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Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable September 8th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Of well over 4000 potato varieties, the great majority only grow in the Andes, a cordillera of great heights (with farming up to 4500 meters above sea level) and tropical latitudes (with little variation in daylight hours between summer and winter). Potato varieties adapted to these special conditions can rarely survive outside the Andes.

The native varieties are endangered, and if they disappear, they will take with them the genes that breeders need to create the varieties adapted to a changing world.

But the Andean farmers fear the extinction of native potatoes for other reasons. Near Cusco, Santiago Huarhua and Ernestina Huallpayunca, with their children, tell us that native potatoes are much nicer to eat than the modern varieties. The native potatoes are of many colors, even red and blue. They are floury and tasty. Don Santiago and doña Ernestina produce them only with natural fertilizer, which they say helps to preserve the potato’s special flavor. The couple grows the potatoes on the high mountain slopes above their village, while the so-called improved potatoes are white and are produced with chemical fertilizer, on the valley bottom.

Even though the family preserves native potatoes, they grow more of the improved ones, because of market demand, to make fried potatoes and chips. The native potatoes tend to be smaller and too dry to fry, but perfect for boiling.

Don Santiago says that when he was a child, there were many native potato varieties, more than he can remember, but now there are only five. He shows us where he keeps his seed potato. He has three shelves, each about one by two meters, enough to plant about 1500 square meters of each variety; that makes one small plot for each kind of potato. The survival of these vulnerable varieties depends on a few kilos of seed, curated by relatively isolated households.

In recent years, Peruvians have started to appreciate these little gourmet potatoes, and buy them. This new demand for native potatoes helps to ensure their survival, but varieties are still being lost. Yet native potatoes do have one thing in their favor: farmers like them more than other varieties.  

A note on potato varieties

The International Potato Center curates 4354 native potato varieties. Genebank.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Ing. Raúl Ccanto, of the Grupo Yanapai, and to Ing. Willmer Pérez and Ing. Andrea Prado, both of the International Potato Center (CIP). They are writing a video script about native potatoes. I have learned a lot from them in a week of sharing and writing.  Our script writing course was generously supported by The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

PAPAS NATIVAS, DELICIOSAS Y VULNERABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 8 de septiembre del 2019

De las mucho más de 4000 variedades de papa, la gran mayoría solo viven en los Andes, una cordillera con grandes alturas (con agricultura hasta 4500 msnm) y latitudes tropicales (con poca variación de horas luz entre invierno y verano). Las variedades adaptadas a estas condiciones especiales raras veces sobreviven en otros lugares.

Las variedades nativas están en peligro de extinción, y si se desaparecen, llevarán consigo los genes que los fitomejoradores necesitarán para crear variedades aptas a un mundo cambiante.

Pero los agricultores andinos temen la extinción de la papa nativa por otras razones. Cerca de Cusco, Santiago Huarhua y Ernestina Huallpayunca, con sus hijos, nos explican que las papas nativas son mucho más ricas que las mejoradas. Las nativas son de muchos colores, hasta rojo y azul. Son harinosas y sabrosas. Don Santiago y doña Ernestina las producen solo con abono natural, que según ellos ayuda a preservar su sabor especial. Las cultivan en las alturas, en los cerros arriba de su comunidad, mientras las papas mejoradas son blancas, y se producen con fertilizante químico, en el piso del valle.

A pesar de que la familia preserva papas nativas, más producen papas mejoradas, porque es lo que el mercado demanda, para hacer papa frita. Las papas nativas tienden a ser pequeñas y no muy buenas para freír, pero perfectas para sancochar.

Don Santiago nos cuenta que cuando era un niño, había muchas variedades nativas. No se acuerda cuántas, pero ahora solo quedan cinco. Nos muestra donde guarda su papa, para semilla. Tiene tres estantes, cada uno de un metro por dos, suficiente para sembrar 1500 metros cuadrados de cada variedad; es una parcela pequeña para cada clase de papa. La sobrevivencia de estas variedades vulnerables depende de unos cuantos kilos de semilla, custodiadas por familias relativamente aisladas.

El preservar a las papas nativas será una actividad social. Nadie lo puede hacer solo. El público tendrá que aprender a apreciar estas papitas gourmet, y comprarlas. Los agricultores tendrán que tener acceso a la semilla de otros lugares cuando su papa se degenera y hay que cambiarla.

En los últimos años, los consumidores peruanos han empezado a querer a esas pequeñas papas gourmet. Esta nueva demanda para la papa nativa ayuda a asegurar su sobrevivencia, pero se siguen perdiendo variedades. Sin embargo, la mejor ficha que tienen las papas nativas es que los mismos agricultores las prefieren a las otras variedades.

