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What is a women’s association about? March 20th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When you write a story, you should know what it is about. According to this good old advice, if you know what your story is about, you’ll know what to put in and what to leave out.

In Ecuador, community organizer, Ing. Guadalupe Padilla, has told me that belonging to a group can help women gain leadership experience. Women become leaders as they work in a group, not in isolation. Guadalupe has helped to organize several such groups. Like a story, the group has to be about something. It has to have a purpose. And that purpose can easily be related to agriculture.

In Cotopaxi, Ecuador recently, while working with Paul and Marcella to film a video on women’s organizations, we met Juan Chillagana, vice-president of the parish (town) council. As an elected, local official, Mr. Chillagana has mentored several women’s organizations, each one organized around a specific product. We caught up with him on 4 February as he met with a group of women who were growing and exporting goldenberries. The fruit buyer was there, a man in a hair net explaining, “All we ask is that you don’t apply agro-chemicals.” The association members and the buyer weighed big, perfect goldenberries in clean, plastic trays, to take to the packing plant.

We talked with one of the members, Josefina Astudillo, who seemed pleased to be trying this new fruit crop. She guided us to her field, about a kilometer from the community center where the meeting was held. Doña Josefina proudly showed us her field where the fruit was ripening to a golden perfection. One woman could grow goldenberries by herself, but it takes a group to meet the buyer’s demand: 1,000 kilos a week, at a quality ready to export.

We also met Beatriz Padilla (Guadalupe’s sister), a small-scale dairy farmer, who leads 20 households as they pool their milk. The association sends a truck to each farm, collects the milk in big cans, transfers it to the group’s cold tank. Twice a day, about 1500 liters of milk is collected by two different buyers, including one who comes at 3 AM. It’s a lot of work. Doña Beatriz explained that she couldn’t do it without the group. She needs the other families so they can get a better price for their milk. A farmer with two cows has to take whatever price the dairy will give her. But an association can negotiate a price.

Margoth Naranjo is a woman in her 60s who has worked her whole adult life in associations, often in groups that included men as well. She started in her local parent-teachers’ association, helping to organize the children’s breakfast. Later, she was the secretary of a farmers’ insurance group, until she became the treasurer and then the president. Now, with the Corporation of Indigenous and Peasant Organizations (COIC), doña Margoth is helping several women’s organizations, which sell their own agroecological vegetables, to band together for added strength. Sadly, this work came to a standstill during the Covid lockdown, but doña Margoth has recently started organizing again.

All of the women’s leaders we met in Ecuador were part of a group. And each group was formed for a concrete purpose, whether for goldenberries, milk or vegetables. Like a good story, the groups were each about something, related to a dream they share: to have a quality product to sell, to improve their livelihoods.

And just as writing improves with practice, leadership sharpens with experience. The influential people we met said that any woman could be a leader if she joined a group and participated long enough.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

Listening to what women don’t say

The goldenberry

Related videos

Women in extension

Farmers’ rights to seed: Experiences from Guatemala

Working together for healthy chicks

Helping women recover after childbirth

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Guadalupe Padilla and Sonia Zambrano for introducing us the farmers in Cotopaxi, and for sharing her knowledge with us. Thanks to Guadalupe and to Paul Van Mele for their valuable comments on a previous version of this blog. Guadalupe and Sonia work for EkoRural, an NGO. Our work was funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

¿DE QUÉ SE TRATA UNA ASOCIACIÓN DE MUJERES?

Por Jeff Bentley, 20 de marzo del 2022

Cuando escribes una historia, debes saber de qué trata. Según este viejo consejo, si sabes de qué trata tu historia, sabrás qué incluir y qué dejar fuera.

La Ing. Guadalupe Padilla organiza comunidades  en Ecuador, y me ha dicho que pertenecer a un grupo puede ayudar a las mujeres a adquirir experiencia de liderazgo. Las mujeres se convierten en lideresas cuando trabajan en grupo, no de forma aislada. Guadalupe ha ayudado a organizar varios grupos de este tipo. Al igual que una historia, el grupo tiene que tratar de algo. Tiene que tener un propósito, que puede estar tranquilamente relacionado con la agricultura.

