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Teaching the farmers of tomorrow with videos May 23rd, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Youth around the world are leaving agriculture, but many would stay on the farm if they had appropriate technologies and better social services, as Professor Alejandro Bonifacio explained to me recently.

Dr. Bonifacio is from the rural Altiplano, the high plains of Bolivia. At 4,000 meters above sea level, it is some of the highest farmland in the world. Bonifacio has a PhD in plant breeding, and besides directing an agricultural research station in Viacha on the Altiplano, he teaches plant breeding part-time at the public university in La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

The university attracts many rural youths. Every year Bonifacio asks his new class of students to introduce themselves one-by-one and to tell where they come from, and to talk about their parents and their grandparents.

This year about 20% of the students in Bonifacio’s class are still living on the farm, and taking their classes online. Another 50% are the children or grandchildren of farmers, but are now living in the city. Many of these agronomy students would be more interested in taking over their parents’ farm, if not for a couple of problems.

One limitation is the lack of services in the rural areas: poor schools, bad roads, the lack of clinics, and no electricity or running water. While this is slowly improving, Covid has added a new twist, locking young people out of many of the places they liked to go to, and not just bars and restaurants. One advantage of city life is having access to medical attention, but this past year the students said it was as though the cities had no hospitals, because they were full of Covid patients. Classes were all on-line, and so the countryside began to look like a nicer place to live than the city. Many students went home to their rural communities, where there was much more freedom of movement than in the city.

Dr. Bonifacio told me that even when the youth do go home, they don’t want to farm exactly like their parents did. The youngsters don’t go in for all the backbreaking work with picks and shovels, but there is a lack of appropriate technology oriented towards young, family farmers, such as small, affordable machinery. Young farmers are also interested in exploiting emerging markets for differentiated produce, such as food that is free of pesticides. Organic agriculture also helps to save on production costs, as long as farmers have practical alternatives to agrochemicals.

Fortunately, there are videos on appropriate technologies, and Professor Bonifacio shows them in class. Today’s youth have grown up with videos, and find them convincing. Every year, Bonifacio organizes a forum for about 50 students on plant breeding and crop disease. He assigns the students three videos to watch, to discuss later in the forum. One of his favorites is Growing lupin without disease, which shows some organic methods for keeping the crop healthy. Bonifacio encourages the students to watch the video in Spanish, and Quechua or Aymara. Many of the students speak Quechua or Aymara, or both, besides Spanish. Some feel that they are forgetting their native language. “The videos help the students to learn technical terms, like the names of plant diseases, in their native languages,” Bonifacio says.

During the Covid lockdown, Prof. Bonifacio moved his forum online and sent the students links to the videos. In the forum, some of the students said that while they were home they could identify the symptoms of lupine disease, thanks to the video.

Bonifacio logs onto Access Agriculture from time to time to see which new videos have been posted in Spanish, to select some to show to his students, so they can get some of the information they need to become the farmers of tomorrow.

Kids who grow up on small farms often go to university as a bridge to getting a decent job in the city. But others study agriculture, and would return to farming, if they had appropriate technology for family farming, and services like electricity and high-speed internet.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Awakening the seeds

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

No land, no water, no problem

Videos from Access Agriculture

Check out these youth-friendly videos with appropriate technology. Besides videos in English, www.accessagriculture.org has:

104 videos in Spanish

Eight videos in Aymara

And eight in Quechua

ENSEÑAR A LOS AGRICULTORES DEL MAÑANA CON VIDEOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 23 de mayo del 2021

Por todas partes del mundo, los jóvenes abandonan la agricultura, pero muchos seguirían cultivando si tuvieran tecnologías apropiadas y mejores servicios sociales, como me explicó recientemente el docente Alejandro Bonifacio.

