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No more pink seed January 8th, 2023 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Vegetable seed from the shop is usually covered in a pink or orange dust, a fungicide. Since I was a kid, I have associated the color pink with seed.

Farmers and gardeners in tropical countries often buy imported, pink seed. So when Bolivian seed companies appeared, I was glad to be able to buy envelopes of local garden seed. It was better than importing seed from the USA or Europe.  I barely noticed that the Bolivian seed was pink. Then on a visit to some agroecological farmers, they told me that they were buying the pink seed, but then rearing it out, to produce their own, natural seed.

Recently I have begun to notice artisanal seed growers, offering untreated vegetable seed at some of the fairs around Cochabamba, Bolivia. I was tempted to buy some, but I still had seed at home.

A few days ago I opened some of my seed envelopes, which I bought several months ago. The package says they are viable for two years. I was pleased to see that the envelopes were full of natural seed, untainted by fungicides. I planted cucumbers, lettuce and arugula, and the natural seed has all sprouted nicely.

I was so pleased that I decided to call the seed manufacturers and congratulate them. Some positive feedback might encourage them to keep selling natural, uncoated seed.

I picked up a seed packet to look for the company’s phone number, when I noticed that it said “Warning!” in big red letters, and in fine print: “Product treated with Thiram, not to be used as feed for poultry or other animals.”

Thiram is a fungicide. I wondered if the seed had been treated with fungicide, but not dyed, or if the company was avoiding pesticides, but was still using up its supply of old envelopes.

I called the company, and a friendly voice answered the phone. I introduced myself as a customer, and said that I liked the pesticide-free seed. Then I asked if this lot of seed had fungicide or not.

The seed man said that no, the seed had not been treated with fungicide, but that it should have been. That is a requirement of the government agencies Senasag (National Service for Agricultural and Livestock Health and Food Safety) and INIAF (National Institute of Agricultural, Livestock and Forestry Innovation).

I asked why this seed was untreated.

“The girl must have forgotten to put it on,” the seed man said. This may strike readers in northern countries as casual sloppiness. But sometimes regulations are lightly enforced in Bolivia. My cucumber seeds were packed in May, 2021, during the height of the Covid lockdown. I was impressed that they were able to keep producing seeds at all.

The seed man didn’t seem to mind that the seed was untreated, and he repeated that he applied the pink stuff because it was required by law. He didn’t seem convinced that it was necessary. He seemed sympathetic to people who preferred natural seed. He added that he did sell untreated seed to customers who wanted it. He had some customers who ate sprouted lettuce seed for their gastritis, and he made them special batches of untreated seed.

Before we got off the call, the seed man offered to make me a batch of untreated seed in the future. I just had to order it.

I think I will.

It is important that seed consumers look for untreated seed. But governments also need to do more to help make it available.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

An exit strategy

Homegrown seed can be good

Some videos on seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: experiences from Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed: experiences from Malawi

Succeed with seeds

Managing seed potato

Organic coating of cereal seed

Making a good okra seeding

Better seed for green gram

Making a chilli seedbed

Maintaining varietal purity of sesame

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Storing cowpea seed

ADIOS A LA SEMILLA ROSADA

Jeff Bentley, 8 de enero del 2023

Las semillas de hortalizas de la tienda suelen estar cubiertas de un polvillo rosado o color naranja, un fungicida. Desde que era niño, he asociado el color rosado con las semillas.

Los agricultores y jardineros de los países tropicales suelen comprar semillas rosadas importadas. Por eso, cuando aparecieron las empresas bolivianas de semillas, me alegré de poder comprar sobres de semillas locales para el huerto. Era mejor que importar semillas de los Estados Unidos o Europa.  Apenas me di cuenta de que las semillas bolivianas eran rosadas. Luego, en una visita a unos agricultores agroecológicos, me contaron que compraban la semilla rosada, pero que luego la criaban para producir su propia semilla natural.

Recientemente he empezado a fijarme en los cultivadores artesanales de semillas, que ofrecen semillas de hortalizas sin químicos en algunas de las ferias de los alrededores de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Tenía ganas de comprar algunas, pero aún tenía semillas en casa.

Hace unos días abrí algunos de mis sobres de semillas, que compré hace varios meses. Según el paquete, son viables durante dos años. Me alegró ver que los sobres estaban llenos de semillas naturales, no contaminadas por fungicidas. Sembré pepinos, lechugas y rúcula, y todas las semillas naturales han brotado muy bien.

Estaba tan contenta que decidí llamar a los fabricantes de semillas y felicitarles. Una respuesta positiva podría animarles a seguir vendiendo semillas naturales sin recubrimiento.