Una nota sobre las variedades de papa

El Centro Internacional de la Papa conserva 4354 variedades de papa nativa. Genebank

Agradecimientos Agradezco al Ing. Raúl Ccanto, del Grupo Yanapai, y al Ing. Willmer Pérez y la Ing. Andrea Prado, ambos del Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP). Ellos están escribiendo un guion para un video sobre las papas nativas. En una semana de convivencia y redacción he aprendido bastante de ellos.  Nuestro curso de redacción de guiones recibió el apoyo generoso del Programa Colaborativo de Investig

No word for legume September 1st, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I remember a story from grad school about a people in the Amazon Basin who had no word for “parrot”, because they knew the names of all the individual species of parrots.

I was reminded of that this week in Peru, where I was teaching a course on how to write fact sheets and video scripts for a popular audience.

My students are seasoned professionals, and one group was writing a fact sheet about planting legumes to fix nitrogen from the air, as a non-chemical way to improve the soil, a crucial concept for ecological agriculture. Along with the students, I struggled to say “nitrogen-fixing legumes” in words that everyone knows. “Nitrogen” was the easy part, it’s like urea fertilizer, which most smallholders know about.

But “legume” was trickier. It’s a botanical term. Like the parrot-watchers in the Amazon, smallholders in many parts of the world have a word for each species of legume, but no one word for all legumes.

“We could say ‘plants that produce pods.’” I suggested helpfully.

“No,” one of my students said, rejecting my idea out of hand.

That’s one of the advantages of teaching adults, the students know more than the teacher about a lot of topics. In this case, the student is an agronomist who has worked with farmers and legumes in northern Peru for a full career. He explained that some of the best legumes for fixing nitrogen, like alfalfa or the wild garrotilla, have pods so small that people fail to see them.

In the end, we wrote “legume” and then followed it with examples like beans and peas.

Then we drove out to the prosperous village of Piuray, about an hour from Cusco on the road to the Sacred Valley. The smallholders of Piuray value formal education. They are proud of their large, two-story school. Some of the local people work in the city as lawyers and engineers.

But after asking several local people to read our fact sheet, they often looked up and said “What’s a legume?”

Our examples had not been good enough to explain the concept. And there is no simpler word for legume. The simplest word for legume is “legume.”

This matters when writing for a global audience, because people all over the world, from Peru to Pakistan grow legumes, but different species.

In the end, the authors of this fact sheet realized that there was no short and simple way to say “nitrogen fixing legumes.” So they said “Legumes are plants like clover, lupin, vetch and alfalfa that capture nitrogen from the air in little nodules, which are pink or white balls or in the roots. The nitrogen is then used by the rest of the plant.”

Some terms have no simpler synonym, but they can be defined and explained, in words that everyone knows.  

Scientific names

Garrotilla is Medicago hispida

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Edgar Olivera and Ing. Alfredo Tito, both of the Grupo Yanapai, and to Dr. Ana Dorrego of the Centro de Investigación de Zonas Áridas (CiZA) of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina and of LEISA, la Revista de Agroecología. They are writing a script for a video on pasture management. I have learned a lot from them in a week of working and writing together.  Our script writing course was generously supported by The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

HACE FALTA UNA PALABRA PARA LEGUMINOSAS

por Jeff Bentley, 1 de septiembre del 2019

Recuerdo una historia de la universidad de posgrado sobre un pueblo en la Amazonía que no tenía una palabra para “loro”, porque conocían los nombres de cada especie de loro.

Me acordé de eso esta semana en el Perú, donde enseñaba un curso sobre cómo escribir hojas volantes y guiones de video para una audiencia popular.

Mis estudiantes son profesionales experimentados, y un grupo estaba escribiendo una hoja volante sobre el sembrar leguminosas para fijar el nitrógeno del aire, como una forma no química de mejorar el suelo, un concepto crucial para la agricultura ecológica. Junto con los estudiantes, luché para decir “leguminosas que finan nitrógeno” en palabras que todo el mundo conoce. El “nitrógeno” fue la parte fácil; es como la urea, que la mayoría de los campesinos conocen.

Pero “leguminosa” era más difícil. Es un término botánico. Al igual que los observadores de loros en la Amazonía, los pequeños agricultores en muchas partes del mundo tienen una palabra para cada especie de leguminosa, pero ninguna para todas ellas.

Sugerí “Podríamos decir ‘plantas que producen vainas'”.

“No”, dijo uno de mis estudiantes, rechazando de frente mi idea.

