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Commercial family farming Bolivian style May 30th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In earlier blogs (Our threatened farmers, Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism) Paul and I have written that farmers are Stuck in the middle between just a few large produce buyers and handful of seed and agrochemical companies. Farmers are forced to take any prices offered by their buyers, and by their suppliers as well. It’s a bind that forces many family farmers out of business.

It doesn’t have to be that way, as I was reminded recently on a stretch of the old highway from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to Cochabamba, at some 3000 meters above sea level. Ana and I noticed all the farmers gathering potatoes into large, blue sacks. They were getting ready for the weekly fair at “El Puente”, the bridge over the Lope Mendoza River.

Seeing the potato growers, I suddenly felt the urge to participate in this robust farmers’ market which has been self-sustaining for decades.

In a flat space in the canyon, every Monday hundreds of smallholder farmers bring fresh produce, mostly potatoes. El Puente is like a small town that leaps into existence with the Monday fair, only to be abandoned for the rest of the week.

This was Sunday. The shop fronts were closed, locks on heavy steel doors. By Monday morning they would be doing a brisk business in farm supplies. One temporary restaurant was open, with chicken roasting on a large charcoal grill, ready to feed the farmers who had arrived early, on Sunday afternoon.

We past an empty space that would soon be full of vendors who travel from fair to fair, selling the things that rural families like and need, soap and salt, cooking oil, tinned sardines, matches and clothing. Today it was still empty, but the potato pavilion was filling up. It’s just a concrete slab with a sheet metal roof and no walls. Farmers bring in their produce, in 100 kilo bags (called a carga), and wait for customers.

Some people come from the city on the bus on Monday to buy a carga to eat at home, or half a dozen of them, to sell. They rent space on a truck to deliver the potatoes to Cochabamba. The largest buyers may load a small truck with six or twelve tons to sell to retailers in the cities. In this lightly regulated market, potatoes may go through as few as four links, from farmer to small-time wholesaler, to retailer, to customer. Each one is a small, family business. It’s Adam Smith’s ideal of capitalism, with many willing buyers and many others eager to sell.

Ana soon met a farmer in early middle age, wearing a long skirt, with a scarf tied over her head.

We asked her for an arroba (25 pounds, or 11.4 kilos) of potatoes. “Take half a carga (50 kilos)” she said, so we did. After all, this was a wholesale market. The farmer led us to her wares, maybe a dozen bags. Each farmer was there with a cluster of potatoes in 100 kilo bags. Each cluster was carefully separated from the other by a space just big enough to squeeze through. The farmer wanted 90 Bolivianos ($13) for her fine, native potatoes, and she wouldn’t take less. She was a price giver, not a taker. We were soon on our way with our 50 kilos, from the epicenter of the Bolivian potato market.

After the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the large farms (haciendas) were divided and given to the people who worked them. According to fake history, repeated sometimes even in schools, the Agrarian Reform of the Revolution failed because the land was split up into such small parcels that they were uneconomical to produce anything. It’s a racist lie. The Agrarian Reform succeeded, as we saw a few kilometers down the road.

An indigenous Andean farm family was standing next to 20 cargas of potatoes. Two tons of food going to market, neatly dressed in blue. The proud farmer reacted in the most contemporary fashion to his household’s accomplishment. Smart phone in hand, he walked across the highway and snapped a picture of his family and their harvest.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Peasants, not princes: The potato finds a home in Europe

Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable

LA AGRICULTURA FAMILIAR TAMBIÉN PUEDE SER COMERCIAL

Por Jeff Bentley 30 de mayo del 2021

Antes, en este blog, Paul y yo hemos escrito que los países del norte, los agricultores están atrapados entre unos pocos grandes compradores de productos y un puñado de empresas de semillas y agroquímicos. Los agricultores se ven obligados a aceptar cualquier precio ofrecido por sus compradores, y también por sus proveedores. Es un aprieto que obliga a muchos agricultores familiares a abandonar su terreno.

No tiene por qué ser así, como volví a acordarme hace poco, manejando sobre la antigua carretera de Santa Cruz, Bolivia a Cochabamba, a unos 3.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Ana y yo nos fijamos en todos los agricultores que llenaban costales azules con papas. Se estaban alistando para la feria semanal en El Puente de Lope Mendoza.

Al ver a los productores de papas, sentí el impulso de participar en este robusto mercado agrícola, que se auto sostiene desde hace décadas.