Hace poco, en Cotopaxi, Ecuador, mientras yo trabajaba con Paul y Marcella para filmar un video sobre las organizaciones de mujeres, conocimos  a Juan Chillagana, vicepresidente de la junta parroquial. Como funcionario local electo, el Sr. Chillagana ha sido mentor de varias organizaciones de mujeres, cada una de ellas organizada en torno a un producto específico. Nos reunimos con él el 4 de febrero, en un encuentro con un grupo de mujeres que cultivan y exportan uvillas (uchuvas, o chiltos). El comprador de la fruta estaba allí, un hombre con su cabellera bien cubierta por una red. Explicó: “Todo lo que pedimos es que no apliquen agroquímicos”. Los miembros de la asociación y el comprador pesaron grandes y perfectas uvillas en bandejas de plástico limpias, para llevarlas a la planta de envasado.

Hablamos con una de las socias, Josefina Astudillo, que parecía encantada de probar este nuevo cultivo de fruta. Nos llevó hasta su campo, a un kilómetro de la sede comunitaria donde se celebraba la reunión. Doña Josefina nos mostró con orgullo su campo, donde su dorada fruta estaba madurándose a la perfección. Una sola mujer podría cultivar uvillas por sí sola, pero se necesita un grupo para satisfacer la demanda de los compradores: 1.000 kilos a la semana, con una calidad lista para exportar.

También conocimos a Beatriz Padilla (hermana de Guadalupe), pequeña productora de leche, que lidera 20 hogares que acopian su leche para venderla como grupo. La asociación envía un camión a cada granja, recoge la leche en grandes botes y la traslada al tanque de frío del grupo. Dos veces al día, dos distintos compradores recogen unos 1.500 litros de leche, incluido uno que viene a las 3 de la madrugada. Es mucho trabajo. Doña Beatriz explica que no podría hacerlo sin el grupo. Necesita a las otras familias para poder obtener un mejor precio por su leche. Una persona con dos vacas tiene que aceptar el precio que le dé la procesadora de leche. En cambio, una asociación puede negociar un mejor precio.

Margoth Naranjo es una mujer de 60 años que ha trabajado toda su vida adulta en asociaciones, a menudo en grupos que incluían también a los hombres. Empezó en la asociación local de padres de familia, ayudando a organizar el desayuno escolar. Más tarde, fue secretaria del Seguro Campesino, hasta llegar a ser la tesorera y luego la presidenta. Ahora, con la Corporación de Organizaciones Indígenas y Campesinas (COIC), doña Margoth está ayudando a varias organizaciones de mujeres, que venden sus propias verduras agroecológicas, a agruparse para tener más fuerza. Lamentablemente, este trabajo se paralizó durante el cierre de Covid, pero doña Margoth ha vuelto a organizarse recientemente.

Todas las mujeres líderes que conocimos en Ecuador formaban parte de un grupo. Y cada grupo se formó con un propósito concreto, ya sea para obtener fruta, leche o verduras. Como una buena historia, cada grupo trataba de algo, relacionado a un sueño conjunto: como tener un excelente producto para vender, para vivir mejor.

Y al igual que la redacción mejora con la práctica, el liderazgo es pulida con la experiencia. Las personas influyentes que conocimos decían que cualquier mujer podría llegar a ser líder si se unía a un grupo y participaba el tiempo suficiente.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Listening to what women don’t say

El chilto, cultivo y maleza

Videos relacionados

Las mujeres en la extensión

Derechos de los agricultores a la semilla: Guatemala

Trabajando juntos por polillos sanos

Helping women recover after childbirth

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Guadalupe Padilla y Sonia Zambrano por presentarnos a la gente de Cotopaxi, por compartir su conocimiento con nosotros. Gracias a Guadalupe y a Paul Van Mele por sus valiosos comentarios sobre una versión previa de este blog. Guadalupe y Sonia trabajan para EkoRural, una ONG. Nuestro trabajo fue financiado por Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Community and microbes December 5th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