Esa es una de las ventajas de enseñar a los adultos; frecuentemente los estudiantes saben más que el profesor. En este caso, el estudiante es un ingeniero agrónomo que ha trabajado con agricultores y leguminosas en el norte del Perú durante toda su carrera. Explicó que algunas de las mejores legumbres para fijar el nitrógeno, como la alfalfa o la garrotilla silvestre, tienen vainas tan pequeñas que la gente no las ve.

Al final, escribimos “leguminosa” y luego la seguimos con ejemplos como frijoles y arvejas.

Luego nos dirigimos a la próspera comunidad rural de Piuray, a una hora de Cusco en el camino hacia el Valle Sagrado. Los pequeños agricultores de Piuray valoran la educación formal. Están orgullosos de su gran escuela de dos pisos. Algunos de los habitantes locales trabajan en la ciudad como abogados e ingenieros.

Pero después de pedirle a varias personas locales que leyeran nuestra hoja volante, a menudo levantaban la vista y decían “¿Qué es una leguminosa?”

Nuestros ejemplos no habían sido suficientes para explicar el concepto. Y no hay una palabra más sencilla para leguminosas. La palabra más simple para leguminosas es ” leguminosas”.

Esto es importante cuando se escribe para una audiencia global, porque gente de todo el mundo, desde Perú hasta Pakistán, cultiva leguminosas, pero especies diferentes.

Al final, los autores de esta hoja volante se dieron cuenta de que no había una forma corta y sencilla de decir “leguminosas que fijan nitrógeno”. Así que dijeron: “Las leguminosas son plantas como el trébol, el tarwi, la vicia, y la alfalfa que capturan el nitrógeno del aire a través de nódulos, que son bolitas rosadas o blancas en las raíces. Luego el nitrógeno es aprovechado por el resto de la planta.”

Algunos términos no tienen sinónimos más sencillos, pero pueden ser definidos y explicados, en palabras que todo el mundo conoce. 

Nombre científico

Garrotilla es Medicago hispida

Agradecimientos

Agradezco al Ing. Edgar Olivera y al Ing. Alfredo Tito, ambos, del Grupo Yanapai, y a la Dra. Ana Dorrego del Centro de Investigación de Zonas Áridas (CiZA) de la Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina y de LEISA, la Revista de Agroecología. Ellos están escribiendo un guion para un video sobre el manejo de los pastos. En una semana de convivencia y redacción he aprendido bastante de ellos.  Nuestro curso de redacción de guiones recibió el apoyo generoso del Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Ashes to aphids October 15th, 2017 by

Anyone interested in organic farming will eventually come across the use of ash to protect crops from pests and diseases. The internet has made it easy for people to consult, and to copy each other’s training materials. But one has to be cautious when borrowing ideas, as we recently learned during a script writing workshop in Bangladesh.

During the first day of the course, the 13 trainees from Bangladesh and Nepal laid out their key ideas to write a fact sheet and a script on a particular problem.

All of our script ideas were hot topics, that is, they are problems that occur widely across developing countries, requiring good training materials with ideas that are both feasible for smallholders and environmentally friendly.

One of the selected topics was how to manage shoot and fruit borer in eggplant, a pest for which many farmers in South Asia spray pesticides twice a week, or more. Just knowing this makes you frown when this tasty vegetable is presented to you in one of the delightful Bangladeshi dishes.

Another group worked on aphids in vegetables and suggested using ash to manage these pervasive pests. When Jeff and I asked why ash is useful, the group gave us various reasons: because it is acidic; it contains sulphur; it is a poison; the ash creates a physical barrier which prevents the aphids from sucking the sap of the plant. These all sound like plausible answers yet some are incorrect. Ash is rich in calcium, like lime, and therefore not acidic, for example.

We do know that ash makes the leaves unpalatable to insects and corrodes their waxy skin, making them vulnerable to desiccation. The FAO’s website on applied technologies (TECA) suggests controlling aphids by applying wood ash after plants are watered. If not, the sun may cause the leaves to burn. Our simple question about using ash reminded me that the scientific basis for many local innovations is poorly understood. There are too few researchers to validate each technology and limited resources often focus on high-tech solutions (e.g. plant breeding) rather than low-tech farmer innovations.

We may not always know why local innovations work, which is all the more reason to be cautious when recommending substitutions. During this workshop, for instance, I learned that not all ashes are the same. Shamiran Biswas, an extensionist with a rich experience working with farmers across the country, explained: “When one field officer told farmers to sprinkle ash on his crop, a farmer who followed this advice saw his entire bean field destroyed within half an hour. We were shocked and tried to figure out what went wrong. It seemed that the farmer had used ash from mustard leaves, which some rural women add to their cooking fires when they are short of wood. But leaf ash from mango, mustard, bamboo and other plants may also be harmful when sprinkled on crops. The only ash that is fully safe to recommend is ash from rice straw or rice bran,” Shamiran concluded. He added that “ the ash should be cold and sprinkled on the crop when the leaves are still wet from the morning dew.”