En una parte plana en el cañón, cada lunes cientos de pequeños agricultores traen productos frescos, sobre todo papas. El Puente es como un pequeño pueblo que nace con la feria de los lunes, para quedar abandonado el resto de la semana.

Este día fue el domingo. Las fachadas de las tiendas estaban cerradas, con candados en las pesadas puertas de acero. El lunes por la mañana, los comercios de insumos agrícolas se llenarían de clientes. Un restaurante temporal atendía, con pollo asado en una gran parrilla de carbón, listo para alimentar a los agricultores que habían llegado temprano, el domingo por la tarde.

Pasamos por un espacio vacío que la mañana siguiente estaría lleno de vendedores que viajan de feria en feria, vendiendo antojos y artículos de primera necesidad, como jabón y sal, aceite de cocina, sardinas en lata, fósforos y ropa. Hoy todavía no había nadie, pero el pabellón de papas sí se estaba llenando. Es sólo una losa de hormigón con un techo de chapa y sin paredes. Los agricultores traen sus productos, en bolsas de 100 kilos (llamadas “cargas”), y esperan a sus clientes.

Algunas personas vienen desde la ciudad en el bus (el “micro”) el lunes para comprar una carga para comer en casa, o media docena de ellas, para vender. Alquilan espacio en un camión para llevar las papas a Cochabamba. Los que más compran pueden llegar un pequeño camión con seis o doce toneladas para venderlas a los minoristas de las ciudades. En este mercado poco regulado, las papas pueden pasar por apenas cuatro eslabones, desde el agricultor hasta el pequeño mayorista, la minorista y clientes. Cada uno de ellos es una pequeña empresa familiar. Es el ideal de capitalismo de Adam Smith, con mucha gente con ganas de comprar y vender.

Ana pronto conoció a una agricultora de mediana edad, con una falda larga y un pañuelo atado a la cabeza.

Le pedimos una arroba (25 libras, o 11,4 kilos) de papas. “Llévense media carga (50 kilos)”, nos dijo, y así lo hicimos. Al fin y al cabo, se trataba de un mercado mayorista. La agricultora nos condujo hasta sus mercancías, más o menos una docena de costales. Cada agricultor estaba allí con sus papas en sacos de 100 kilos. El producto de cada persona estaba cuidadosamente separado del otro por un espacio angosto donde uno apenas podía pasaba. La agricultora quería 90 bolivianos (13 dólares) por sus hermosas papas nativas, y no aceptaba menos. Ella estaba para dar un precio, no para recibirlo. Pronto nos pusimos en camino con nuestros 50 kilos, desde el epicentro del mercado boliviano de la patata.

Tras la Revolución Boliviana de 1952, las haciendas se dividieron y se repartían entre la gente que las trabajaba. Según la falsa historia, repetida a veces incluso en las escuelas, la Reforma Agraria fracasó porque la tierra se dividió en parcelas tan pequeñas (“surcofundias”) que no era rentable producir nada. Es una mentira racista. La Reforma Agraria tuvo éxito, como vimos unos kilómetros más adelante.

Una familia campesina estaba terminando de arreglar sus 20 cargas de papas. Dos toneladas de alimentos que iban al mercado, cuidadosamente vestidos de azul. El orgulloso agricultor reaccionó de la manera más contemporánea al logro. Teléfono inteligente en mano, cruzó la carretera y sacó una foto de su familia y su cosecha.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Our threatened farmers,

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Stuck in the middle

Peasants, not princes: The potato finds a home in Europe

Papas nativas, deliciosas y vulnerables

 

An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivía en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salía antes del amanecer compartía el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi última visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicó que cuando el Covid acabó con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero había un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecológica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña éramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecológicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aún calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

Artículos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

Videos sobre la forma agroecológica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana March 21st, 2021 by

It’s a simple matter to play a soundtrack about farming on the radio. The tricky part is making sure that the program connects with the audience, as I learned recently from Gideon Kwame Sarkodie Osei at ADARS FM, a commercial station in Kintampo, a town in central Ghana.