Cogí un paquete de semillas para buscar el número de teléfono de la empresa, cuando me di cuenta de que decía “¡Precaución!” en grandes letras rojas, y en letra pequeña: “Producto tratado con Thiram, no utilizar como alimento para aves u otro animal”.

Thiram es un fungicida. Me pregunté si la semilla había sido tratada con fungicida, pero no teñida, o si la empresa estaba evitando los plaguicidas, pero seguía usando sus sobres viejos.

Llamé a la empresa y una voz amable contestó al teléfono. Me presenté como cliente y dije que me gustaban las semillas sin plaguicidas. Luego pregunté si este lote de semillas tenía fungicida o no.

El encargado me dijo que no, que la semilla no había sido tratada con fungicida, pero que debería haberlo sido. Es una exigencia de las agencias gubernamentales SENASAG (Servicio Nacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria e Inocuidad Alimentaria) e INIAF (Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal).

Pregunté por qué esta semilla no estaba tratada.

“Se habrá olvidado la muchacha”, me dijo el semilleristya. A los lectores de los países del norte les puede parecer un descuido. Pero, a veces, en Bolivia los reglamentos se aplican con cierta flexibilidad. Mis semillas de pepino se empaquetaron en mayo de 2021, en plena cuarentena de Covid. Me impresionó que pudieran seguir produciendo semillas.

Al semillero no pareció importarle que las semillas no estuvieran tratadas, y repitió que aplicó el producto rosado porque se lo exigía la ley. No parecía convencido de que fuera necesario. Se solidarizaba con los que prefieren las semillas naturales. Añadió que vende semillas sin tratar a los clientes que la desean. Tenía algunos clientes que comían semillas pregerminadas de lechuga para la gastritis y les preparaba lotes especiales de semillas sin tratar.

Antes de terminar la llamada, el semillero se ofreció a hacerme un lote de semillas sin tratar en el futuro. Sólo tenía que pedirlo.

Creo que lo haré.

Es importante que los consumidores busquen semillas no tratadas. Pero los gobiernos también tienen que hacer más para ayudar a que estén disponibles.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Una estrategia de salida

Homegrown seed can be good

Algunos videos sobre la semilla

Derechos de los agricultores a la semilla: Guatemala

Derechos de los agricultores a la semilla: Malawi

Succeed with seeds

Cuidando la semilla de papa

Organic coating of cereal seed

Buena semilla de ocra

Better seed for green gram

Making a chilli seedbed

Maintaining varietal purity of sesame

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Storing cowpea seed

Recovering from the quinoa boom October 30th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In southwestern Bolivia, a whole ecosystem has been nearly destroyed, to export quinoa, but some people are trying to save it.

Bolivia’s southern Altiplano is a harsh place to live. Although it is in the tropical latitudes it is so high, over 3800 meters, that it often freezes. Its climax forest, the t’ular, is only a meter tall, made up of native shrubs, grasses and cactuses.

For centuries on the southern Altiplano, farmers grew quinoa, an annual plant with edible seeds, in the shelter of little hills. No other crop would grow in this high country. People herded llamas on the more exposed plains of the Altiplano. The farmers would take quinoa in packs, carried by llamas, to other parts of Bolivia to trade for maize, fruit and chuño (traditional freeze-dried potatoes) as well as wool, salt and jerky.

In about 2010 quinoa became a fad food, and export prices soared. Bolivian plant breeder, Alejandro Bonifacio, who is from the Altiplano, estimates that 80% of the t’ular was plowed under to grow quinoa from 2010 to 2014.This was the first time that farmers cleared the dwarf forest growing on the open plains.

After the brief quinoa boom ended, in some places, only 30% of the lands cleared on the t’ular were still being farmed. The rest had simply been turned into large patches of white sand. The native plants did not grow back, probably because of drought and wind linked to climate change.

At the start of the quinoa boom, Dr. Bonifacio and colleagues at Proinpa, a research agency, realized the severity of the destruction of the native ecosystem, and began to develop a system of regenerative agriculture.

In an early experience, they gathered 20 gunny bags of the seed heads of different species of t’ulas, the native shrubs and grasses. They scattered the seeds onto the sandy soil of abandoned fields. Out of several million seeds, only a dozen germinated and only four survived. After their first unsuccessful experience with direct seeding, the researchers and their students learned to grow seeds of native plants in two nurseries on the Altiplano, and then transplant them.

So much native vegetation has been lost that it cannot all be reforested, so researchers worked with farmers in local communities to experiment with live barriers. These were two or three lines of t’ula transplanted from the nurseries to create living barriers three meters wide. The live barriers could be planted as borders around the fields, or as strips within the large ones, spaced 30 to 45 meters apart. This helped to slow down soil erosion caused by wind, so farmers could grow quinoa (still planted, but in smaller quantities, to eat at home and for the national market, after the end of the export boom). Growing native shrubs as live barriers also gave farmers an incentive to care for these native plants.