Experienced extension agents like Shamiran are experts at explaining farmers’ ideas to outsiders, as well as explaining scientific ideas to rural people.

When people give advice to farmers, or develop farmer training materials, it is easy to copy ideas from the Internet. It is easy to assume that because ash is natural that it must be harmless. In fact, tree leaves are often full of toxic chemicals, to deter herbivorous insects; it stands to reason that the ash of the leaves may also be poisonous.

A natural solution can go wrong, even one as simple as applying ash.

To develop good farmer training videos, solid interaction with farmers is crucial. And collaboration with a seasoned, open-minded extensionist helps to orient us in the right direction.

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

A spoonful of molasses

Further viewing

To watch videos that merge scientific knowledge with farmer knowledge, visit the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform. All videos are developed by people who value local innovations, and feature technologies that are validated by real farmers.

Acknowledgement

Shamiran Biswas works for the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, an NGO working on food security and non-formal education.

Nourishing a fertile imagination March 5th, 2017 by

New ideas spark the imagination of smallholders, whether they have experience with the topic or not. We saw this last week in Nanegaon, a village just outside of the booming city of Pune, India, where farmers reviewed four fact sheets written by our 12 adult students.

Hunamat Pawale reads fact sheetA fact sheet is only one page, so it has to narrow in on a specific topic. The first fact sheet suggested cleaning maggots from wounds on cattle with turpentine, a common disinfectant distilled from pine resin. One man, Hanumant Pawale, read the fact sheet quickly, pronouncing the text clearly in a booming voice. When he finished, several farmers began to speak, adding ideas they wanted to include in the fact sheet. The first woman said that here they treat the cows’ wounds with kerosene, which is cheaper than turpentine, and is available at shops in the village. Her neighbors mentioned other products to treat cattle.

tweezersWe had wondered how farmers removed maggots. One of the farmers went to get a pair of tweezers to show us the tool that he used for plucking maggots from a wounded cow. Tweezers may be too sharp for such a delicate operation, but every household has a pair of tweezers, and they work if you are careful not to poke the cow’s flesh.

The farmers shared another important insight with us: it is best to avoid letting maggots grow in wounds in the first place. The villagers keep their cattle healthy by looking for wounds. Cows lick their wounds, the villagers explain, and if people see a cow licking her wound, they know that she needs some care.

The authors of the fact sheets got excited about improving their fact sheet by taking the farmers’ ideas on board.

It was a great meeting, but there was one little problem. After the first woman spoke, only men took the floor. Later I mentioned this to Pooja, one of our participants.

“The women won’t speak if the men are there,” she says matter-of-factly.

After meeting with the dairy farmers I went with two young men, Ajinkya and Pradeepta, who were writing a fact sheet on mulch: a simple layer of straw or leaves put on the soil surface to keep in moisture. We met a farmer, Mukta Naranyan Sathe, who was just setting down a pile of small, delicate legumes onto a tarp, for threshing.

Mukta Narayan Sathe reads fact sheetMukta-ji had never heard of mulch, but she was interested. After reading the fact sheet, she understood that mulch helps to conserve water. But, she told us that she did not really need to conserve water, because Nanegaon has abundant irrigation, provided by seven or eight bore-hole wells.

Even so, the fact sheet still inspired her to think creatively. She imagined that a large plant could be mulched with whole straw, but for a fragile herb, like fenugreek, the straw would have to be cut into small pieces.

We were soon joined by Mukta’s great nephew, Ganesh Dhide and a friend, Shubhan Pawale. They read the fact sheet and then all of them began to imagine ways of making mulch. They said that instead of burning the leaves off of sugarcane (a common practice which makes the cane easier to harvest), they could use them as a mulch.

They added that they now have a clear idea of mulching and that if one person tries it, and it works, the others in the village will surely adopt the new ideas as well.

The villagers could tell us practical ways to cure wounded cows but didn’t know about mulching until the fact sheet caught their imagination. Even so, they thought of two new ways to make mulch not mentioned in the fact sheet: cutting straw for fenugreek, and using sugarcane leaves. Farmers are inherently creative, and relish new ideas. We do not know if the farmers will adopt any of the ideas in the fact sheets, but before trying a technology one must first imagine doing something new. Our readers had already taken that step.

Other blog stories on writing fact sheets

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

Learning from students

On the road to yoghurt

A hard write

Guardians of the mango

A spoonful of molasses

Turtle hunters

Acknowledgements

The first photo is by Mohan Dhuldhar. The second one is by Ajinkya Upasani.

Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

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