Since 2010 Gideon has been pleased to be part of an effort by Farm Radio International (FRI) that supported radio stations in Ghana, including ADARS FM, to reach out to farmers. With encouragement from FRI, Gideon started a weekly magazine show for farmers, where he plays Access Agriculture audio tracks. The magazine, Akuafo Mo, means “Thank You Farmers” in the Twi language. Before he started the show, Gideon (together with FRI) did a baseline study of the farmers in his audience. He found that they had more time on Monday evenings. Farm women do more work and have less time than most people, but they told Gideon that they were usually done with their chores by 8 PM, so that’s when he airs Akuafo Mo, every Monday for an hour.

The show starts with recorded interviews, where farmers explain their own knowledge of a certain topic, like aflatoxin, which is so important that Gideon had several episodes on this hidden toxin that can contaminate stored foodstuffs. After the interviews, Gideon plays an audio track, to share fresh ideas with his audience. Gideon has played Access Agriculture audios so often he can’t remember how many he has played. “It’s a lot more than 50,” he explains.

Gideon plays a portion of the audio in English, and then he stops to translate that part into Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. Every week there is a guest on the show, an extension agent who can discuss the topic and take questions from listeners who call in.

Gideon’s experience with the magazine inspired him to start listener groups, in coordination with FRI. Visiting listener communities, Gideon found that some did not have a radio set. So, with project support, he bought them one. “We give them radio sets so they can come together weekly and listen to the magazine,” Gideon told me. He has 20 groups, each with 12 to 30 people. Five groups are only for women, especially in areas where males and females don’t casually mingle. The other listener groups have men and women.

Gideon visits at least some of the groups every week. Because of these visits, Gideon is now downloading videos as well as audio from Access Agriculture. “Sometimes I see if they have electricity, and I rent a projector, to show them the video they have heard on the air.” Gideon says. “This is my initiative, going the extra mile.”

Some of the farmers are learning to sell their groundnuts, maize and other cereals as a group, netting them extra money and helping them to be self-sustaining.

Gideon is also a trainer for FRI. Before Covid, he would travel to other towns and cities in Ghana, meet other broadcasters, and go to the field with them to show them how to improve their interview skills and to craft their own magazine shows. Now he continues to train broadcasters, but online.

Working with the farmer listening groups gives Gideon insights into farmers’ needs and knowledge, making his magazine so authentic that 60,000 people tune in. That experience gives Gideon the confidence to train other broadcasters all over Ghana.

When I was in Ghana a few years ago, I met excellent extension agents who told me how frustrated they were to be responsible for reaching 3,000 farmers. It was impossible to have a quality interaction with all those farmers.

However, there are ways to communicate a thoughtful message with a large audience, for example with a good radio magazine.

Gideon has creatively blended his own expertise with resources from two communication-oriented non-profit organisations: Farm Radio International and Access Agriculture. Hopefully, his experience will inspire other broadcasters.

Videos in the languages of Ghana

Find videos and soundtracks in these languages of Ghana: Buli, Dagaari, Dagbani, Ewe, Frafra, Gonja, Hausa, Kabyé, Kusaal, Moba, Sisaala, Twi, Zarma and English.

Grocery shops and farm shops December 6th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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The Navajo rug, creating a tradition November 1st, 2020 by

Anthropologists shy away from the word “traditional,” because even traditions that seem ancient may be creatively evolving. In the southwestern USA, nothing says “traditional” louder than a Navajo rug, woven from handspun wool on a hand-made loom.

The Navajo people arrived in the Southwest from the north, sometime between the 1200s and 1400s AD. They probably learned to weave from long-established peoples like the Hopis, and Zuñis. In the 1600s, Spanish colonists brought sheep to New Mexico. Native people soon began herding them and weaving their wool, warmer and more abundant than some of the previous fibers (like human hair, and strips of rabbit fur).

In 1863 the US Army cajoled and bullied much of Navajo Nation to move to Bosque Redondo or Fort Sumner, in New Mexico. The Navajos packed their horse-drawn wagons and herded their sheep to the fort, about 300 miles (480 km) from the heart of Navajo country. The Navajos were given land, but crops failed due to drought, floods and armyworms in the hot, unfamiliar climate. The Navajos ate almost all of their sheep to survive. But while confined, the Navajos also acquired a taste for certain foreign goods, like wool Pendleton blankets, velveteen shirts, metal axes and cooking pots, not to mention coffee, sugar and flour.

When the Navajos were finally allowed to go home in 1868, the army gave two sheep to each man, woman and child. The Navajos were practiced pastoralists, and within a few years they once again had large herds.

