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Grocery shops and farm shops December 6th, 2020 by

Few people realize how our food system is structured and how we consumers have a crucial influence. Exercising our food rights is as important as being politically active.

My dad ran a successful grocery store on the village market square, just across from the church. I still vividly remember the day when he took out an advertisement leaflet from the letter box. A year earlier a supermarket had opened in the village, accompanied by aggressive marketing. “They sell the same orange juice cheaper than I can buy it from the wholesaler,” my dad turned to my mum, “if this continues, I will have to close soon.” Customers from the neighbourhood suddenly started to pass by our shop on their way to the supermarket, heads down, embarrassed because they no longer dared to greet my dad, with whom they had joked and chit-chatted for over 30 years.

Local entrepreneurs are resilient and creative. I am still amazed when I think of all the different goods my dad had on offer in his small shop, from fresh fruit to ice cream, from birdseed and toys to stockings for women. Along with my mum, he paid special attention to making the shop window as attractive as it could be during special occasions like Sinterklaas (6 December), Christmas and Easter. It was real art that no supermarket could beat.

But shops need more than high quality goods and services, and loyal customers. One day, the wholesaler who had sold produce to my dad for years, bluntly announced that he could no longer supply us, as the wholesaler made more profit selling directly to the supermarkets and said it was not worthwhile continuing to supply independent retailers. By then, a second supermarket had already opened in the village. And so, dad closed his shop. That was in the early 1990s. Dad was also a skilled printer, so he found other work. But he had loved his shop, because he said it let him make other people happy. Now that was gone. 

Currently, in Belgium 95% of the food we eat is purchased from supermarkets, which continue to put local entrepreneurs out of business. Supermarkets also harm local farmers by driving prices so low that farmers can barely cover their costs, as we described in an earlier blog Stuck in the middle.

Over the years, my wife Marcella and I have become good friends with Johan and Vera, who grow organic vegetables and fruits and sell them in a farm shop they started about a decade ago. Each time we meet, they have some interesting stories to share. “We sell some of our produce to Biofresh,” Vera said, “but they always pay the lowest possible price for our produce and prices have never gone up over the years.” I was already familiar with such practices that can really put the knife to farmers’ throats, but had not expected this to happen in the organic food system, which I thought was fairer.

In 2019, Biofresh merged with the Dutch company Udea, after which economics started to overrule its philosophy. “Now Biofresh no longer allows retailers to enter its premises to see what fruit and vegetables is on offer if the amount they buy each week is below 1,000 Euro,” Johan shared, “so many small farm shops like us have started to look for alternatives, but it is not easy.” Every Thursday, the day before their farm shop opens, Johan and Vera drive through half of Belgium to sell and buy fresh produce. Besides Biofresh, they now also buy from Sinature, BioVibe and directly from various farmer friends.

Thirty years after my dad closed his village shop, the nascent farm shops which are to be celebrated and nurtured for providing healthy, fresh and fair food, especially during these times of corona, are in the same stranglehold as the grocery shops in the 1990s. When profits overrule ethics, wholesalers decide under which conditions people can still buy from them, and may cut off sales to small shops, just because the wholesaler wants even more money.

As transaction costs to stock up are larger for small-scale retailers, supermarket chains have ousted local entrepreneurs. They are now buying up closed village shops to start specialty shops and as irony would have it “be closer to the customer”. Some supermarkets have even gone a step further, buying up organic farms and fishing grounds to gain full control over the food we eat. Supervised by managers, the real farmers and fisher folks with a passion for their profession risk becoming mere employees devoid of any decision-making power.

The European Green Deal provides an action plan to boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a circular economy, restore biodiversity and cut pollution. Yet it remains to be seen what measures will be put in place to support our small-scale farmers, farm shops and community-initiatives such as weekly boxes of fresh local produce procured through group purchasing associations.