El Dr. Bonifacio es originario del Altiplano de Bolivia. A 4.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, es una de las tierras agrícolas más altas del mundo. Bonifacio tiene un doctorado en fitomejoramiento y, además de ser jefe de una estación de investigación agrícola en Viacha, en el Altiplano, enseña fitomeoramiento a tiempo parcial en la universidad pública de La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

La universidad atrae a muchos jóvenes rurales. Cada año, Bonifacio pide a su nueva clase de estudiantes que se presenten uno por uno y digan de dónde vienen, y que hablen de sus padres y sus abuelos.

Este año, alrededor del 20% de los estudiantes de la clase de Bonifacio siguen viviendo en el área rural, desde donde se conectan a las clases virtuales. Otro 50% son hijos o nietos de agricultores, pero ahora viven en la ciudad. Muchos de estos estudiantes de agronomía estarían más interesados en trabajar el terreno sus padres, si no fuera por un par de problemas.

Una limitación es la falta de servicios en las zonas rurales: colegios deficientes, carreteras en mal estado, la falta de clínicas, luz y agua potable. Aunque esto está mejorando poco a poco, Covid ha introducido cambios, porque los jóvenes ya no pueden ir a muchos de los lugares que les gustaban, y no sólo las discotecas y los restaurantes. Una de las ventajas de la vida urbana es tener acceso a la atención médica, pero este último año los estudiantes dijeron que era como si las ciudades no tuvieran hospitales, porque estaban llenos de pacientes de Covid. Las clases eran todas en línea, por lo que el campo empezó a parecer un lugar más agradable para vivir que la ciudad. Muchos estudiantes se fueron a sus comunidades rurales, donde había más libertad de movimiento que en la ciudad.

El Dr. Bonifacio me dijo que, incluso cuando los jóvenes vuelven a casa, no quieren trabajar la tierra tal como lo hacían sus padres. Los jóvenes no se dedican al trabajo agotador con palas y picotas, pero hace falta la tecnología adecuada orientada a los jóvenes agricultores familiares, por ejemplo, la maquinaria pequeña y asequible. Los jóvenes agricultores también quieren explotar los mercados emergentes de productos diferenciados, como los alimentos libres de plaguicidas. La agricultura orgánica también ayuda a ahorrar costes de producción, siempre que los agricultores tengan alternativas prácticas a los productos agroquímicos.

Afortunadamente, existen videos sobre tecnologías adecuadas, y el Dr. Bonifacio los muestra en clase. Los jóvenes de hoy conocen los videos desde su infancia, y los encuentran convincentes. Cada año, Bonifacio organiza un foro para unos 50 estudiantes sobre el fitomejoramiento y las enfermedades. Asigna a los alumnos tres videos para que los vean y los discutan después en el foro. Uno de sus favoritos es Producir tarwi sin enfermedad, que muestra algunos métodos orgánicos para mantener el lupino sano. Bonifacio anima a los estudiantes a ver el video en español y en quechua o aymara. Muchos de los estudiantes hablan quechua o aymara, o ambos, además del castellano. Algunos sienten que están olvidando su lengua materna. “Los videos ayudan a los alumnos a aprender términos técnicos, como los nombres de las enfermedades de las plantas, en sus idiomas nativos”, dice Bonifacio.

Durante la cuarentena de Covid, el Dr. Bonifacio trasladó su foro a Internet y envió a los estudiantes enlaces a los videos. En el foro, algunos de los estudiantes dijeron que mientras estaban en casa podían identificar los síntomas de la enfermedad del tarwi (lupino), gracias al video.

Bonifacio entra en la página web de Access Agriculture de vez en cuando para ver qué nuevos videos se han publicado en español, para seleccionar algunos y enseñárselos a sus alumnos, para que aprendan algo de la información que necesitan para ser los agricultores del futuro.

Los hijos de agricultores suelen usar a la universidad como puente para conseguir un buen trabajo en la ciudad. Pero otros estudian agronomía, y volverían al agro, si tuvieran tecnología apropiada para la agricultura familiar, y servicios como electricidad e Internet de alta velocidad.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Despertando las semillas

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos de Access Agriculture

Vea algunos de estos videos apropiados para agricultores jóvenes en https://www.accessagriculture.org/es. Incluso, Access Agriculture tiene:

104 videos en castellano

Ocho videos en aymara

Y ocho en quechua

 

A Life of Learning from Nature March 14th, 2021 by

When knowledge is blocked from being freely shared, humankind can lose a lot of precious time to make the world a better place. This dawned on me once more after I stumbled upon The Secrets of Water, a video documentary about the life of Viktor Schauberger.