“In grad school they taught us budding plant pathologists that the objective of agriculture was to ’feed the plants and kill the bugs,” my old friend Steve Sherwood explained to me on a visit to his family farm near Quito, Ecuador. “But we should have been feeding the microbes in the soil, so they could take care of the plants,”

When Steve and his wife, Myriam Paredes, bought their five-hectare farm, Granja Urkuwayku, in 2000, it was a moonscape on the flanks of the highly eroded Ilaló Volcano. The trees had been burned for charcoal and the soil had been stripped down to the bedrock, a hardened volcanic ash locally called cangahua that looked and felt like concrete. A deep erosion gulley was gouging a wound through the middle of the farm. It was a fixer-upper, which was why Steve and Myriam could afford it.

Now, twenty years later, the land is covered in rich, black soil, with green vegetable beds surrounded by fruit trees and native vegetation.

The first step to this rebirth was to take a tractor to the cangahua, to break up the bedrock so that water and compost could penetrate it. This was the only time Steve plowed the farm.

To build the broken stone into soil, Steve and Myriam added manure, much of it coming from some 100 chickens and 300 guinea pigs – what they describe as the “sparkplugs of the farm’s biological motor.”

By 2015, Urkuwayku seemed to be doing well. The farm has attracted over 300 partners, families that regularly buy a produce basket from the farm, plus extras like bread, eggs, mushrooms, honey, and firewood, in total bringing in about $1,000 a week. Besides their four family members, the farm also employs four people from the neighborhood, bringing in enough money to pay for itself, so Steve and Myriam don’t have to subsidize the farm with their salaries, from teaching. The nasty gulley is now filled in with grass-covered soil, backed up behind erosion dams. Runoff water collects into a 500,000-liter pond, used to irrigate the crops during the dry season.

But in 2015 Myriam and Steve tested the soil and were surprised to see that it was slowly losing its fertility.

They think that the problem was too much tillage and not enough soil cover. Hoeing manure into the vegetable beds was breaking down the soil structure and drying out the beds, killing the beneficial fungi. As Steve explains, “the fungi are largely responsible for building soil particles through their mycelia and sweat, also known as glomalin, a carbon-rich glue that is important for mitigating climate change.” The glomalin help to remove carbon from the air, and store it in the soil.

Then Steve befriended the administrator of a local plywood factory. The mill had collected a mountain of bark that the owner couldn’t get rid of. Steve volunteered to take it off their hands. The two top advantages of peri-urban farming are greater access to customers, and some remarkable sources of organic matter.

So the plywood factory started sending Steve dump-truck loads of bark (mostly eucalyptus). To get the microbes to decompose the bark, Steve composts sawdust with some organic matter from the floor of a local native forest. The microbe-rich sawdust is then mixed with the bark and carefully spread in deep layers between the rows of vegetables, which were now tilled as little as possible. The vegetables are planted in trays, and then transplanted to the open beds.

No matter how much bark and sawdust Steve and his team lay down, the soil always absorbs it. The soil seems to eat the bark, just as in a forest. The soil microbes thrive on the bark to create living structures, like mycelia: fungal threads that reach all the way through the vegetable beds, in between the bark-filled paths. Steve and Myriam have learned that the microbes have a symbiotic relationship with plants; microbes help a plant’s roots find moisture and nutrients, and in turn, the plant gives about a third of all of its energy from photosynthesis back to the microbes.

Myriam and Steve have seen that as the soil becomes healthier, their crops have fewer problems from insect pests and diseases. In large part, this is because of the successful marriage between plants and the ever-growing population of soil microbes. Urkuwayku is greener every year. It produces enough to feed a family and employ four people, while regularly supplying 300 families with top-notch vegetables, fruits, and other produce. A community of consumers supports the farm with income, while a community of microorganisms builds the soil and feeds the plants.

