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Trying it yourself May 24th, 2020 by

Helping to write a script for a farmer training video on vermiwash triggered my interest in trying it out myself, as I began to wonder if ideas from tropical India could work in temperate Belgium.

As the video explains, vermiwash is the liquid that is collected after water passes through compost made by earthworms. It is rich in plant growth hormones, micro-nutrients like iron and zinc, and major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vermiwash increases the number of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil and helps plants to grow healthy.

After showing the problem of declining soil health due to the overuse of agrochemicals, the video quickly moves on to some powerful, motivational interviews by some local farmers in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

“When you want to mix vermicompost with the soil, you need large quantities. But vermiwash can be applied directly to plant leaves, so you need less and you can see the effect on plant growth faster. It is also cheaper than compost,” says farmer Sivamoorthi.

Besides the liquid vermiwash, I had also helped another of our Indian partners, WOTR, develop a video on vermicompost, which is solid, and stronger than normal compost . But, I was more attracted to the idea of making vermiwash, as it requires little space and I could easily use it as a foliar spray on my vegetables, berry shrubs and fruit trees.

At the local hardware store, I bought a barrel with a tap at the bottom. The first drafts of the script mentioned that it is best to fill the bottom of the barrel with small stones, so the tap doesn’t get blocked. I did exactly that. In the final version of the video, this part was removed. When I asked Shanmuga Priya, who made this video, she said: “After I talked to farmers it seems no one is doing this, because after three months they empty the barrel, remove the earthworms and then put the compost on their field. Of course, they don’t want stones to be mixed with the compost.”

Indian farmers just use a small piece of mosquito netting or cotton cloth as a filter. Right, that was a good lesson; farmers always find a way to improve any technique they learn from extension staff. I still have the bottom of my barrel filled with pebbles, and so far so good. I will have to make the extra effort of sorting out the stones when setting up a new batch of vermiwash.

The video says to fill the bottom with some 10-15 centimetres of dried leaves, not green ones, which would slow down decomposition. As I had plenty of dried oak leaves, and even though they decompose slowly, I wondered if they would work, but hey, that’s what I have, so that’s what I will try.

Then the video shows how an equal amount of rice straw is added. Instead, I used wheat straw, as I still have plenty of bundles in the attic of our shed.

The next part was also a little tricky. While the video suggested using 5 to 10 kg of decomposed cow dung, I wondered if the dung of my sheep would work just as well. It was a discussion I had had several times with Indian partners, who always say that only cow dung is a useful source of beneficial microorganisms. I asked a friend of mine, who is soil scientist, and still did not get a clear answer to this. Soil scientists are trained more in the physical and chemical properties of soil and are less familiar with its complex biology. But that is food for another blog story.

After adding some water to the barrel, I collected a few handfuls of earthworms from my compost and put them into the barrel. I would soon see if my set up would work or not. While farmers in India can collect vermiwash after just 10 days, I realised that the early days of spring in Belgium are still too cold, so the worms are not that active yet. Six weeks later, though, we happily collected our first litre of brown vermiwash.

After diluting it with ten litres of water, I sprayed the vermiwash on the leaves of my rhubarb as an experiment, before putting it on any other plants. In just a few days the leaves turned a shiny, dark green. The plants looked so healthy, that neighbours even remarked on it and asked what I had given them.

My wife, Marcella, had been rearing vegetable seedlings in a small glass house, and when the time came to transplant them to the garden, she decided to set up a small experiment. One batch of mustard leaf seedlings would be planted straight in the soil, the other batch she would soak the roots of the seedlings for 15 minutes in pure vermiwash. After all, the video shows that this works with rice seedlings, so why not with vegetable seedlings?

And again, the effect was striking: all of the seedlings dipped in the vermiwash took root quickly, while in the other batch only a fraction did.

As Jeff has written in some earlier blogs, the Covid-19 crisis has stopped people from travelling, affecting many farmers (see: Travelling farmers), students (see: A long walk home) and society at large. It has also forced people to creatively use their time. Like many other people, we have been able to spend more time in the garden, and in our case, we were able try out some of the things we learned from farmers in the global South.

As we tried oak leaves, wheat straw and sheep dung instead of the ingredients used by Indian farmers, we found that vermiwash works as well in Flanders as it does in Tamil Nadu. Good training videos inspire people to experiment with new ideas and adapt these to their own conditions. That is the philosophy and approach of Access Agriculture: using video as a global source of inspiration.

Related blogs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Related videos, freely downloadable from www.accessagriculture.org

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Good microbes for plants and soil

Training trees May 10th, 2020 by

Many people are familiar with pruning trees, but on a recent course organised by the association of ecological gardeners (VELT) in Bocholt, Limburg, Belgium, I learned another important trick to shape trees and harvest more fruit. By training trees, you make branches grow in the direction you want. That sounds easy enough, but back home, when trying to apply this to our own fruit trees, I learned once more the importance of understanding the principles, and then adapting them to the local conditions.

Pierre Zanders, the trainer from VELT, explained to us that branches that grow straight upright have tremendous vigour and just continue growing up without giving fruits. The more you can get a branch to grow horizontally, the more fruit it will produce. Young branches that are weighed down by too much fruit can break, so ideally you should aim to train branches to grow at angles between 45 and 60 degrees.

Pierre is such an expert on fruit trees that he is often asked to travel to share his skills. He proudly told us a story about the time he was invited to the USA to train thousands of mature fruit trees. While the job was scheduled to take 6 weeks, Pierre finished the job in just two weeks. In disbelief, the owner of the groves had to accept that Pierre had a much faster way of training branches.

“If you have to train older trees,” Pierre told us, “you don’t need any branch spreaders that cost money. The only thing you need is a very sharp knife. Up in the trees, you find enough wood that can be used as a branch spreader. Prune a stick that is as thick as the twig you want to bend lower. In the stick you have removed from the tree, cut a notch at one end of the stick and then cut the stick to the right length. Fix one end of the stick onto the main tree trunk, and place the end with the notch around the twig you want to bend. Gently push the stick down until the twig reaches the desired angle.” The owner was amazed. This seasoned fruit expert from Belgium had not used any of the commercial branch spreaders the owner had bought to train his trees.

Pierre laughingly provokes us: “why pay money if you can do it much simpler and much faster? Besides, with my technique nobody needs to go back into the orchard a few months later to collect any tree training devices. Over time, the branches will start to grow in the desired direction and the little sticks that I used as branch spreader can stay in the tree or may eventually be blown away by the wind. So, you save money twice.”

During Pierre’s pruning course, we learned that for younger trees it is useful to hang weights to the branches, or to tie strings and use pegs to fix the string down to the soil. After the course I talked to my friend, Johan Hons, an organic farmer, and he kindly gave me a roll of string and taught me a useful knot to loosely tie the string around twigs and branches.

A few days after training my 20 or so fruit trees, I saw in dismay how some of the branches had snapped. “Terrible, how could this happen,” I wondered. “Did I bend them too much?” Taking a closer look at the damage, I noticed some wool on the strings. Apparently, the sheep grazing under my fruit trees had started rubbing themselves against these strings. It was too much for some of the young branches to take.

That was the time I had to come up with my own solution. All my fruit trees have a mesh wire tree shelter guard around their trunk to protect their bark from the sheep. By placing a bamboo stick through the holes at the top of the mesh, I could fix my strings to the bamboo, above reach of the sheep. The two short strings down from the bamboo to the mesh ensure that the bamboo does not snap in half with the pulling forces from the branches.

Farming is about observing what works and what doesn’t work…. If you understand the basic principles of a technology, it is easier to make workable adaptations. Pierre and Johan both gave me good ideas about how to spread branches so they do not grow straight up. But after my sheep undid their good suggestions, I could still invent my own technique, because Pierre had taught me the underlying principle: more horizontal branches produce more flowers and therefore more fruit.

Related videos

Staking and pruning passion fruit

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Coffee: stumping & pruning

The pleasure of bread April 26th, 2020 by

No matter what you do for a living, money is not the only reason to enjoy your work.

Years ago, I was enlisted into a team of economists in Portugal, who looked at the profitability of every crop in every “system” (such as maize for grain, versus maize for silage). In their view, if a crop was not profitable, farmers would not grow it. Fair enough, but one day the we got onto the topic of rye, then grown in small amounts in northwest Portugal.

“It’s not profitable,” the economists sneered, checking their numbers.

“But the farmers do grow it,” I said.

“Well, they won’t for long,” the economists shrugged. Obviously if the crops were at odds with the numbers, the farmers were wrong, and the models were right.

I tried to explain that rye was an important ingredient in sourdough bread. The economists dismissed this idea out of hand. No doubt they thought that farmers should grow more profitable crops, and buy their bread at the store.

But not all bread does come from the store. In Pedralva, Portugal, I rented a room from three elderly farmers, sisters who had never married. Like every other farm family in Pedralva, they made bread once a week in a wood-fired, stone oven. To start, they would get out their sourdough starter, a fermented loaf of dough. The raw loaf of dough houses a colony of wild yeast and bacteria, kept from one week to the next in the kitchen. The farmer-bakers would mix the starter with an enormous amount of maize flour, this being one of the few parts of Europe where people eat much maize bread. But maize flour needs gluten to hold the loaf together. So, the farmers would add a generous helping of rye flour and a little paper bag of white flour, the only store-bought ingredient in their bread.

They shaped the dough into some eight large loaves, each one bigger than a dinner plate. Seven of these would fill the oven, but one loaf of dough would be put into the flour box, to ferment for a week, to start the next week’s bread.

One day I was watching one of the three sisters make bread. She slipped the last loaf into the oven, and closed it with a hand-carved stone door. To seal the door, she took some dung (still warm from the cow) and, with a practiced finger, packed it into the space around the oven door, to keep in the heat.

Then she looked at me and, with a comic-dramatical air, explained that an oven was unlike a person, because it had “bread up its ass and shit in its mouth” (pão no cu e merda na boca). The dung was an option, by the way; some of the neighbors sealed their oven with a bit of raw bread dough. The bread was a bit sour, dense, slightly smokey, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside, and full of flavor.

These farmers obviously enjoyed making bread and eating it. At every meal they crumbled into soup, and held in the hand to scoop up the food and to soak up the sauce.

For such a satisfying bread, folks were willing to grow and mill their own rye flour.

Few pleasures compare with eating a perfect, homemade bread. While more people are enjoying baking bread at home, during this coronavirus crisis, other changes may also be taking place in society. Industrial farming has dominated our food systems over the past few decades, but there is a growing appreciation of the art of farming, gardening and bread-baking, suggesting that the value of food cannot be reduced to a mere money value.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1989 “Bread Forests and New Fields: The Ecology of Reforestation and Forest Clearing Among Small-Woodland Owners in Portugal.” Journal of Forest History 33(4):188-195.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Watch documentary: “Cereal – Renaissance in the field” (Duration: 25 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=FE23SDj19uU&feature

The wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego Carlón, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred León Plasencia of IDMA.

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