Without appropriate measures, organic farming risks becoming a variation of industrial agriculture with emerging opportunities captured by a few dominant food chain actors, who further consolidate their power, wealth and decision-making over what food we get on our table.

In the meantime, we consumers should not underestimate our influence. As Johan said: “consumers have the market in their hands.” Buy local from farm shops, farmers’ markets and small-scale retailers as much as you can. The supermarkets’ claim that they are local serves the wrong purpose and pushes those with a passion for their profession out of business.

Further reading

https://allesoverbio.be/artikels/hoe-bio-uitgroeide-tot-een-professionele-landbouwmethode

IPES-Food (2016) From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.

IPES-Food (2018) Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: Seven case studies of agroecological transition.

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Strawberry fields once again March 15th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EN EL FRUTILLAR DE NUEVO

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de marzo del 2019

Como muchos bolivianos, Diego Ramírez nunca pensó en quedarse en la comunidad donde nació, y empezar un emprendimiento agrícola en las pequeñas chacras de su familia. Diego cuenta que de niño le encantaba recoger fruta en la pequeña parcela de frutillas de sus abuelos en la comunidad de Ucuchi, y nadar con sus amigos en una poza de riego, llena de agua de manantial, pero de joven tuvo que vivir en la ciudad pequeña de Sacaba para estudiar en colegio. Luego se fue a estudiar a la Universidad UMSS, la carrera de ingeniería de sistemas. Culminado los estudios, empezó a trabajar en la ciudad de Cochabamba.

Años más tarde, el padre de Diego llamó a sus siete hijos para decirles que estaba vendiendo el terreno de sus abuelos. Tenía sentido. Los abuelos habían fallecido, y nadie había trabajado la tierra durante unos 15 años. Sin embargo, a Diego le pareció una tragedia, así que dijo: “Yo la voy a trabajar”. Algunos pensaron que era un chiste. En Ucuchi, la gente estaba en plan de dejar la agricultura, no meterse en ella. Preferían emigrar al Oriente de Bolivia y muchos se habían ido del país. Por esta razón muchas de las parcelas están abandonadas. No es el tipo de lugar al que la gente como Diego normalmente regresa.

Cuando Diego decidió revivir su finca familiar ya hace dos años, buscó inspiración en el Internet. Aunque la frutilla es un cultivo ancestral de la comunidad de Ucuchi y muy rentable en Cochabamba, Diego se enteró de una empresa productora de frutillas en Santo Domingo, Santiago, en el vecino país de Chile, que daba consejos y vendía plantas. Santo Domingo está a 2450 km de Cochabamba, pero Diego se tomó tan en serio las frutillas que fue allí un fin de semana y trajo 500 plantas de frutillas. Crucialmente, también aprendió sobre el cultivo tecnificado de frutillas, aplicando el riego por goteo y plantado en camas tapadas con plástico. Movido por sus nuevos conocimientos, buscó distribuidores en Cochabamba que vendían equipos de riego por goteo y los instaló, junto con el mulch plástico, un método común en la producción moderna de fresas.

Diego se inclinó más en la producción agroecológica para producir frutillas, así que se contactó con la Fundación Agrecol Andes que estaba organizando una asociación de productores ecológicos en Sacaba, la pequeña ciudad donde Diego vive, a medio camino entre su terreno y la ciudad grande de Cochabamba. Diego ya tiene certificación de productor ecológico con SPG PAS (Sistema Participativo de Garantía Productores Agroecológicos Sacaba), Diego aprendió a hacer su propio biol (una solución fermentada de estiércol de vaca que fertiliza el suelo mientras añade microbios buenos). Ahora mezcla el biol en el tanque de riego por goteo, fertilizando las frutillas una gota a la vez.

Diego también hace sus propias soluciones orgánicas, como el sulfocálcico y el caldo bordelés. Fumiga estas preparaciones cada dos semanas para controlar el oídium, los thrips (un pequeño insecto), la arañuela roja, y la pudrición de cuello. Me impresionó. Mucha gente habla de aplicaciones orgánicos, pero pocos hacen las suyas. “No es tan difícil”, Diego dijo cuando le pregunté de dónde hallaba el tiempo.