Previous Agro-Insight blog stories

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Enlightened agroecology, about Pacho Gangotena, ecological farmer in Ecuador who influenced Steve and Myriam

The guinea pig solution

Living Soil: A film review

Dung talk

A market to nurture local food culture

Experiments with trees

Related training videos on the Access Agriculture platform

Good microbes for plants and soil

Turning fish waste into fertiliser

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Mulch for a better soil and crop

COMUNIDAD Y MICROBIOS

“En la escuela de posgrado nos enseñaron a los futuros fitopatólogos que el objetivo de la agricultura era ‘alimentar a las plantas y matar a los bichos’”, me explicó mi viejo amigo Steve Sherwood durante una visita a su granja familiar cerca de Quito, Ecuador. “Pero deberíamos haber alimentado a los microbios del suelo, para que ellos cuidaran a las plantas”.

Cuando Steve y su esposa, Myriam Paredes, compraron su finca de cinco hectáreas, Granja Urkuwayku, en el año 2000, era un paisaje lunar en las faldas del erosionado volcán Ilaló. Los árboles habían sido quemados para hacer carbón y del suelo no quedaba más que la roca madre, una dura ceniza volcánica llamada “cangahua” que parecía hormigón. Una profunda cárcava erosionaba un gran hueco en el centro de la granja. La propiedad necesitaba mucho trabajo, y por eso Steve y Myriam podían acceder a comprarla.

Ahora, veinte años después, el terreno está cubierto de una rica tierra negra, con camellones verdes rodeados de árboles frutales y nativos.

El primer paso de este renacimiento fue meter un tractor a la cangahua, para romper la roca para que el agua y el abono pudieran penetrarla. Esta fue la única vez que Steve aró la finca.

Para convertir la piedra rota en suelo, Steve y Myriam añadieron estiércol; mucho venía de unas 100 gallinas y 300 cuyes, lo que la pareja describe como las “bujías del motor biológico de la granja.”

En 2015, Urkuwayku parecía ir bien. La granja ha atraído a más de 300 socios, familias que compran regularmente una canasta de productos de la granja, además de extras como pan, huevos, champiñones, miel y leña, en total aportando unos 1.000 dólares a la semana. Además de los cuatro miembros de su familia, la granja también da trabajo a cuatro personas locales. Ya que los ingresos a la granja pagan sus gastos, Steve y Myriam no tienen que subvencionarla con los sueldos que ganan como docentes. Barreras de conservación han llenado el barranco con tierra, ahora cubierta de pasto. El agua de escorrentía se acumula en un estanque de 500.000 litros, usado para regar los cultivos durante la época seca.

Pero en 2015 Myriam y Steve analizaron el suelo y se sorprendieron al ver que lentamente perdía su fertilidad.

Creen que el problema era el exceso de labranza y la falta de cobertura del suelo. La introducción de estiércol en los camellones hortalizas estaba rompiendo la estructura del suelo y secando el suelo, matando los hongos beneficiosos. Como explica Steve, “los hongos se encargan en gran medida de construir las partículas del suelo a través de sus micelios y su sudor, también conocido como glomalina, un pegamento rico en carbono que es importante para mitigar el cambio climático”. La glomalina ayuda a eliminar el carbono del aire y a almacenarlo en el suelo.

Entonces Steve se hizo amigo del administrador de una fábrica local de madera contrachapada (plywood). La fábrica había acumulado un montonazo de corteza y el dueño no sabía cómo deshacerse de ello. Steve se ofreció a quitárselo de encima. Las dos grandes ventajas de la agricultura periurbana son un mayor acceso a los clientes y algunas fuentes fabulosas de materia orgánica.

Así que la fábrica de contrachapados empezó a enviar a Steve volquetadas de corteza (sobre todo de eucalipto). Para hacer que los microbios descompongan la corteza, primero Steve descompone aserrín con un poco de materia orgánica del suelo de un bosque nativo local. