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Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Related blogs

The truth of local language

Travels around the sun

I thought you said “N’togonasso”

Beating a nasty weed

Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

Awakening the seeds December 16th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

In much of the Bolivian Altiplano, the native vegetation has been largely stripped away. A few people are doing something to replant the vegetation, but it is surprisingly difficult to germinate the seeds of native plants.

These Andean high plains were once covered by scrub land, comprising low-lying bushes, needle grasses and other hardy plants well adapted to the harsh conditions. Llamas foraged on this waist-high forest without damaging it. But as more land was plowed up for quinoa, and more of the bushes were cut for firewood, the native vegetation started to vanish.

Rural families in this part of Bolivia used to make long, narrow stacks of dried brush. But the bushes are now mostly gone, and so are the stacks of firewood.

Fortunately, explains plant researcher, Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, people are now cooking with bottled natural gas, so they don’t need to uproot brush for firewood, but this respite has come too late. In many places, the deforestation has been so complete that there are no seed-bearing plants left to provide for natural regeneration. So, Dr. Bonifacio and his team travel around the Altiplano, collecting seed of different shrubs, planting the seed in nurseries and then taking the seedlings to sympathetic farmers who are interested in restoring the dry plains.

Seeds of wild plants will seldom germinate if simply scattered on the ground. The plants are adapted to harsh environments, and the seed enters dormancy, only to be awakened by the kiss of some specific environmental signal.

Bonifacio and his students study each plant to determine what will break its dormancy.  For example, the k’awchi, a small woody plant, is so adapted to this land of high winds and rocky soil that its tiny seed must be tumbled over the rough ground and “scarified” before it will germinate. Bonifacio and his team have also learned that it can be scarified by rubbing it in sand or by putting it in a weak solution of sodium hypoclorite for 20 minutes.

On the arid Altiplano, much of the native vegetation is cactus, some of it bearing delicious fruit. In a boutique restaurant in the big city of La Paz, Bonifacio was shocked to that the chef was asking for a supply of one native cactus, called achakana. Yes, achakana is edible, but it takes many years to grow to the size of a tennis ball. The Aymara people used to eat the cactus as famine food when the crops failed, but achakana could be driven to extinction if it starts to be served up in the fashionable eateries of La Paz. So, Bonifacio taught himself how to propagate it.

It was tricky. At first, the seed failed to germinate. Bonifacio learnt that as the fruit matures the seed goes into a deep dormancy. Then one day by serendipity Bonifacio discovered a little bag of fruit had had been harvested green and then forgotten. When he opened the rotting fruit, he found that all of the seeds were germinating. He proudly showed me a small, three-year old plant that he had grown from seed.

The pasak’ana is another endangered cactus that grows so tall that the Andean people once used its ribs to roof their houses. The fruit is also delicious, yet getting the seed to germinate was impossible. Then Bonifacio found that the pasak’ana seed would germinate if it was taken from immature fruit. With the help of a student he now has 1200 little pasak’ana plants, all in demand from a municipal government in Oruro which wants to plant them out.

More people than ever want to grow native plants for fruit, fodder and soil conservation, but each species has its own unique requirements for coming to life. Fortunately, there are patient researchers working to unlock these mysteries and come up with practical recommendations that can help restore degraded lands.

Scientific names

The k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa, belonging to the unfortunately named “seepweed” genus.

The achakana is Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

The pasak’ana is Trichocereus pasacana (Echinopsis atacamensis subs. pasacana)

DESPERTANDO LAS SEMILLAS

Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de diciembre del 2018

En gran parte del Altiplano Boliviano, la vegetación nativa ha sido arrancada. Hay personas que se dedican a replantar la vegetación, pero es sorprendentemente difícil germinar las semillas de plantas nativas.

Estos altiplanos andinos estaban cubiertos de t’olares (matorrales), que incluían arbustos bajos, paja brava y otras plantas fuertes y bien adaptadas a las duras condiciones. Las llamas se forrajeaban en este bosque enano sin dañarlo. Pero a medida que más tierra fue arada para la quinua, y más arbustos fueron cortados para leña, la vegetación nativa comenzó a desaparecer.

Las familias rurales de esta parte de Bolivia solían amontonar las t’olas, o arbustos, en forma de cercos largos y delgados, para leña.  Pero la mayoría de los arbustos han desaparecido, así como los montones de leña.

Afortunadamente, explica el investigador de plantas, el Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, la gente ahora cocina con gas natural en garrafa, así que no necesitan arrancar las t’olas para leña, pero este respiro ha llegado muy tarde. En muchos lugares, la deforestación ha sido tan completa que ya no quedan plantas madres para la regeneración natural. Así, el Dr. Bonifacio y su equipo viajan por el Altiplano, recolectando semillas de diferentes arbustos, sembrando las semillas en viveros y luego llevando los plantines a agricultores que simpatizan con la revegetación de las pampas secas.

Las semillas de las plantas silvestres rara vez germinan si simplemente se echan al suelo. Las plantas se adaptan a ambientes hostiles, y la semilla entra en dormancia, sólo para ser despertada por el beso de alguna señal ambiental específica.

Bonifacio y sus alumnos estudian cada planta para determinar qué romperá su dormancia.  Por ejemplo, el k’awchi, una pequeña planta leñosa, está tan adaptado a esta tierra de vientos fuertes y suelo pedregosa que su pequeña semilla tiene que caer sobre el suelo áspero y “escarificarse” para poder germinar. Bonifacio y su equipo también han aprendido que una alternativa frotarlo en arena o dejar la semilla por 20 minutos en una solución débil de hipoclorito de sodio.

En el árido Altiplano, gran parte de la vegetación nativa es de cactus, algunos de los cuales producen ricos frutos. En un restaurante boutique en la gran ciudad de La Paz, Bonifacio se sorprendió al ver un cactus nativo, llamado achakana, solicitado para el menú. La achakana sí es comestible, pero tarda muchos años para alcanzar el tamaño de una pelota de tenis. Los aymaras solían comer el cactus como alimento en tiempos de hambre cuando las cosechas fallaban, pero la achakana podría llegar a la extinción si empiezan a ser servirla en los restaurantes de moda de La Paz. Así que Bonifacio se enseñó a sí mismo a propagarlo.

Fue difícil. Al principio, la semilla no pudo germinar. Bonifacio aprendió que a medida que el fruto madura, la semilla entra en una profunda dormancia. Un día, por casualidad, Bonifacio descubrió que una bolsita de fruta había sido cosechada verde y luego olvidada. Cuando abrió el fruto podrido, descubrió que todas las semillas estaban germinándose. Con orgullo me mostró una pequeña planta de tres años que él había cultivado a partir de una semilla.

El pasak’ana es otro cactus en peligro de extinción que crece tan alto que los andinos usaban sus palos para techar sus casas. La fruta también es deliciosa, sin embargo, hacer que la semilla germine era imposible. Entonces Bonifacio descubrió que la semilla de pasak’ana germinaría si se tomaba de un fruto inmaduro. Con la ayuda de un estudiante, ahora tiene 1200 pequeñas plantas de pasak’ana, todas solicitadas por un gobierno municipal de Oruro que quiere plantarlas.

Hoy en día mucha gente quiere cultivar plantas nativas para la conservación de la fruta, el forraje y el suelo, pero cada especie tiene sus propias necesidades únicas para volver a la vida. Afortunadamente, hay pacientes investigadores que trabajan para desvelar estos misterios y presentar recomendaciones prácticas que pueden ayudar a restaurar las tierras degradadas.

Nombres científicos

El k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa.

La achakana es Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

La pasak’ana es Trichocereus pasacana (Echinopsis atacamensis subs. pasacana)

Cultivating pride in the Andes November 4th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

“When we first started working with these innovative farmers, they were embarrassed to list ‘farmer’ as their occupation on their national ID card.” María Quispe, head of a Bolivian NGO called Prosuco, reminded a large crowd of villagers and visitors in the village of Cutusuma, La Paz.

Last week yapuchiris from many communities along with the famers in Cutusuma were celebrating the launch of a new book about themselves, published by Prosuco, with Swiss support.

Swiss diplomats, local people and government officials took turns at the microphone to express their pride in the changes over the years. A national TV station, Channel 7, was recording the event while a professional broadcaster from Radio San Gabriel in El Alto moderated the event in Aymara, a native language of the High Andes.

Food was served as an aphtapi, an old buffet style that is making a comeback in Bolivia. Boiled native potatoes, chuño, broad beans and oca are wrapped in wool blankets, then spread out on the earth or on a table. Diners serve themselves. Most put the food in little plastic bags saved from their last trip to the shop. It’s an Andean lunch with attitude, and it saves on plastic plates.

There was also dancing to Andean flute music; the local High School marching band belted out the national anthem with confidence and enthusiasm.

The striking feature of the book launch was that no one seemed ashamed to be a farmer anymore. It had been a long trip. The book, printed on high quality paper and illustrated with professional photography, explained that in 2004, Prosuco had set out to train innovative farmers as extension agents. One of the first steps was to give these innovative farmers a name. They settled on “yapuchiri,” an Aymara word for “farmer.” Calling the new expert farmers “yapuchiris” was a way of saying that farming was an important job. During the next 14 years, yapuchiris were trained all over the Altiplano as well as the valleys of Chuquisaca. Seventy of them were certified as “Yapuchiri Community Facilitators” by the Vice-Ministry of Alternative Education (such an original and creative name for a branch of government).

The book explains how the yapuchiris and Prosuco tried new ideas on farms, adapting several organic fertilizers, such as bokashi and biol, to local conditions, along with mineral mixes and natural repellents. Non-chemical controls of Andean potato weevil were also adapted to local conditions.

The book has numerical data to show that the yapuchiris’ yields are higher than those of other farmers and higher than those achieved by farmers who received conventional agricultural training. This is important, as organic agriculture is often dismissed (famously by The Economist in 2016) as low yielding and incapable of feeding the World’s growing population.

Over the years, the yapuchiris developed the Pachagrama, a large chart for listing the yapuchiris’ weather forecast, while planning and documenting the year’s weather as it unfolds, day by day. We have discussed the Pachagrama in earlier blogs To see the future, and  Predicting the weather. The yapuchiris started the Pachagrama as a table with some drawings, then refined it over the years.

At first, some of the yapuchiris’ neighbors scoffed at the idea of farmers as extensionists, saying that they wanted a real agronomist to train them. But eventually the yapuchiris convinced the others and were able to work with up to 50% of the farmers in their own villages. As Mark Twain put it, “an expert is someone with a brief case who is 50 miles from home.”

In fact, it can be an advantage to offer advisory services “50 miles (70 km) from home”. Projects began hiring yapuchiris to teach other communities. The yapuchiris crisscrossed the Altiplano, promoting productive, organic agriculture to appreciative audiences.

It is foolish of anyone to denigrate the people who feed us and care for the land. Building pride in a profession takes time and creating a more productive, sustainable agriculture is only part of it. Twelve years of support and training were important to develop a cadre of self-confident yapuchiris. Events with music, speeches and a splendid lunch also help to display that confidence while books in an attractive format also help to show how the work evolved over the years.

The book

Quispe, María, Eleodoro Baldiviezo and Sonia Laura 2018 Yapuchiris: Un Legado para Afrontar los Impactos del Cambio Climático. La Paz: Prosuco, Cosude & Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Blog stories about yapuchiris

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement  

Thanks to María Quispe, Eleodoro Baldiviezo, Sonia Laura, Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for their comments on an earlier version.

CULTIVANDO ORGULLO EN LOS ANDES

por Jeff Bentley, 4 de noviembre del 2018

“Cuando empezamos a trabajar con estos agricultores innovadores, les daba vergüenza poner ‘agricultor’ como su oficio en su carnet.” María Quispe, directora de una ONG boliviana llamada Prosuco, recordó a una gran multitud de campesinos y visitantes en la comunidad de Cutusuma, La Paz.

La semana pasada, Yapuchiris de diferentes comunidades junto con los agricultores de Cutusuma celebraron el lanzamiento de un nuevo libro sobre sí mismos, publicado por Prosuco, con el apoyo suizo. Los diplomáticos suizos, la población local y los funcionarios del gobierno se turnaron al micrófono para expresar su orgullo por los cambios a lo largo de los años. Una televisión nacional, Canal 7, grababa el evento mientras que una locutora profesional de Radio San Gabriel de El Alto moderaba el evento en aymara, un idioma nativo de los Andes Altos.

La comida fue servida como un aphtapi, un antiguo estilo de buffet que de nuevo se está poniendo de moda en Bolivia. Las papas nativas cocidas, el chuño, las habas y la oca son colocadas en aguayos de lana y se extienden sobre la tierra o sobre una mesa. Los comensales se sirven solos. La mayoría pone la comida en pequeñas bolsas de plástico guardadas de su última visita a la tienda. Es un almuerzo andino con actitud, y ahorra en platos de plástico.