Born in 1885 as the son of an Austrian forest superintendent, Viktor spent many hours in nature observing and reflecting upon what he saw, always trying to keep an open mind. Later, he went on to study forestry and got inspired by poets like Goethe who instilled in him the importance of making full use of our senses to better understand the Ur-phenomenon or the essential quality of what one observes.

Wikipedia describes Schauberger as a naturalist, pseudoscientist, philosopher, inventor and biomimicry experimenter. While pseudoscientist sounds like a dishonest version of a scientist or someone who stands for “fake science”, Schauberger’s insights from nearly a century ago have proven far more influential than what most modern-day scientists could aspire to achieve in a life-time, even with the help of advanced technologies and nanosecond computing devices.

Science  ̶  and technological innovations  ̶  have often ignored local knowledge and even obstructed its dissemination. In 1930, the Austrian Academy of Sciences confirmed the receipt of a sealed envelope entitled “Turbulence”. In it, Schauberger described his theory of interdependency of water temperature and movement. The Academy kept it concealed for 50 years, probably partly because Schauberger continued to criticise their water resource management strategies. His work became the basis for many eco-technological innovations.

For instance, instead of protecting river banks with boulders, Schauberger explained that it makes more sense to control the flow of the river from the inner part of the river, not from the sides. Some unconventional engineers have taken this to heart and have meticulously placed lines of boulders like a funnel inside the river to convert the energy of the river from the sides to the middle. When water accelerates in the middle rather than on the sides, it is a far more cost-effective way to control river bank erosion. Besides controlling floods, it also improves the quality of the water and creates perfect habitats for different fish species.

Schauberger’s writings carefully explained the underlying principle of his theory on turbulence, namely that it is influenced by differences in temperature. The warmer layers of river water flow faster than the colder ones, creating friction, which is the source of turbulence. According to Schauberger: “a river doesn’t just flow, but winds itself forward. It rotates in its bed, or put simply, it swirls.” This principle applies to any moving water, even to a raindrop running down a window.

By understanding that the swirl or turbulence of water is the most natural way in which water flows with least resistance, Schauberger applied this to many prototype technologies for which he registered patents. He developed a machine to replicate spring water, which later formed the basis for water vitalising equipment. Among the many benefits, some are more unexpected than the others. For instance, when vitalised water is used in bakeries it retards the development of moulds.

Instead of letting water simply enter a pond through a pipe, Schauberger made it pass through a specially designed funnel to let the water whirl and gain energy. The water quality in the pond improved and algae growth reduced.

Schauberger reflected on many things. He claimed that crop productivity was declining because of the use of iron tools, saying that the rust destroys soil life. Instead, tools made from copper and copper alloys do not disturb soil magnetism and contain useful trace elements which are brought into the soil through abrasion. This improves soil micro-organisms and apparently also reduces problems with snails.

In 1948, Schauberger developed a copper bio plough, known as the Golden Plough, to loosen the soil without disturbing soil layers and micro-organisms. By copying the mole, he designed a plough that pulls the soil inward rather than pushing it outward. While this technology currently attracts quite some attention on social media, it is still not available on the market.

Jane Cobbald’s book Viktor Schauberger. A Life of Learning from Nature gives some interesting insights as to why the bio plough never made it. Apparently Schauberger wanted to go into commercial production, but he had poor negotiation skills. Fertilizer companies realized that the new plough would diminish the need for chemical fertilizers, so they approached Schauberger, asking him if he was willing to share profits if they would promote the plough. Being a convinced environmentalist his answer was a definite “no”, saying he did not want to make deals with criminals. According to his son, shortly after that Schauberger faced problems obtaining copper, so he had to abandon the project.

Using the whirl or vortex principle Schauberger also suggested that electricity could be generated without losing energy, making use of just air and water. These and many other ideas tested by a careful observer of nature, and documented in detailed writings, drawings and photographs, have continued to inspire later generations of scientists and engineers. Until today, for instance, innovators continue to deposit patents for energy-efficient desalination systems, including Schauberger’s vortex principle.

Schauberger’s guiding principle for experimentation was his intuition, which was based on his own observations of nature, his reading of old philosophers and poets, as well as on the deep knowledge of the mountain men who had spent their lives in the forests. As the story of Schauberger has shown, technological breakthroughs are often the result of holistic thinking that incorporates ideas from different disciplines and people, including artists, philosophers, farmers, foresters and engineers.

While research is needed to develop new technologies that will make our planet a better place to live for us and future generations, we also need an enabling environment that supports experimentation with novel ideas, both technical and social.

Further information

Cobbald, Jane. 2009. Viktor Schauberger. A Life of Learning from Nature, Floris Books, pp. 176.

Schauberger, Viktor – The Fertile Earth – Nature’s Energies in Agriculture, Soil Fertilisation and Forestry: Volume 3. Translated and edited by Callum Coats, 2004. pp. 212.

The Secrets of Water, The Documentary of Viktor Schauberger “Comprehend and Copy Nature”: https://www.ecoagtube.org/content/secrets-water-documentary-viktor-schauberger-comprehend-and-copy-nature

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to ecological farming and circular economy.

Honey Bee Network: this platform gives a voice to traditional knowledge holders and grassroots innovators. Primarily based in India, it has sparked products, inventions and innovations in many countries.

Municipal compost: Teaching city governments December 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Much of farm produce ends up in city landfills, but with a little work and some smart ideas, towns can recycle their organic waste, as I saw recently in Tiquipaya, a small city in metropolitan Cochabamba, Bolivia.

For over ten years, Tiquipaya’s municipal composter has turned some of the city’s trash into the best organic fertilizer. Ing. Denis Sánchez, who runs the city composter, obviously loves his work and is happy to show groups around the tidy (and fly-free) operation.

The first stop is reception, where garbage trucks and cooperating citizens dump off refuse: the garden trimmings from the city’s parks, wilted flowers from the cemetery, waste from the market, and trash from nearly half of the municipality’s households. At reception, Denis’ crew does their most tedious task, separating the plastic from the organic. Cooked food waste is a nuisance because it rots quickly and has “very bad microbes,” as Denis puts it.

Denis is certain that the compost picks up good microbes from its surroundings. Compost’s good microbes smell good and the only slightly bad odor is from the fresh garbage in the reception area. The composter is only four blocks from the town square, so the city government would not tolerate any bad smells. In reception, the fresh, “green” refuse is mixed about half and half with “brown” waste, such as dried tree leaves pruned from city parks. Mixing was easier when the compost plant had a chipping machine that would chop up all the tree branches. The machine broke down a few years ago, so now the crew occasionally gets a caterpillar to come in and roll over the tree branches to break them up. The small bits go into the compost and the big pieces are sold as firewood.

From reception, the blend of brown and green trash goes to the “forced air” section. Compost needs air, which can be provided by turning over the pile, but that’s a lot of work. At the Tiquipaya plant, perforated hoses force air up into each 40-ton pile of compost. The crew waters the compost once a week, for seven weeks, and during that time they do turn it one time, for an even decomposition.

After seven weeks the compost is taken to mature, like a fine wine. It is heaped up and every week it is watered, and also turned with a little front-end loader. The aged compost is then sifted in a rotating drum to remove any big pieces. The resulting fine compost is then sold to the public.  The municipality also fertilizes Tiquipaya’s city parks with the compost, so they do not have to buy any fertilizer. The city also uses the compost as potting soil to grow ornamental plants.