By 2022, nearly 8000 meters of live barriers of t’ula have been planted, and are being protected by local farmers. The older plants are maturing, thriving and bearing seed. Some local governments and residents have started to drive to Proinpa, to request seedlings to plant, hinting at a renewed interest in these native plants.

The next step in creating a new regenerative agriculture was to introduce a rotation crop into the quinoa system. But on the southern Altiplano, no other crop has been grown, besides quinoa (and a semi-wild relative, qañawa). In this climate, it was impossible even to grow potatoes and other native roots and tubers.

NGOs suggested that farmers rotate quinoa with a legume crop, like peas or broad beans, but these plants died every time.

Bonifacio and colleagues realized that a new legume crop would be required, but that it would have to be a wild, native plant. They began experimenting with native lupines. The domesticated lupine, a legume, produces seeds in pods which remain closed even after the plant matures. When ancient farmers domesticated the lupine, they selected for pods that stayed closed, so the grains would not be lost in the field. But the pods of wild legumes shatter, scattering their seeds on the ground.

Various methods were tried to recover the wild lupine seed, including sifting it out of the sand. Researchers eventually learned that the seed was viable before it was completely dry, before the pod burst. After the seed dried, it went into a four-year dormancy.

In early trials with farmers, the wild lupines have done well as a quinoa intercrop. Llamas will eat them, and the legumes improve the soil. When the quinoa is harvested in March, April and May, the lupine remains as a cover crop, reaching maturity the following year, and protecting the soil.

The quinoa boom was a tragedy. A unique ecosystem was nearly wiped out in four years. The market can provide perverse incentives to destroy a landscape. The research with native windbreaks and cover crops is also accompanied by studies of local cactus and by breeding varieties of quinoa that are well-adapted to the southern Altiplano. This promises to be the basis of a regenerative agriculture, one that respects the local plants, including the animals that eat them, such as the domesticated llama and the wild vicuña, while also providing a livelihood for native people.

Further reading

Bonifacio, Alejandro, Genaro Aroni, Milton Villca & Jeffery W. Bentley 2022 Recovering from quinoa: regenerative agricultural research in Bolivia. Journal of Crop Improvement, DOI: 10.1080/15427528.2022.2135155

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

Awakening the seeds

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

Slow recovery

Related videos

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

The wasp that protects our crops

Acknowledgements

Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio works for the Proinpa Foundation. This work was made possible with the kind support of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation.

RECUPERÁNDOSE DEL BOOM DE LA QUINUA

Por Jeff Bentley, 30 de octubre del 2022

En el suroeste de Bolivia, todo un ecosistema casi se ha destruido para exportar quinua, pero algunas personas intentan salvarlo.

Es difícil vivir en el Altiplano sur de Bolivia. Aunque está en latitudes tropicales, está tan alto, a más de 3.800 metros, que a menudo se congela. Su bosque clímax, el t’ular, sólo tiene un metro de altura, formado por arbustos, hierbas y cactus nativos.

Durante siglos, en el Altiplano sur, los agricultores cultivaron quinua (una planta de ciclo anual y tallo herbáceo) con semillas comestibles, al abrigo de las pequeñas colinas. Ningún otro cultivo crecía en esta zona alta. En las llanuras más expuestas del Altiplano, la gente arreaba llamas. Los campesinos llevaban la quinua cargados por las llamas, a otras partes de Bolivia para intercambiarla por maíz, frutas, chuño, lana, sal, y charqui.

Hacia 2010, la quinua se convirtió en un alimento de moda y los precios de exportación se dispararon. El fitomejorador boliviano Alejandro Bonifacio, originario del Altiplano, calcula que entre 2010 y 2014 se aró el 80% del t’ular para cultivar quinua.

Tras el breve auge de la quinua, en algunas zonas solo el 30% de las tierras desmontadas en el t’ular seguían siendo cultivadas. El resto simplemente se había convertido en grandes manchas de arena blanca. Las plantas nativas no volvieron a crecer, probablemente por la sequía y el viento atribuible al cambio climático).

Al comienzo del boom de la quinua, el Dr. Bonifacio y sus colegas de Proinpa, una agencia de investigación, se dieron cuenta de la gravedad de la destrucción del ecosistema nativo, y comenzaron a desarrollar un sistema de agricultura regenerativa.

