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Strawberry fields once again March 15th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

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‚Äôs dad called his seven children together to tell them that he was selling their grandparents‚Äô 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 ‚ÄúI‚Äôll farm it.‚ÄĚ Some people thought he was joking. In Ucuchi, people were leaving agriculture, not getting into it. Many had migrated to Bolivia‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not that hard,‚ÄĚ 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 Ram√≠rez nunca pens√≥ en quedarse en la comunidad donde naci√≥, y empezar un emprendimiento agr√≠cola en las peque√Īas chacras de su familia. Diego cuenta que de ni√Īo le encantaba recoger fruta en la peque√Īa 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 peque√Īa de Sacaba para estudiar en colegio. Luego se fue a estudiar a la Universidad UMSS, la carrera de ingenier√≠a de sistemas. Culminado los estudios, empez√≥ a trabajar en la ciudad de Cochabamba.

A√Īos m√°s tarde, el padre de Diego llam√≥ a sus siete hijos para decirles que estaba vendiendo el terreno de sus abuelos. Ten√≠a sentido. Los abuelos hab√≠an fallecido, y nadie hab√≠a trabajado la tierra durante unos 15 a√Īos. Sin embargo, a Diego le pareci√≥ una tragedia, as√≠ 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. Prefer√≠an emigrar al Oriente de Bolivia y muchos se hab√≠an ido del pa√≠s. Por esta raz√≥n muchas de las parcelas est√°n abandonadas. No es el tipo de lugar al que la gente como Diego normalmente regresa.

Cuando Diego decidi√≥ revivir su finca familiar ya hace dos a√Īos, busc√≥ inspiraci√≥n en el Internet. Aunque la frutilla es un cultivo ancestral de la comunidad de Ucuchi y muy rentable en Cochabamba, Diego se enter√≥ de una empresa productora de frutillas en Santo Domingo, Santiago, en el vecino pa√≠s de Chile, que daba consejos y vend√≠a plantas. Santo Domingo est√° a 2450 km de Cochabamba, pero Diego se tom√≥ tan en serio las frutillas que fue all√≠ un fin de semana y trajo 500 plantas de frutillas. Crucialmente, tambi√©n aprendi√≥ sobre el cultivo tecnificado de frutillas, aplicando el riego por goteo y plantado en camas tapadas con pl√°stico. Movido por sus nuevos conocimientos, busc√≥ distribuidores en Cochabamba que vend√≠an equipos de riego por goteo y los instal√≥, junto con el mulch pl√°stico, un m√©todo com√ļn en la producci√≥n moderna de fresas.

Diego se inclin√≥ m√°s en la producci√≥n agroecol√≥gica para producir frutillas, as√≠ que se contact√≥ con la Fundaci√≥n Agrecol Andes que estaba organizando una asociaci√≥n de productores ecol√≥gicos en Sacaba, la peque√Īa ciudad donde Diego vive, a medio camino entre su terreno y la ciudad grande de Cochabamba. Diego ya tiene certificaci√≥n de productor ecol√≥gico con SPG PAS (Sistema Participativo de Garant√≠a Productores Agroecol√≥gicos Sacaba), Diego aprendi√≥ a hacer su propio biol (una soluci√≥n fermentada de esti√©rcol de vaca que fertiliza el suelo mientras a√Īade microbios buenos). Ahora mezcla el biol en el tanque de riego por goteo, fertilizando las frutillas una gota a la vez.

Diego tambi√©n hace sus propias soluciones org√°nicas, como el sulfoc√°lcico y el caldo bordel√©s. Fumiga estas preparaciones cada dos semanas para controlar el o√≠dium, los thrips (un peque√Īo insecto), la ara√Īuela roja, y la pudrici√≥n de cuello. Me impresion√≥. Mucha gente habla de aplicaciones org√°nicos, pero pocos hacen las suyas. “No es tan dif√≠cil”, Diego dijo cuando le pregunt√© de d√≥nde hallaba el tiempo.