Of course, it’s not all easy. One limitation is education. The municipal market has separate bins for organic and plastic garbage, but most patrons toss all their trash into one can or the other. Three of the city’s eight garbage routes send a truck one day a week to collect organic trash from households. On each ride, Denis sends a member of staff along to remind residents to leave out their plastics and cooked food waste. It’s a constant job to educate the public, so sometimes the municipality rewards cooperating families with plants.

A second limitation is labor. Even with some clever machines, the hard-working staff (three full-time and four part-time, besides Denis) can process about 5.5 tons of trash per day, of the 40 tons that Tiquipaya produces. The city could compost 20 tons of rubbish, with a bit more space, additional workers and investment.

Denis says that it costs 312 Bs. ($44) to make a cubic meter of compost, which he sells for 120 Bs. ($17), a loss he has to accept because “no one would pay its true cost.”

The plant was created with an investment of 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) and has an annual labor cost of 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financed by the municipal government. The compost plant has had financial and technical support from Catalonia and Japan.

The crew seems to be enjoying their morning at the plant. It is light, active work in the glorious Andean sunshine with friendly colleagues.

Tiquipaya’s large neighbor, the city of Cochabamba, has a wretched problem with its landfill, now full and rising like a tower while the surrounding residents often protest by blockading out the garbage trucks, forcing the trash to pile up in city streets.

Cities have to invest to properly dispose of their garbage. People who make trash (including the plastics industry) can be charged for its disposal. The public needs to be taught how to buy food with less plastic wrapping and how to recycle green waste at home. The good news is that cities can recycle much of their rubbish, selling the plastics, and producing compost to improve the soil and replace chemical fertilizer.

Denis thinks of his plant as a school, where others can learn. In fact, several small cities (Sacaba, Vinto, Villazón, and some in the valleys of Santa Cruz) have started similar plants on the Tiquipaya model. Denis is proud to show his work to others.

With some enlightened investment, a city can turn its garbage into useful products and green jobs while avoiding unsustainable landfills, which simply bury the nutrients that farmers have won from the soil.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Reviving soils

Learning to teach

Trash to treasure

Smelling is believing

Offbeat urban fertilizer

Related videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Good microbes for plants and soil

Compost from rice straw

Composting to beat striga

COMPOST MUNICIPAL: UNA ESCUELA PARA LAS ALCALDÍAS

Por Jeff Bentley

27 de diciembre del 2020

Mucha de la producción agrícola termina en los rellenos sanitarios urbanos, pero con un poco de esfuerzo y unas ideas claras, los municipios pueden reciclar su basura orgánica, como vi hace poco en Tiquipaya, una pequeña ciudad en el eje metropolitano de Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Hace más de diez años, la compostera municipal de Tiquipaya ha convertido parte de su basura en un excelente fertilizante orgánico. El Ing. Denis Sánchez dirige la compostera, y obviamente le encanta su trabajo y el mostrar su planta bien ordenada (y libre de moscas) a grupos de ciudadanos.

En la primera parada, la recepción, los camiones basureros y algunos vecinos colaboradores, dejan su basura, las podas del ornato público, flores marchitadas del cementerio, basura del mercado y de casi la mitad de las familias del municipio. En recepción, los trabajadores realizan lo más tedioso, separando los plásticos de los orgánicos. Los restos de la comida son una molestia porque se pudren rápidamente y tienen “algunos microbios muy malos,” como Denis explica.

Denis afirma que el compost adquiere buenos microbios de su entorno. Los microbios buenos huelen bien y el único olor un poco desagradable viene de la basura fresca en recepción. La planta está apenas a cuatro cuadras de la plaza principal, y la alcaldía no toleraría ningún mal olor. En recepción, la basura fresca, la “verde”, se llena mitad-mitad con los desechos “marrones” tales como la hojarasca de los parques urbanos. El mezclarlo era más fácil cuando la compostera tenía una máquina que picaba todas las ramas. La máquina se descompuso hace algunos años, y ahora de vez en cuando traen una oruga que pisotea las ramas para quebrarlas. Los pedazos pequeños entran al compost y las piezas grandes se venden como leña.