En una de las primeras experiencias, reunieron 20 gangochos conteniendo frutos con las diminutas semillas de diferentes especies de t’ulas, los arbustos nativos y pastos. Esparcieron las semillas en el arenoso suelo de los campos abandonados. De varios millones de semillas, sólo germinaron una decena que al final quedaron cuatro plantas sobrevivientes. Tras su primera experiencia frustrante con la siembra directa, los investigadores y sus estudiantes aprendieron a cultivar semillas de plantas nativas en dos viveros del Altiplano con fines de trasplantarlos.

Se ha perdido tanta vegetación nativa que no se puede reforestarla toda, así que los investigadores trabajaron con los agricultores de las comunidades locales para experimentar con barreras vivas. Se trataba de dos o tres líneas de t’ula trasplantadas desde los viveros para crear barreras vivas de tres metros de ancho. Las barreras vivas podían plantarse como bordes alrededor de las parcelas, o como franjas dentro de los campos grandes, con una separación de 30 a 45 metros. Esto ayudó a frenar la erosión del suelo causada por el viento, para que los agricultores pudieran cultivar quinua (que aún se siembra, pero en menor cantidad, para comer en casa y para el mercado nacional, tras el fin del boom de las exportaciones). El cultivo de arbustos nativos como barreras vivas también incentivó a los agricultores a cuidar estas plantas nativas.

En 2022, se han plantado casi 8.000 metros de barreras vivas de t’ula, que se protegen por los agricultores locales. Las plantas más antiguas están madurando, prosperando y formando semilla. Algunos residentes y gobiernos locales han comenzado a llegar a Proinpa, para pedir plantines para plantar, lo que indica un renovado interés en estas plantas nativas.

El siguiente paso en la creación de una nueva agricultura regenerativa era introducir un cultivo de rotación en el sistema de la quinua. Pero en el Altiplano sur no se ha cultivado ningún otro cultivo, aparte de la quinua (y un pariente semi-silvestre, la qañawa). En este clima, era imposible incluso cultivar papas y otras raíces y tubérculos nativos.

Las ONGs sugirieron a los agricultores que rotaran la quinoa con un cultivo de leguminosas, como arvejas o habas, pero estas plantas morían siempre.

Bonifacio y sus colegas se dieron cuenta de que sería necesario tener un nuevo cultivo de leguminosas, pero que tendría que ser una planta silvestre y nativa. Empezaron a experimentar con lupinos nativos. El lupino domesticado es el tarwi, una leguminosa, produce semillas en vainas que permanecen cerradas incluso después de que la planta madure. Cuando los antiguos agricultores domesticaron el lupino, seleccionaron las vainas que permanecían cerradas, para que los granos no se perdieran en el campo. Pero las vainas de las leguminosas silvestres se rompen, esparciendo sus semillas por el suelo.

Se intentaron varios métodos para recuperar la semilla de lupinos silvestre, incluido tamizando la arena. Los investigadores descubrieron que la semilla era viable antes de estar completamente seca, antes de que la vaina reventara. Una vez seca, la semilla entraba en un periodo de dormancia de cuatro años.

En los primeros ensayos con agricultores, los lupinos silvestres han funcionado bien como cultivo intermedio de la quinoa. Las llamas los comen y las leguminosas mejoran el suelo. Cuando se cosecha la quinoa en marzo, abril y mayo, el lupino permanece como cultivo de cobertura, alcanzando la madurez al año siguiente y protegiendo el suelo.

El boom de la quinoa fue una tragedia. Un ecosistema único estuvo a punto de desaparecer en cuatro años. El mercado puede ofrecer incentivos perversos para destruir un paisaje. La investigación con barreras vivas nativas y cultivos de cobertura también va acompañada de estudios de cactus locales y del fitomejoramiento de variedades de quinua bien adaptadas al Altiplano sur. Esto promete ser la base de una agricultura regenerativa, que respete las plantas locales, incluidos los animales que se alimentan de ellas, como la llama domesticada y la vicuña silvestre, y al mismo tiempo proporcionando un medio de vida a la gente nativa.

Lectura adicional

Bonifacio, Alejandro, Genaro Aroni, Milton Villca & Jeffery W. Bentley 2022 Recovering from quinoa: regenerative agricultural research in Bolivia. Journal of Crop Improvement, DOI: 10.1080/15427528.2022.2135155

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Despertando las semillas

Destruyendo el altiplano sur con quinua

Recuperación lenta

Videos sobre el tema

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

La avispa que protege nuestros cultivos

Agradecimiento

El Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio trabaja para la Fundación Proinpa. Este trabajo se hizo con el generoso apoyo del Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

The chaquitaclla June 26th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When the Spanish conquered Peru, they found native people working the soil with a tool built around a long pole, called the chaquitaclla. Usually rendered into English as the “Andean foot plow,” the chaquitaclla doesn’t quite plow a furrow, but in the hands (and feet) of a skilled operator it  does neatly loosen one large block of sod at a time, which is then turned over by a helper.

We met one such person recently in the mountains of Huánuco, in the community of Tres de Mayo, Huayllacayán. Francisco Poma, a local farmer, took time off one day to demonstrate the foot plow for a group of school children.

The potato harvest was just ending, but one farmer, Eustaquio Hilario Ponciano and his family had graciously waited to harvest one small field of native potatoes, so that Paul, Marcella and I could film it.

Although it was not planting season, don Francisco and don Eustaquio next demonstrated how to plant with a chaquitaclla using a minimum tillage system called “chiwi” in which potatoes are planted without completely disturbing the soil. Don Francisco put the blade of the tool on the soil, stepped on the jaruna (foot pedal) while holding onto the uysha (the handle), and the metal blade sunk into the earth. Don Francisco turned over the chunk of soil, while don Eustaquio nestled a seed potato into the hole and then covered it up with the sod, grassy side down, patting it into place with the palms of his hands.

Modern Peru has tractors and the whole array of contemporary farm implements, but the ancient foot plow survives because it fits a purpose. It can work steep slopes, small fields, and it can reach right up to the edge of the field, taking advantage of precious land that a tractor misses.

Like any other technology, the chaquitaclla survives because it fills a function, and no better tool has yet been invented to replace it. It gently works steep, fragile soils, while keeping large chunks of earth intact.

Like other technologies, even old ones, the chaquitaclla also continues to evolve. The blade of pre-Hispanic ones were made of stone. Don Francisco explains that this one is made by a local blacksmith from a steel strip recycled from a truck’s shock absorber. The main pole of the chaquitaclla is now often made of eucalyptus, a strong, straight and light wood that was unknown to pre-Columbian Peruvians. The hand and foot holds were once tied to the main pole with llama rawhide. Sometimes they still are, but don Francisco shows me several chaquitacllas, including one tied together with nylon twine. He explained “when we leave the chaquitaclla in the field, sometimes the dogs eat the rawhide. They don’t eat this one made from synthetic twine.”

Ancient tools are kept not out of nostalgia, but because they fill a niche, and because local people adapt them, incorporating new materials into old devices.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

The school garden

The enemies of innovation

Acknowledgements

The visit to Peru to film various farmer-to-farmer training videos with farmers like don Feliciano was made possible with the kind support of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Dante Flores of the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente (IDMA) and to Aldo Cruz of the Centro de Investigaciones de Zonas Áridas (CIZA) for introducing us to the community and for sharing their knowledge with us. Dante Flores and Paul Van Mele read a previous version of this blog and made valuable comments.

LA CHAQUITACLLA

Jeff Bentley, 26 de junio del 2022

Cuando los españoles conquistaron al Perú, encontraron a la gente trabajando la tierra con una herramienta de madera larga llamada “chaquitaclla”, que suele traducirse al español como “arado de pie,” no llega a arar un surco, pero en manos (y pies) de un operador habiloso, afloja limpiamente un gran bloque de tierra  que luego es volteado a mano por un ayudante

Hace poco conocimos a un experto en la chaquitaclla en la sierra de Huánuco, en la comunidad de Tres de Mayo, Huayllacayán. Francisco Poma, un agricultor del lugar, se tomó un día para demostrar el arado de pie a un grupo de estudiantes de primaria.

La cosecha de papas se estaba acabando, pero un agricultor, Eustaquio Hilario Ponciano, y su familia amablemente habían esperado a cosechar una pequeña chacra de papas nativas para que Paul, Marcella y yo pudiéramos filmarles.

Aunque no era época de siembra, don Francisco y don Eustaquio demostraron a continuación cómo se siembra con una chaquitaclla en el sistema de siembra llamada “chiwi” una especie de labranza mínima que no remueve todo el terreno). Don Francisco puso la hoja de la herramienta sobre la tierra, pisó la jaruna (pedal) mientras se sujetaba a la uysha (la agarradera), y la punta metálica se hundió en la tierra. Don Francisco volcó el terrón, mientras que don Eustaquio metió una papa semilla en el hoyo y luego la cubrió con el pedazo de tierra, dándole golpecitos con las palmas de las manos.

El Perú moderno tiene tractores y todos los implementos agrícolas contemporáneos, pero el antiguo arado de pie sobrevive porque tiene un propósito. Puede trabajar en laderas empinadas, en campos pequeños y puede preparar hasta el borde de la chacra, aprovechando el espacio mejor que un tractor.

Como cualquier otra tecnología, la chaquitaclla sobrevive porque cumple una función, y todavía no se ha inventado ninguna herramienta mejor para sustituirla. Trabaja suavemente los suelos inclinados y frágiles, manteniendo intactos grandes trozos de tierra.