White traders began moving onto the reservation, living in isolated “trading posts,” small general stores that sold cloth, tools and groceries with a long shelf life. They also bought wool and crafts from the Navajos. An autobiographical account by one of these traders, Franc Newcomb, explains how in the 1910s and 20s, one of the main trade goods was a wool blanket, known in the Southwest as a “Navajo rug”. Over the years, the traders who bought these rugs gave the Navajos advice on how to make the rugs more attractive for the tourist market. It was in the traders’ enlightened self-interest if their Navajo customers had more money to spend. The rugs gradually became bigger, more carefully woven, with more interesting patterns. http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

Franc Newcomb, and her husband, Arthur, were befriended by their neighbor, Klah, a renowned medicine man and weaver. Klah allowed Franc to attend his healing ceremonies, an art form as complex as the opera. A ceremony takes three or four years to learn. It lasts for as many as nine days and nights and is accompanied by myths, chants and intricate illustrations of divine figures, made by carefully pouring colored sand between one’s fingers.

Most visual arts are made to last a while. Not the sand painting. The patient enters the one-room log house (called a hogan) and sits on the sand painting, destroying it, while absorbing its healing power. Franc would sit up night after night at the ceremonies, and she loved the sand paintings. Franc thought the sand paintings deserved to be recorded. She had a nearly photographic memory, but she gave Klah colored pencils and paper, and he sketched the sand paintings, to make sure every detail was accurate. Franc, a former school teacher, painted Klah’s drawings onto large sheets of heavy-duty wrapping paper from her store.

Eventually Franc suggested that Klah weave the sand painting designs into rugs. He hesitated to weave such a sacred image, but eventually he built several 12-foot by 12-foot (4-meter) looms, using logs he cut in the mountains. He began weaving large rugs of the Yeibichai (spiritual beings). His mother, sister and two-nieces also joined him.

Klah decided that such special rugs had to be made from a soft, tan wool from the belly of the sheep, and Franc’s husband, Arthur, drove Klah to trading posts all over the reservation to buy the rare wool.

Klah and his family couldn’t keep up with the demand for Yeibichai rugs, and soon other weavers were copying the idea. I inherited a small, almost miniature Yeibichai rug from my grandfather, who probably bought it at a trading post. The winter of 1978-79, I lived at a Navajo trading post in Lukachukai, Arizona, and always thought of the Navajo rug as a traditional artform, although I was aware of some changes. Bright colors from chemical dyes were introduced mid-century, only to be replaced again by softer, plant dyes in the 1960s and 70s, when nature became cool. But there was much more innovation than that, especially the creation of large, tapestry-style weavings, illustrating the sand paintings with their spiritual figures. Like much creative change, the Navajo rug has evolved in response to market demand, and thanks to collaboration between people with vastly different experiences.

When Klah was a boy his horse slipped and fell off a canyon wall, kicking Klah a few times on the way down. As Klah’s great-aunt slowly nursed him back to health, she saw that Klah was a hermaphrodite. Instead of subjecting Klah to ridicule or surgery, the Navajos thought he was special and powerful and they encouraged him to do men’s things, and women’s things. The openminded acceptance of his community helped Klah to become a creative artist, as he blended a male artform (sand paintings) with a female one (weaving). When Klah died in 1937, at age 70, he was one of the most respected people in the Navajo Nation.

Some Navajo terms

Hogan. An eight-sided or round house of logs or occasionally stone. From the Navajo hooghan.

Klah. The old Navajo names were sacred, and only the closest family knew a person’s real name. People were known by nicknames, which could change as they aged. Klah (Tł’a, or “left-handed”) was known by this nickname in middle age and beyond. I assume that his real name died with him.

“Navajo” and “Navaho” are both correct spellings. Academics prefer “Navaho”, but folks from the Southwest write “Navajo”, following the Spanish spelling.  The Navajos call themselves “the people” (diné).

Yeibichai. From yé’ii bicheii, maternal grandfather of giant, dreaded spirit people.

Spellings checked against:

Young, Robert W. and William Morgan 1980 The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1,069 pp.

Further reading

Newcomb: Franc Johnson 1964 Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.  227 pp.

Photos

The photo of Klah was taken before 1923 by an unknown photographer. Source: http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

The mall Yeibichai rug, made with synthetic red dye, was ollected about 1950 by LeRoy Bentley. Photo by Jeff Bentley

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