Después de la recepción, la mezcla de basura verde y marrón pasa a la sección de “aireación forzada”. El compost necesita aire, que se puede proveer con el volteo, pero es mucho trabajo. En la compostera de Tiquipaya, usan tubería perforada para empujar el aire a cada pila de 40 toneladas de compost. Riegan las pilas una vez a la semana, durante siete semanas, y durante ese tiempo las voltean una vez, para lograr una descomposición pareja.

A las siete semanas, llevan el compost a madurarse, como un vino fino. Hacen montones de compost que se riegan y se voltean cada semana con una máquina mini cargadora. El compost madurado es cernido en un dron rotatorio para sacar cualquier objeto grande. El compost fino se vende al público. La alcaldía fertiliza los parques de Tiquipaya con el compost, así que no tienen que comprar fertilizante. Además, usan el compost como sustrato para producir plantas ornamentales.

Claro que cuesta trabajo. Una limitación es la educación. El mercado municipal tiene basureros separados para plásticos y orgánicos, aunque los usuarios a veces mezclan todo. Tres de las ocho rutas del carro basurero recogen solo residuos orgánicos un día de la semana, y cada vez, Denis manda un funcionario de la planta para hacerle recuerdo a la gente que no incluyan sus plásticos ni sus restos de comida. La educación pública es un esfuerzo constante. De vez en cuando regalan plantas para premiar a los buenos vecinos.

Una segunda limitante es la mano de obra. Aun con maquinaria, el esmerado personal (tres a tiempo completo y cuatro a tiempo parcial, además del Ing. Denis) logra procesar unas 5.5 toneladas de basura por día, de las 40 toneladas que Tiquipaya produce. Con un poco más de espacio, personal, e inversión podrían compostar 20 toneladas.

Denis cuenta que cuesta 312 Bs. ($44) hacer un metro cúbico de compost, lo cual vende por 120 Bs. ($17), una pérdida que se acepta porque “nadie pagaría su costo real.”

La planta se creó con una inversión de 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) y tiene un costo anual de mano de obra de 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financiada por la alcaldía. La compostera ha tenido apoyo financiero y técnico de Cataluña y del Japón.

Parece que los trabajadores municipales disfrutan de su trabajo en la planta. Es trabajo físico, pero liviano al aire libre mientras que permite la charla entre colegas.

La ciudad vecina a Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, tiene un problema severo con su relleno sanitario, que ahora está lleno y crece como una torre, mientras los vecinos frecuentemente protestan, bloqueando la entrada a los camiones basureros, hasta que la basura se deja en montículos por toda la ciudad.

Las ciudades tienen que invertir para deshacerse correctamente de su basura. Se puede cobrar impuestos a la gente que genera la basura, incluso a las industrias de los plásticos. Hay que enseñar al público a comprar comida con menos envases plásticos, y cómo reciclar la basura verde en casa. La buena noticia es que las ciudades pueden reciclar gran parte su basura, vendiendo los plásticos y produciendo compost para mejorar el suelo y para reemplazar a los fertilizantes químicos.

Denis piensa en su planta como una escuela, donde otros pueden aprender. De hecho, varias ciudades pequeñas (Sacaba, Vinto, Villazón, y algunas en los valles de Santa Cruz), han construido plantas similares, usando el modelo de Tiquipaya. Denis está dispuesto a compartir sus conocimientos con otra gente interesada, sintiendo mucho orgullo por lo logrado.

Con un poco de inversión inteligente, una ciudad puede convertir su basura en productos útiles e ítems de trabajo verde, mientras evita los rellenos no sostenibles, que simplemente entierran los nutrientes ganados con tanto esfuerzo por la producción agrícola.

Previos relatos en nuestro blog

Reviving soils

Aprender a enseñar

Trash to treasure

Smelling is believing

Offbeat urban fertilizer

Videos relacionados

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

Compost from rice straw

Composting to beat striga

Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

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Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

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Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

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Read more

More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en  

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

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