Como otras tecnologías, incluso las más antiguas, la chaquitaclla también sigue evolucionando. En tiempos prehispánicos, la punta era de piedra. Don Francisco explica que la suya la ha fabricado un herrero local con acero reciclado de un muelle de camión. Hoy en día el palo principal de la chaquitaclla se hace de eucalipto, una madera fuerte, recta y ligera que era desconocida para los peruanos precolombinos. La jaruna y la uysha se ataban al palo con cuero crudo de llama. A veces todavía lo están, pero don Francisco me muestra varias chaquitacllas, incluida una atada con hilo de nylon. Me explica que “cuando dejamos la chaquitaclla en el campo, a veces los perros se comen el cuero. No se comen esta, hecha con cuerda sintética”.

Las herramientas antiguas se conservan no por nostalgia, sino porque funcionan, y porque la gente local las adapta, incorporando nuevos materiales a los dispositivos antiguos.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

The school garden

The enemies of innovation

Agradecimiento

Nuestra visita al Perú para filmar varios videos agricultor-a-agricultor con agricultores como don Feliciano fue posible gracias al generoso apoyo del Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight. Gracias a Dante Flores del Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente (IDMA) y a Aldo Cruz del Centro de Investigaciones de Zonas Áridas (CIZA) por presentarnos a la comunidad y por compartir su conocimiento con nosotros. Dante Flores y Paul Van Mele leyeron una versión previa de este relato, e hizo comentarios valiosos.

Sowing experiments April 24th, 2022 by

For nearly a century, from 1839 to 1924, the US government distributed free seeds to any citizen who wanted them. As told in First the Seed, by Jack Kloppenburg, seeds of field crops, vegetables and even flowers were sourced from around the world (often by the US Navy). The seed was multiplied in the USA, and mailed through the post by members of Congress to their constituents. The program was wildly popular and by 1861, the first year of the American Civil War, almost two and a half million seed packages (each with five packets of seed) were being shipped each year to farmers and gardeners.

As Kloppenburg explains, given the botanical knowledge of the time, and the limited ability of formal agricultural research in the United States, the free seed for farmers “was the most efficient means of developing adapted and improved crop varieties.”

I recently saw a little window into this seed program. On 7 April 2022, The Times-Independent (a newspaper in Moab, Utah), published a replica of their page one from exactly 100 years earlier. One short story, “Seeds Go Quickly” showed just how much people loved free seed. The little story reads:


SEEDS GO QUICKLY

In last Thursday’s issue, The Times-Independent announced that a quantity of government seeds had been received by this office for distribution to the people of Moab, and inviting those who wanted some of the seeds to call for them. Within a few minutes after the paper was delivered to the post office, local people commenced to call for the seeds, and there was a continuous demand until the supply was entirely exhausted.


I hadn’t realized that newspapers also helped to distribute the seed. In 1922, Moab’s local newspaper did not bother telling its readers what the “government seed” was. They knew it well, even though today the program is forgotten. Kloppenburg says that the government seed was not only free, but of high quality, better than what private companies were then able to supply. This partly explains the rush of townspeople clamoring seed at The Times-Independent office, but farmers’ love of innovation was also a reason for the excitement. The farmers and gardeners who swung open the glass door of the newspaper office didn’t know what kind of seed was in the little packages. There was some mystery there: each package contained several packets of different seed. Each packet was just a handful of seed, enough to try out, but not enough to plant a field.

The free seed sparked thousands of farmer experiments over decades, which formed the basis of modern, North American agriculture.

The development of the adapted base of germplasm on which American agriculture was raised is the product of thousands of experiments by thousands of farmers committing millions of hours of labor in thousands of diverse ecological niches over a period of many decades.

Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed, page 56

In the early 1800s seed companies were small, but they were growing. By 1883 these companies organized as the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and immediately began to lobby against government seed. Free seed was so popular that it took ASTA forty years, until 1924, to finally convince Congress to kill the program, at the height of its popularity.

Since 1922, companies have largely wrested control of seed from farmers, who once produced and exchanged all of the seed of field crops. It’s worth remembering that small gifts of seed sparked farmer experiments that shaped American agriculture.

Further reading

Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, Jr. 1990 First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000. Cambridge University Press.

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Give bokashi a chance April 3rd, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I admit that I once took a dim view of bokashi, a hand-crafted organic fertilizer made from barnyard manure and some store-bought materials, like molasses, bran, yeast, or even yoghurt (recipes vary). It takes work to make it, because it has to be stirred every day or two. I once wrote about a bokashi factory I saw in Nepal that impressed me, because I thought it might be easier for busy farmers to buy bokashi, and skip all the work of mixing it.