Diego encuentra tiempo para hacer muchas cosas admirables. Tiene un talento natural para el marketing y ha dise√Īado sus propias cajas de cart√≥n delgado, que ha hecho imprimir en La Paz. Sus clientes reciben la fruta en una bonita caja, en lugar de en una bolsa de pl√°stico, donde la fruta se da√Īa f√°cilmente. Vende directamente a los clientes que vienen a la misma parcela, en las ferias agroecol√≥gicas y en tiendas que comercializan productos ecol√≥gicos.

Diego todav√≠a hace su trabajo normal en la ciudad, mientras que tambi√©n tiene una cartera en la comunidad de Ucuchi. Tambi√©n cultiva una peque√Īa chacra de papas y est√° plantando √°rboles frutales y tunas en las laderas pedregosas arriba de su frutillar. Diego tambi√©n ha iniciado una asociaci√≥n de agricultores con sus vecinos, diez hombres y diez mujeres, incluidos adultos mayores y j√≥venes que todav√≠a est√°n en la universidad.

Los miembros de la asociaci√≥n cultivan diversos cultivos, no s√≥lo frutillas. Diego les ense√Īa a cultivar frutillas org√°nicamente y a usar el riego por goteo. Para animar a la gente a usar estos m√©todos, ha creado sus propias parcelas de demostraci√≥n. Ha dividido el frutillar de sus abuelos en tres √°reas: una con su sistema moderno, tecnificado, otra con variedades locales cultivadas al estilo antiguo en suelo desnudo, con riego por inundaci√≥n, 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 adem√°s de las plagas.

Ucuchi es una atractiva comunidad en las faldas del cerro, con electricidad, agua potable, una escuela primaria y un peque√Īo hospital. Est√° 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 j√≥venes se est√°n volviendo a la comunidad de Ucuchi. Las frutillas org√°nicas son dif√≠ciles de cultivar, y son raras en Bolivia. Pero un producto √ļnico, como las frutillas org√°nicas, y un liderazgo inspirado pueden ayudar a frenar el flujo de la migraci√≥n, al mismo tiempo de mostrar que hay maneras viables para que los j√≥venes 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. Tambi√©n 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 m√°s que la b√ļsqueda de lucro. Tambi√©n se trata de la tradici√≥n familiar, la comunidad y de sentirse realizado con un trabajo satisfactorio y creativo.

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Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil February 16th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

We have written earlier in this blog about ‚ÄúEffective Microorganisms¬ģ‚ÄĚ or EM, a branded, commercial preparation. In both of those previous stories, people were using EMs in pig pens, to reduce the odor and to quickly turn the manure to a rich, black compost. 

This week I learned how you can culture your own microorganisms, using some simple equipment and a few inexpensive ingredients. Ing. Abrah√°n Mujica showed me and a small group at his agroecology course that you can start by collecting some leaf litter. We gathered the leaves and top soil from the base of two or three molle trees in the city of Cochabamba.

We put some 5 kilos of leaf litter and black soil on a plastic table. We added a kilo of raw sugar and a kilo of bran (rich in proteins), to feed the microorganisms, and just enough water to turn the mix to a paste. It should be just moist enough that it will release a couple of drops when you press it in your hand

As we mixed up the ingredients, a smell like bread yeast soon filled the room.

‚ÄúSmell the yeast!‚ÄĚ Abrah√°n said. ‚ÄúThe yeast are the first microorganisms to respond to the sugar.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúNot just yeast,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúThere must be 10,000 species of microbes in there.‚ÄĚ Abrah√°n happily agreed.

We filled a third of a 20-liter bucket with this paste, and covered it with plastic bags, tied on with a rubber tie, to keep out the air. The mix will rot if it is exposed to the air, Abrah√°n stressed. Fermentation is without oxygen.

After a month, Abrah√°n will mix the fermented paste with water in a 200-liter barrel, seal it again for another month, and then drain off the water, which by then will be full of microorganisms.

He filters this solution through an ordinary cloth and bottles the liquid for sale. The label reads ‚ÄúThe Life of the Soil‚ÄĚ. It can be sprayed on the soil to make it healthier, or added to compost to speed up decomposition, or used as fertilizer on plant leaves. He said it is intended mainly for soil that has been killed by pesticides, to bring the soil back to life.

Abrah√°n‚Äôs home also doubles as a small shop, where he sells √°cido pirole√Īoso (liquid smoke distilled during charcoal making‚ÄĒwhich is mixed with water and sprayed onto crops as natural insect and fungus control). He also makes potassium soap (which he makes by mixing potassium sulfate with cooking oil), sulfur-lime blend, Bordeaux mix, and other products for protecting plants without toxic chemicals.

Although Abrahán makes the products he sells, he is happy to teach others. On his agroecology course, he teaches others his trade secrets about how to make each product. There will always be lots of people who don’t want to mix these brews. And those who do make their own will also help to make the world a better place, by reducing the use of toxic pesticides, which Abrahán explains are a danger to farmers and consumers.

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FOMENTANDO MICROORGANISMOS QUE MEJORAN EL SUELO

Por Jeff Bentley

16 de febrero del 2020

Hemos escrito antes en este blog sobre “Microorganismos Efectivos¬ģ” o EM, una marca comercial. Los dos blogs anteriores explican el uso de EMs en camas de cerdos para reducir el olor y ayudar a la descomposici√≥n del esti√©rcol. 

Esta semana aprend√≠ c√≥mo uno puede multiplicar sus propios microorganismos, usando un equipo simple y unos pocos ingredientes baratos. El Ing. Abrah√°n Mujica me mostr√≥ a m√≠ y a un peque√Īo grupo en su curso de agroecolog√≠a. Recogimos tierra vegetal o sach‚Äôa wanu, como decimos en Bolivia, del pie de un molle, en plena ciudad.

En una mesa de pl√°stico, pusimos como 5 kilos de sach‚Äôa wanu. A√Īadimos un kilo de chancaca (az√ļcar moreno) y un kilo de salvado (cascarilla de cereal rica en prote√≠nas), para alimentar a los microorganismos, y s√≥lo el agua suficiente para convertir la mezcla en una pasta, que al apretarla, debe soltar un par de gotas.

Mientras mezclábamos los ingredientes, un olor a levadura de pan llenó el ambiente.

“¬°Sientan la levadura!” Abrah√°n dijo. “La levadura es el primer microorganismo que responde al az√ļcar y nutrientes”.

“No s√≥lo la levadura”, dije. “Debe haber 10.000 especies de microbios ah√≠”. Abrah√°n estuvo plenamente de acuerdo.

Llenamos un tercio de un tacho de plástico de 20 litros con esta pasta y lo tapamos con hojas de plástico, atadas con una liga de goma, para evitar que entre el aire. La mezcla se pudrirá si se expone al aire. Abrahán recalcó que la fermentación es sin oxígeno.

Después de un mes, Abrahán la mezclará con agua en un turril de 200 litros; lo sellará de nuevo por otro mes, y luego drenará el agua, que para entonces estará llena de microorganismos.

√Čl filtra esta soluci√≥n a trav√©s de un pa√Īo ordinario y embotella el l√≠quido para su venta. La etiqueta dice “La vida del suelo”. Puede ser fumigado en el suelo para devolverle vitalidad, o puesto en la abonera para acelerar la descomposici√≥n, o aplicado a las plantas como abono filiar. Dijo que est√° destinado principalmente a los suelos que se han muerto por los plaguicidas, para devolverles la vida.

La casa de Abrah√°n tambi√©n funciona como una peque√Īa tienda, donde vende √°cido pirole√Īoso (humo l√≠quido destilado durante la fabricaci√≥n de carb√≥n vegetal, que se mezcla con agua y se fumiga sobre los cultivos para controlar los insectos y los hongos de forma natural). Tambi√©n hace jab√≥n pot√°sico (que elabora mezclando sulfato de potasio con aceite de cocina), caldo sulfoc√°lcico, caldo bordel√©s y otros productos para proteger las plantas sin productos qu√≠micos t√≥xicos.

Aunque Abrah√°n fabrica los productos que vende, le gusta ense√Īar a los dem√°s. En su curso de agroecolog√≠a, ense√Īa a otros sus secretos sobre c√≥mo hacer cada producto. Siempre tendr√° mercado, porque habr√° mucha gente que no quiere hacer estas mezclas. Y aquellos que hacen la suya tambi√©n ayudar√°n a hacer del mundo un lugar mejor, reduciendo el uso de agroqu√≠micos mucho m√°s t√≥xicos, que Abrah√°n est√° convencido son un peligro para los agricultores y consumidores.  

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La agricultura con √°rboles

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Wicked seed January 5th, 2020 by

A recent story in The Economist (28 September 2019, page 18) highlights the low maize yields in Africa, and urges for greater use of hybrid maize seed. The Economist also has harsh words for NGOs: ‚ÄúAfrican governments have mostly ignored the arguments from some charities, that old-fashioned farming is best and that wicked, profit-seeking seed firms should be barred.‚ÄĚ

This caricature is misleading in two ways: many NGOs promote modern seed; and seed companies have more serious enemies than any ‚Äúcharity‚ÄĚ.

Cassava is a big staple food in Africa, like maize. Unlike maize, which is planted using true seed, cassava is propagated with stem cuttings. Seed companies rarely sell stems or other vegetative planting material, even for major crops, other than potato. This is mainly for practical reasons; cuttings, vines and roots are bulky, and perishable. Farmers usually trade for cassava stems, get them from friends for free, or buy them from producers or traders.

Donor-funded projects, such as UPOCA and the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, have also played an important part in making cassava planting material available, worked closely with NGOs to distribute the stems of new, disease-resistant varieties of cassava to farmers in various African countries. This progressive and modern system is neither old-fashioned nor wicked.

It‚Äôs not just cassava where such initiatives have helped make planting material available.  In Kenya, public research, like the 3G Seed Strategy, supported the production of high-quality seed potatoes (not true seed, but the small tubers that farmers plant). The project purposefully channeled the production and sale of the little seed potatoes through private companies and commercial farms, to promote sustainable business.

The real enemies of private seed companies include crooks who sell fake seed. To its credit, The Economist did mention counterfeit seed as a problem, but it is worse than the newspaper let on. In a visit to Premier Seed, a Nigerian company, I was impressed by their expertise and competence. They had a professional plant breeder, a tidy lab growing maize seedlings in rows of dishes, and an orderly warehouse stacked with bags of seed. I never heard Premier or other Nigerian seed enterprises complain about NGOs or ‚Äúcharities‚ÄĚ.  The real problem was counterfeit seed. Criminals would buy cheap maize grain in the market, dye it to make it look like treated seed, and package it in bags printed to look like those of a real company. Farmers only realized they‚Äôd been sold a dud at harvest time. Counterfeit seed smeared the good name of the legitimate companies, whose packaging had been copied.

Life is difficult for seed companies trying to survive, especially the smaller ones. Even when the Nigerian government buys large amounts of seed from private companies to distribute to smallholders, as it does from time to time, there’s a twist. The government can be slow to pay its bills, with the result that a small company’s capital cash flow is blocked and capital is tied up for a year or more. Bigger firms with deeper pockets can more easily wait to be paid.

Few NGOs argue that old-fashioned farming is best. Most promote a sensible blend of tradition and innovation in agricultural practices and respect the pioneering.

There is a reason why seed companies may be seen as wicked. As Paul and colleagues recently explained in two videos (one from Guatemala and one from Malawi), some seed laws threaten farmers’ right to use their own seed.

African seed enterprises do have real problems, but ‚Äúcharities‚ÄĚ are not among them. Governments should help national seed companies by arresting the fake seed sellers, and paying for seed on time. Farmers have a right to keep their own seed, but they need modern seed as well. NGOs and research centers often work together to provide such seed, especially for crops that private companies ignore.  

Further reading

For Nigerian seed enterprises see:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Olupomi Ajayi and Kehinde Adelugba 2011 ‚ÄúNigeria: Clustered Seed Companies,‚ÄĚ pp. 38-64. In, P. Van Mele, J.W. Bentley & R. Gu√©i (eds.) African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp.

For projects in Africa that have promoted modern seed of cassava, potatoes (and other crops) see:

Andrade-Piedra, Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

And this one on the benefits of good, commercial cassava stems

Quality cassava planting material

Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a ‚Äúsolidarity basket‚ÄĚ, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn‚Äôt collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. ‚ÄúI had to go get it on my bike‚ÄĚ, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

What counts in agroecology August 18th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

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, Germ√°n 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‚ÄĒpart 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‚Äôt 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 ‚Äúexternalities.‚ÄĚ

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‚Äôs tally. Yet here the ‚Äúexternalities‚ÄĚ 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 AGROECOLOG√ćA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de agosto del 2019

Medir los costos y los beneficios de una peque√Īa finca puede ser m√°s dif√≠cil que en una grande, especialmente si la peque√Īa incluye √°rboles y produce muchos de sus propios insumos, como vi en una reciente visita a Sipe Sipe, cerca de Cochabamba, Bolivia, donde la organizaci√≥n eclesial ‚ÄúAsociaci√≥n Agroecolog√≠a y Fe‚ÄĚ (AAF) est√° estableciendo huertos ecol√≥gicos agroforestales.

El director de la AAF, Germ√°n Vargas, explic√≥ que un bosque crea suelo, acumulando gradualmente tierra negra y rica bajo los √°rboles, mientras que la agricultura suele exponer el suelo a la erosi√≥n. Una finca basada en √°rboles, con abonos org√°nicos, y con hortalizas que crecen debajo de los √°rboles, deber√≠a ser una forma de obtener beneficios al mismo tiempo que se conserva el suelo. 

La extensionista Marcelina Alarc√≥n nos mostr√≥ los manzanos que ella y la gente local plantaron en agosto del 2018. Comenzaron haciendo terrazas en una hect√°rea 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 hect√°reas adicionales. El costo fue de 64.000 Bs. ($9,275), que parece una inversi√≥n grande, pero reservorios similares construidos hace 30 a√Īos siguen funcionando.

Camellones exuberantes de lechuga, repollo, br√≥coli, trigo, cebollas (algunas cultivadas para su semilla) prosperan bajo los manzanos. Cuando se cosecha un cultivo, otro ocupa su lugar, en complejas rotaciones sobre peque√Īos espacios. No aplican productos qu√≠micos, pero el grupo fabrica caldo mineral sulfoc√°lcico y abonos org√°nicos l√≠quidos para mejorar el suelo, prevenir las enfermedades de los cultivos y mejorar la producci√≥n 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 peque√Īo grupo organizado por la AAF y algunos de sus aliados. Algunas de las lechugas, cebollas y tomates de la finca terminaron en una ba√Īera 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. Despu√©s del recorrido por la finca y antes del almuerzo, Marcelina organiz√≥ una mesa para vender algunas verduras. Se mantuvo ocupada apuntando cada transacci√≥n mientras compr√°bamos peque√Īas bolsas de tomates y otros productos por cantidades menos de un d√≥lar cada una.

La venta de medio kilo de tomates es tanto trabajo como la venta de veinte toneladas de arroz. Una finca peque√Īa tiene muchas m√°s 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 m√°s simple de tabular: tanta mano de obra, maquinaria, semillas y productos qu√≠micos, todos comprados, y el rendimiento de un solo cultivo medido con relativa facilidad. Sin embargo, esto no cuenta toda la historia. La p√©rdida de suelo debido a la erosi√≥n, o el carbono y nitr√≥geno a la atm√≥sfera, o la contaminaci√≥n por la escorrent√≠a de los fertilizantes, todos ellos tienen un costo, aunque a menudo se desestimen como “externalidades”.

Un sistema agroforestal, como la hect√°rea de manzanas y hortalizas que visitamos comienza con una gran inversi√≥n en riego y terrazas. Muchos de los insumos son mano de obra, o abonos caseros, y su costo no siempre se cuenta. Los manzanos a√ļn no han dado fruto, y algunas de las verduras pueden escaparse de la cuenta del contable. Sin embargo, aqu√≠ las “externalidades” tienen una contribuci√≥n positiva y valiosa: se est√° creando el suelo, la contaminaci√≥n qu√≠mica es nula y los medios de subsistencia se enriquecen a medida que los agricultores locales, en su mayor√≠a mujeres, aprenden a trabajar juntas para producir alimentos saludables para vender. Las comparaciones econ√≥micas cl√°sicas con las explotaciones convencionales no tienen en cuenta estos beneficios.

Incluso una peque√Īa 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 agroecol√≥gicas de manera adecuada, nunca se ver√°n tan bien como realmente son.

Para leer m√°s

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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