También hubo baile con música de flauta andina; la banda del colegio local entonó el himno nacional con confianza y entusiasmo.

Al presentar el libro ya era claro que a nadie le apenaba ser agricultor. Había sido un largo viaje. El libro, impreso en papel de alta calidad e ilustrado con fotografías profesionales, explica que en 2004, Prosuco se había propuesto formar a agricultores innovadores como agentes de extensión agrícola. Uno de los primeros pasos fue poner un nombre a estos agricultores innovadores Ellos mismos eligieron “yapuchiri”, que es simplemente una palabra aymara que significa “agricultor”. Llamar a los nuevos expertos agricultores “yapuchiris” era una forma de decir que la agricultura era un oficio importante. Durante los siguientes 14 años, se formaron nuevos yapuchiris desde todo el Altiplano y hasta los valles de Chuquisaca. Setenta de ellos recibieron un certificado como “Yapuchiris Facilitadores Comunitarios” del Viceministerio de Educación Alternativa (un nombre tan original y creativo por una instancia gubernamental).

El libro explica cómo los yapuchiris y Prosuco probaron nuevas ideas en finca, adaptando los fertilizantes orgánicos, como el bokashi, los bioles, a las condiciones locales, junto con caldos minerales, y repelentes naturales. Los controles no químicos del gorgojo andino de la papa también se adaptaron a las condiciones locales.

El libro tiene datos numéricos para mostrar que los rendimientos de los yapuchiris son más altos que los de otros agricultores y más altos que los logrados por los agricultores que recibieron capacitación agrícola convencional. Esto es importante, ya que la agricultura orgánica es a menudo descartada (por ejemplo en un caso famoso por The Economist en 2016) como de bajo rendimiento e incapaz de alimentar a la creciente población mundial.

A lo largo de los años, los yapuchiris desarrollaron el Pachagrama, una ficha para sistematizar el pronóstico del tiempo de los yapuchiris, mientras planifican y documentan el tiempo del año a medida que se desarrolla, día a día. Hemos discutido el Pachagrama en blogs anteriores Conocer el futuro, y Prediciendo el clima. Los yapuchiris iniciaron el Pachagrama como un cuadro con algunos dibujos, luego lo refinaron con el paso de los años.

Al principio, algunos de los vecinos de los yapuchiris se burlaron de la idea de los agricultores como extensionistas, diciendo que querían que un ingeniero agrónomo los capacitara. Pero finalmente los yapuchiris convencieron a los demás y pudieron trabajar con hasta el 50% de los agricultores de sus propias comunidades. Como dijo Mark Twain, “un experto es alguien con un maletín que está a 50 millas de casa”.

De hecho, puede ser una ventaja ofrecer servicios de asesoramiento a “50 millas (70 km) de casa”. Los proyectos comenzaron a contratar yapuchiris para enseñar a otras comunidades. Los yapuchiris cruzaron el Altiplano, promoviendo la agricultura orgánica y productiva a audiencias apreciativas.

Es una tontería denigrar a la gente que nos alimenta y cuida de la tierra. Crear orgullo en una profesión lleva tiempo y crear una agricultura más productiva y sostenible es sólo una parte de la tarea. Doce años de apoyo y capacitación fueron importantes para desarrollar un grupo de yapuchiris seguros de sí mismos. Los eventos con música, discursos y un espléndido almuerzo también ayudan a mostrar esa confianza, mientras que los libros en un formato atractivo también ayudan a mostrar cómo ha evolucionado el trabajo a lo largo de los años.

El libro

Quispe, María, Eleodoro Baldiviezo y Sonia Laura 2018 Yapuchiris: Un Legado para Afrontar los Impactos del Cambio Climático. La Paz: Prosuco, Cosude & Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Historias del blog sobre los yapuchiris

Inspiración Bangladesh a Bolivia

Agricultores producen contenido electrónico

Forty farmer innovations

Agradecimiento

Gracias a María Quispe, Eleodoro Baldiviezo, Sonia Laura, Eric Boa y Paul Van Mele por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior.

Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

Dick’s Ice Box September 2nd, 2018 by

In 2005, a few years before my Mom died, she took some of her grown children and grandchildren to Dewey, Utah, a ghost town on the Colorado River, to show us one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen. On a blistering day in July we walked through the sage brush and the red sand to a canyon wall. Mom led us through a neat little door through the cliff-face into a darkened room, surprisingly cooler than the outside and big enough for a dozen people to crowd in.