Diego encuentra tiempo para hacer muchas cosas admirables. Tiene un talento natural para el marketing y ha diseñado sus propias cajas de cartón delgado, que ha hecho imprimir en La Paz. Sus clientes reciben la fruta en una bonita caja, en lugar de en una bolsa de plástico, donde la fruta se daña fácilmente. Vende directamente a los clientes que vienen a la misma parcela, en las ferias agroecológicas y en tiendas que comercializan productos ecológicos.

Diego todavía hace su trabajo normal en la ciudad, mientras que también tiene una cartera en la comunidad de Ucuchi. También cultiva una pequeña chacra de papas y está plantando árboles frutales y tunas en las laderas pedregosas arriba de su frutillar. Diego también ha iniciado una asociación de agricultores con sus vecinos, diez hombres y diez mujeres, incluidos adultos mayores y jóvenes que todavía están en la universidad.

Los miembros de la asociación cultivan diversos cultivos, no sólo frutillas. Diego les enseña a cultivar frutillas orgánicamente y a usar el riego por goteo. Para animar a la gente a usar estos métodos, ha creado sus propias parcelas de demostración. Ha dividido el frutillar de sus abuelos en tres áreas: una con su sistema moderno, tecnificado, otra con variedades locales cultivadas al estilo antiguo en suelo desnudo, con riego por inundación, y una tercera parte con variedades modernas cultivadas a la manera antigua. Las variedades modernas no rinden bien cuando se cultivan al estilo de los abuelos. Y Diego dice que la forma antigua es mucho trabajo, principalmente por el desmalezado, el riego y las enfermedades además de las plagas.

Ucuchi es una atractiva comunidad en las faldas del cerro, con electricidad, agua potable, una escuela primaria y un pequeño hospital. Está justo al lado de la carretera principal a Santa Cruz, a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba donde se puede comprar o vender casi cualquier cosa. En parte por estas ventajas, algunos jóvenes se están volviendo a la comunidad de Ucuchi. Las frutillas orgánicas son difíciles de cultivar, y son raras en Bolivia. Pero un producto único, como las frutillas orgánicas, y un liderazgo inspirado pueden ayudar a frenar el flujo de la migración, al mismo tiempo de mostrar que hay maneras viables para que los jóvenes empiecen con un emprendimiento personal en el campo. A Diego le encanta estar de vuelta en su comunidad: para su camioneta para charlar con la gente que pasa por los caminos del pueblo. También trae a su propia familia a la finca los fines de semana, donde ha puesto un nuevo techo de tejas en la vieja casa de adobe de sus abuelos.

La agricultura es más que la búsqueda de lucro. También se trata de la tradición familiar, la comunidad y de sentirse realizado con un trabajo satisfactorio y creativo.

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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, Agroecología 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 Alarcón 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/

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LO QUE CUENTA EN LA AGROECOLOGÍA

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, explicó que un bosque crea suelo, acumulando gradualmente tierra negra y rica bajo los árboles, mientras que la agricultura suele exponer el suelo a la erosión. Una finca basada en árboles, con abonos orgánicos, y con hortalizas que crecen debajo de los árboles, debería 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 dólares).

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 químicos, todos comprados, y el rendimiento de un solo cultivo medido con relativa facilidad. Sin embargo, esto no cuenta toda la historia. La pérdida de suelo debido a la erosión, o el carbono y nitrógeno a la atmósfera, o la contaminación por la escorrentía 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 inversión en riego y terrazas. Muchos de los insumos son mano de obra, o abonos caseros, y su costo no siempre se cuenta. Los manzanos aún no han dado fruto, y algunas de las verduras pueden escaparse de la cuenta del contable. Sin embargo, aquí las “externalidades” tienen una contribución positiva y valiosa: se está creando el suelo, la contaminación química es nula y los medios de subsistencia se enriquecen a medida que los agricultores locales, en su mayoría mujeres, aprenden a trabajar juntas para producir alimentos saludables para vender. Las comparaciones económicas 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 Agroecología y otras innovaciones (19 de junio 2019). Roma: FAO. http://www.csm4cfs.org/es/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

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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

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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

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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.