But this past February I met an innovative farmer, Héctor Casa, in Tunicuchí, in the Andes of central Ecuador. Don Héctor does not have a lot of time or money, but he is able to use bokashi on his small, mixed farm of pigs, guinea pigs, potatoes and vegetables. He graciously took time off from his job in a plywood factory to let Marcella and Paul film him for a video on seed potatoes.

Don Héctor starts his bokashi by making compost from his animals’ manure. He adds soil, rice husks, rock phosphate, lime, molasses and whey. He also adds microorganisms: a water solution that includes a few handfuls of forest soil. For good measure he puts in some biol, a fermented, liquified manure which is also rich in beneficial germs.

I watched as don Héctor deftly stirred each ingredient one at a time into a pile, shoveling it all over again with each addition, thoroughly blending it. It’s hard work, but he makes it look easy. But when he turned over a large, plastic sheet, I realized he had a second pile, with about five tons of finished bokashi. I’ve rarely seen that much of the stuff in one place, because it is requires some patience to make, and some store-bought materials.

Don Héctor had made his five tons of bokashi over two weeks, shoveling it over thoroughly every day, but now his work was about to pay off. It was ready to take to the field, and he was pleased that his bokashi was more than fertilizer; it would also protect his crops from pests and diseases. He explained that the good microbes he cultured in the bokashi would help to control potato diseases. “The microorganisms eat the bad fungi. They eliminate them.”

Then don Héctor took us to see his potato crop, not a garden, but a commercial field of healthy potatoes. These are some of the few potatoes grown in an environmentally-friendly way in the whole of highland Ecuador, where chemical fertilizer is commonly used along with fungicides and insecticides.

Don Héctor does use bokashi to keep the soil fertile. But bokashi also acts as a fungicide of sorts, as it adds good microbes to the earth, which help to keep down soil-borne diseases.

Bokashi alone would not be enough to keep pests and diseases away. To manage the Andean potato weevil and the potato tuber moth, don Héctor hills up the potatoes. Three times per season he and his helpers heap soil up around the base of each potato plant. The third time, they pile the soil really high, just as the potatoes are flowering and the plants have reached their full height.

“The tuber moth lays its eggs at the base of the potato plant, and when the worms hatch, they move down into the potato,” don Héctor explains. “By hilling up lots of soil I make a barrier that protects the potatoes from the moths and its worms.” As an added advantage, the extra soil around each potato plant gives the tubers room to grow. They can’t develop unless they are blanketed in soft earth.

We visited don Héctor with Ecuadorian seed researcher Israel Navarrete, who was especially taken by rows of maize that Héctor had planted around his crop. Don Héctor said that the rows of corn formed a barrier that kept disease out of the potato crop. Israel called it positive deviance: “being odd, but in a good way.”

The idea may be odd, but it also seemed to be working. We saw that the neighboring fields were not doing as well as this healthy one. One neighbor sprayed insecticide on his potatoes, and the leaves were damaged by the potato tuber moth, while don Héctor’s crop had little visible insect damage. Other nearby potato plants were stunted by herbicides, where farmers tried to spray to avoid the work of weeding and hilling up their crop. Don Héctor’s organic potato plants were larger, and a healthy green.

I used to doubt the value of bokashi, because I saw it as fertilizer, expensive and tedious to make. But in reality, bokashi also acts as a fungicide, replenishing some of the good microorganisms that conventional agriculture kills. Innovative farmers combine bokashi with other techniques, like carefully hilling up the potatoes, and encircling them with a protective crop of maize. This integrated approach seems to be working, and is worthy of formal study by researchers.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Ing. Victoria López (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias—INIAP), and Ing. Nancy Panchi and Dr. Israel Navarrete (both of the International Potato Center—CIP) for introducing us to innovative potato farmers in Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Victoria, Israel and Paul Van Mele read a previous version and made valuable comments

BOKASHI ES MÁS QUE FERTILIZANTE

Jeff Bentley, 3 de abril del 2022

Yo antes veía con escepticismo al bokashi, un abono orgánico hecho a mano con estiércol y algunos materiales comprados en la tienda, como melaza, salvado, levadura o incluso yogurt (las recetas varían). También requiere trabajo, porque hay que removerlo cada día o dos. Una vez escribí sobre una fábrica de bokashi que vi en Nepal y que me impresionó, porque pensé que sería más fácil para los atareados agricultores comprar bokashi y evitar el trabajo de mezclarlo.

Pero el pasado febrero conocí a un agricultor innovador, Héctor Casa, en Tanicuchí, en los Andes centrales de Ecuador. Don Héctor no tiene mucho tiempo ni dinero, pero logra usar el bokashi en su pequeña granja mixta de cerdos, cuyes, papas y verduras. Él amablemente tomó un tiempo libre de su trabajo en una fábrica de madera para dejar que Marcella y Paul le filmaran para un video sobre la semilla de papa.