Mom’s grandfather, Richard Dallin “Dick” Westwood had carved this room from solid stone. Dick’s children called the place ‘Dad’s Ice Box.” Dick would stack winter ice from the Colorado River into his ice box to keep food cold all through the summer. “They could even keep butter in here,” Mom added proudly. My great-grandfather lived from 1863 to 1929; there was no electricity in Dewey and household refrigerators were rare before 1927.

Off and on between 1901 and 1916 Dick ran the ferry at Dewey, where the wagon road from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado crossed the Colorado River. The trip was a hundred miles (160 km), so travelers often spent the night at Dewey, where my great-grandmother Martha had a little boarding house and diner. The family had a small farm and some cattle that provided meat and other provisions. The ice box filled with food was important for Martha’s business.

That day in 2005, my Mom told us that Dick carved the ice box with dynamite. The rectangular doorway and the spacious room it led into were clearly the work of a craftsman. Carving stone with dynamite is a dangerous business, a good way to lose life or limb, and I always wondered how Dick knew what he was doing.

This remained a mystery until this year, when my cousin, Richard “Rick” Westwood wrote a book about our great-grandfather. It finally helped me make sense of Dick’s Ice Box.

Dick held many professions, from sheriff to muleskinner to Shakespearean actor, but until I read Rick’s book I never realized that Dick was also a miner. From childhood I knew that Dick had staked a mine claim, which he named “The Silver Dick.” I was aware that my great-grandfather had a sense of humor, but until I read Rick’s book I didn’t know that the Silver Dick was a working silver mine. Discovered in August 1908, it may have been the only one in Southeastern Utah. Dick worked the mine until 1909 when he filled a box car with valuable ore, enough to make his fortune. Sadly, this never happened, because the shipment was stolen by railroad workers en route to buyers. But Dick’s mine enriched him with the skill of working sandstone with dynamite.

The Ice Box may have been partly inspired by the root cellar, a small structure dug into the ground, topped off with a timber roof. Many families in Utah stored their food in root cellars. During their early years in Dewey, Dick and Martha’s root cellar burned down. Martha would later tell my grandmother how devastating it was to lose all their stored food. Dick took the loss stoically, saying: “Oh we’ll get us another sack of flour and another bag o’ taters (potatoes) and we’ll be as good off as ever.” But losing the root cellar may have inspired Dick to think of a fire-proof place to store the household food. As luck would have it, Dick was well placed to get ice. Rick explains that in the early 1900s, the Colorado River used to freeze so hard in winter that Dick could drive his family over the river in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The ferry was sited between two sharp bends in the river, near the modern-day Dewey Bridge. In the spring the ice would break with great force, and some big slabs would pile up on the bank, where they were relatively easy to collect.

In her history of ice, Elizabeth David observes the sunken ice houses made by Scandinavian farmers, but in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century USA, ice houses were typically wooden barn-like structures, made and operated by professional ice mongers, not by smallholder farmers. Dick’s Ice Box is the only one I know of carved into a sandstone cliff.

The ice box was crucial for running a family business on a small, desert farm.

Farmers’ creativity is often stimulated by new ideas, as we often say in our weekly Agro-Insight blog. Those ideas can come from science or from a technology the farmer learned somewhere else, even by mining. Dick was flexible, tough and creative. He took misfortune in stride, and adapted, just like many of the farmers we still meet today.

Acknowledgement

I thank my cousin, Rick Westwood, for letting me read his book manuscript. Thanks also to Rick and to my brothers Brett and Scott Bentley for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this story. I gratefully acknowledge Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele who gave me thoughtful feedback on this story, as they always do.

Related blog story

The Ice Harvest

Further reading

Richard E. “Rick” Westwood is publishing his excellent biography, Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood later in 2018.

See also:

Westwood, Richard E. 2010 Westwood Family History, Vol II. R. Westwood: Highland, Utah.

My great-grandmother, Martha Wilcox (1871 to 1962) wrote an autobiography, edited by her daughter, Grace Westwood Morse:

Autobiography of Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, privately printed in 1983.

And for the definitive story of ice boxes:

David, Elizabeth 1994 Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. London: Faber and Faber. 413 pp.

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