When ants and microbes join hands June 23rd, 2019 by

When I recently attended the 1st International Conference on Agroecology – Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa, one of the research posters on display drew my attention. Effective microorganisms® are a commercial mix of beneficial bacteria, yeast and other living things. A team in Mozambique had found that the microorganisms not only controlled Oidium or powdery mildew, a serious fungal disease in cashew, but also managed the devastating sap-sucking bug that deforms nuts and causes their premature fall. Or at least that is what the title said.

Professor Panfilo Tabora had been working for many years with cashew. Not knowing that I was an avid fan of the weaver ant, Oecophylla, a tree-dwelling predator, Panfilo gently explained to me that the microorganisms attracted the weaver ant to the cashew trees. “The ants were a bonus,” he said with a smile. I knew that weaver ants effectively control bugs, but now I was completely intrigued: how on earth would microorganisms attract ants?

“Earlier, farmers helped the weaver ants to colonize new trees by putting ropes between trees so the ants could colonise new trees and attack bugs and other pests,” Panfilo explained me. “But when farmers started spraying fungicides the ants disappeared.”

For several years, Panfilo and his colleagues began to teach villagers to make their own liquid molasses from dried and stored cashew apples as a source of sugar, minerals and amino acids to feed and multiply the microorganisms. So the farmers made molasses to feed the effective microorganisms, which controlled the Oidium. But even when the fermented solution was ready to spray on the trees it was still sweet. “When farmers spray their trees with the solution, the sweet liquid and amino acids attracts the ants.”

Although the poster did not tell the full story, there was still truth in saying that microorganisms controlled the fungal disease and the pest, in reality it was the fermented solution that attracted the ants, which controlled the bugs. Still, even such a roundabout pest control is worth having.  

I felt reassured to know that valuable ancient technologies of biological control, such as weaver ant husbandry, have a future when combined with modern agroecological technologies that restore rather than kill ecosystems.

“And we discovered a few more unintended benefits,” Professor Panfilo continued. “By spraying the tree canopies with microorganisms, farmers are no longer exposed to pesticides and can reduce the cost of pruning.” As pesticides are expensive and harmful, farmers need to move quickly from one tree to the next to spray the outside canopy of the trees, or else they will get covered with chemicals. But as these effective microorganisms are safe for people, farmers can actually spray the under-canopies from below. The tree canopies often touch one another, which also helps the ants to move between trees. Instead of pruning every year, Prof Panfilo’s team tells farmers to just prune once every other year, or even every three years so as to have more terminals for flowering and fruiting and to let the ants move from tree to tree. All of this adds up to more yield.

At that stage, I was so impressed that I had a hard time absorbing yet another unintended benefit of this organic technology. In Mozambique, as in many other countries, farmers use the fallen cashew apples to make cashew apple juice. “By spraying cashew trees with effective microorganisms, it acts as an anti-oxidant so the juice retains its clear colour for at least 2 months,” said Panfilo.

Quite a few of the presentations at the conference had nicely illustrated the benefits of organic agriculture to people and the environment, but Prof Panfilo and his team stood out because they illustrated how the introduction of even a single, modern eco-technology can have such a wide range of benefits.

Not all microorganisms are bad, as people in the industry, schools and media often wants us to make believe. Thanks to the work of practical researchers, we learn that this healthy mix of microscopic flora can cure mildew, attract ants that kill pests, provide a safe alternative to pesticides and stop cashew fruit juice from oxidizing for months.

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