Don Héctor empieza su bokashi haciendo compost con el estiércol de sus animales. Añade suelo, cáscara de arroz, fosfato de roca, cal, melaza y suero. También añade microorganismos: una solución de agua con unos puñados de tierra del bosque. Además, agrega un poco de biol, un estiércol fermentado y licuado que también es rico en microbios beneficiosos.

Observé cómo don Héctor revolvía hábilmente cada ingrediente, de uno en uno, en un montón, removiéndolo todo de nuevo con cada adición, mezclándolo completamente. Es un trabajo duro, pero él lo hace parecer fácil. Me sorprendió que, al destapar un bulto que había tapado con un toldo de plástico, tenía unas cinco toneladas más de bokashi terminado. Rara vez he visto tanto, porque hacerlo requiere cierta paciencia y algunos materiales comprados en la tienda.

Don Héctor había hecho sus cinco toneladas de bokashi durante dos semanas, moviéndolo cada día, pero ahora su trabajo estaba a punto de dar sus frutos. Estaba listo para llevarlo al campo, y se alegró de que su bokashi fuera más que un fertilizante: también protegería sus cultivos de las plagas y enfermedades. Explicó que los microbios buenos que cultivó en el bokashi ayudarían a controlar las enfermedades de la papa. “Los microorganismos se comen los hongos malos. Los eliminan”.

Luego don Héctor nos llevó a ver su cultivo de papas, no un huerto, sino un campo comercial de papas sanas. Estas son algunas de las pocas papas que se cultivan de manera amigable con la naturaleza en todo el altiplano ecuatoriano, donde suelen usar fertilizantes químicos junto con fungicidas e insecticidas.

Don Héctor sí usa el bokashi para mantener la fertilidad del suelo. Pero el bokashi también actúa como una especie de fungicida, ya que añade microbios buenos a la tierra, que ayudan a evitar las enfermedades transmitidas por el suelo.

El bokashi solito no es suficiente para evitar las plagas y enfermedades. Para controlar el gorgojo de los Andes y la polilla de la papa, don Héctor aporca las papas. Tres veces por campaña, él y sus ayudantes aporcan suelo alrededor de la base de cada planta de papa. La tercera vez, amontonan la tierra muy alta, justo cuando las papas están floreciendo y las plantas han alcanzado su máxima altura.

“La polilla de la papa pone sus huevos en la base de la planta de la papa, y cuando los gusanos nacen del huevo, bajan a la papa”, explica don Héctor. “Al poner mucha tierra hago una barrera que protege a las papas de la polilla y sus gusanos”. Como ventaja adicional, la tierra extra alrededor de cada planta de papa da a los tubérculos espacio para crecer. No pueden desarrollarse si no están cubiertos de tierra blanda.

Visitamos a don Héctor con el investigador ecuatoriano en semillas Israel Navarrete, a quien le llamaron especialmente la atención las hileras de maíz que Héctor había plantado alrededor de su cultivo. Don Héctor dijo que las hileras de maíz formaban una barrera que mantenía las enfermedades fuera del cultivo de papas. Israel lo llamó desviación positiva: “ser raro, pero en el buen sentido”.

La idea podría parecer extraña, pero por lo visto, funcionaba. Vimos que a los campos vecinos no les iba tan bien como a este sano. Un vecino fumigó sus papas con insecticida y las hojas fueron dañadas por la polilla de la papa, a diferencia del cultivo de don Héctor. Otras plantas de papa cercanas están marchitadas por los herbicidas, donde los agricultores intentaron fumigar para evitar el trabajo de deshierbar y aporcar su cultivo. A cambio las plantas de don Héctor eran grandes y un verde exuberante.

Yo antes dudaba del valor del bokashi, porque lo veía como un fertilizante, que costaba trabajo y dinero. Pero en realidad, el bokashi también actúa como fungicida, reponiendo algunos de los microorganismos buenos que la agricultura convencional mata. Los agricultores innovadores combinan el bokashi con otras técnicas, como aporcar cuidadosamente las papas y rodearlas de un cultivo protector de maíz. Este enfoque integrado parece funcionar, y merece ser estudiado formalmente por los investigadores.

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Agradecimientos

Gracias a la Ing. Victoria López (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias-INIAP), y a la Ing. Nancy Panchi y al Dr. Israel Navarrete (ambos del Centro Internacional de la Papa-CIP) por presentarnos a los innovadores productores de papa de Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Victoria, Israel y Paul Van Mele leyeron una versión previa e hicieron comentarios valiosos.

 

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