soup and a lasagna made with green leaves instead of pasta. All vegetarian and delicious. The farm has a clear emphasis on nutritious food and produces lots of it. By intercropping and rotating crops, they get 92 tons of vegetables and other crops per hectare each year, a more than respectable yield by any standard. Since buying the farm, the organic matter, or carbon held in the soil has increased from 2% to 12% or more. In a hectare that is at least 500 tons of carbon.

Not everyone is in favor of organic, biological agriculture. For example, in an otherwise excellent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that organic agriculture is not sustainable, because it supposedly uses more land that conventional agriculture.

In fact, in developing countries organic agriculture yields 80% more than conventional agriculture, but without the yield stagnation or decline that occurs with the high use of external inputs (see Uniformity in Diversity by IPES Food).

But Pinker, in his characteristic optimism, also writes that even though climate change is the world’s most serious problem, it can be solved if we really work on it.

That brings us back to the Gangotena family farm, which is providing jobs, and lots of healthy food, while removing carbon from the air where it is harmful and putting it underground where it is useful.  Organic agriculture may be one of the world’s greatest techniques for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing in the soil as rich, black earth for productive farming.

Further reading

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Related blog story

Out of space

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pacho Gangotena and his family for their generosity of spirit and for the example they set, to Ross Borja and Pedro Oyarzún of EkoRural for organizing the visit to the farm. EkoRural is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarzún, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading an earlier draft of this story.

LA LUZ DE LA AGROECOLOGÍA

Por Jeff Bentley, 4 de agosto del 2019

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena creció en el campo en Ecuador y decidió que la mejor manera de ayudar a los campesinos era obtener una educación. Así que, se fue al exterior para hacer un doctorado en antropología. Llegó a casa sintiéndose como “la divina papaya “, dice, pensando que podría cambiar el mundo con su doctorado.

Después de un año de enseñar en la universidad, Pacho quería hacer algo más práctico, así que él y su esposa Maritza vendieron la casa y el auto y compraron cuatro hectáreas de tierra cerca de Quito. Pero la agricultura iba a ser un gran desafío. La tierra no tenía árboles y el suelo estaba degradado.

Desde el primer día, la familia decidió que no usaría agroquímicos. Poco a poco mejoraron el suelo volviendo a incorporar los rastrojos y el estiércol. Pacho estima que de esta manera la familia ha aplicado el equivalente a 4000 camiones de compost desde que empezaron a trabajar la tierra hace 35 años.

Conocí a Pacho hace poco en su finca en Puembo, en los Andes ecuatorianos, donde con toda felicidad él mostró a mí y a algunos otros visitantes sus cuatro vacas lecheras. Pone aserrín en su establo para absorber el estiércol y la orina. Cada vaca come 90 kilos de alimento al día y produce unos 70 kilos de estiércol al dia, unas 25 toneladas de abono orgánico por vaca, al año. Cada vaca fertiliza una hectárea. Todo el estiércol fertiliza el suelo junto con los rastrojos del campo convertidos en compost.

Pacho rota sus cultivos en sus cuatro hectáreas de cultivo que constituyen su finca. Después de las papas pone brócoli, lechuga, rábanos y arvejas. Emplea a diez personas y está orgulloso de que su pequeña finca dé empleo a las familias locales, produciendo verduras sanas para venderlas directamente a los consumidores en los mercados locales.

Su hijo y su hija también traban en la finca. Pacho bromea que se ha jubilado y que ahora su hija es su jefa, y que es muy dura.

Además de reciclar la materia orgánica, Pacho también tiene algunas estrategias más originales para crear suelo. La enriquece con ceniza de leña de pizzerías y con el polvo de roca de las canteras. Como las canteras cortan piedra, dejan mucha roca en polvo, como desecho, que Pacho recoge. La rocas son ricas en minerales (hasta 80 elementos) y constituyen uno de los principales componentes naturales del suelo.

Pacho admite francamente sus limitaciones, lo cual le da más credibilidad. Un nuevo fitoplasma (una enfermedad—punta morada) está arrasando con las papas del Ecuador, incluido las suyas. También tiene que importar varias de sus semillas de hortalizas de los Estados Unidos y Europa.

Pero las hortalizas de Pacho son exuberantes, como jardines, y ahora están rodeados de árboles que la familia ha plantado “para dar ‘room and board’ y trabajo a los pájaros e insectos benéficos”, explica Pacho. Un amigo ornitólogo contó 32 especies de aves en la granja, incluyendo 22 insectívoros. Pacho está convencido de que las aves le ayudan a controlar las plagas sin necesidad de usar insecticidas. Los insectos depredadores también hacen un control biológico natural de las plagas.

También cree que es importante compartir lo que ha aprendido y 32.000 campesinos han visitado su granja a lo largo de los años. Es una ventaja haber sido director de Swiss Aid en Ecuador durante 20 años y ha creado una amplia red de agricultores colaboradores. Muchos vienen en grupos, y algunos se quedan varios días para aprender sobre la agricultura orgánica y la agroecología.

La familia y el personal de la granja nos alimentan con un gran almuerzo de ensalada de col rizada, sopa de papas y una lasaña de hojas verdes sin pasta. Todo vegetariano y delicioso. La finca tiene un claro énfasis en la comida nutritiva, la cual produce en abundancia. A través del policultivo y la rotación de cultivos, obtienen 92 toneladas de hortalizas y productos agrícolas por año en las cuatro hectáreas, por año, más que respetables bajo cualquier sistema. Desde que compró  la finca, la materia orgánica o carbono retenido en el suelo ha subido del 2% al 12% o más. En una hectárea de al menos 500 toneladas de carbono.

No todos están a favor de la agricultura orgánica y biológica. Por ejemplo, en un libro por lo demás excelente, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argumenta que la agricultura orgánica no es sostenible, porque supuestamente usa más tierra que la agricultura convencional.

De hecho, en los países en desarrollo la agricultura orgánica rinde un 80% más que la agricultura convencional, pero sin los rendimientos estancados o en disminución que sucede con el alto uso de insumos externos (véase Uniformity in Diversity por IPES Food).

Pero Pinker, con su característico optimismo, añade que aunque el cambio climático es el problema más grave del mundo, puede resolverse si realmente trabajamos en eso.

Esto nos lleva de nuevo a la granja de la familia Gangotena, que crea puestos de trabajo y produce abundantes alimentos saludables, a la vez que extrae el carbono del aire donde hace daño y lo pone bajo tierra donde hace bien.  

Leer más

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Historia de blog relacionada

Out of space

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Pacho Gangotena y su familia por su espíritu generoso y por el ejemplo que nos dan, a Ross Borja y Pedro Oyarzún de EkoRural por organizar la visita a la granja. EkoRural recibe apoyo de la Fundación McKnight. Gracias a Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarzún, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por leer una versión anterior de esta relación.

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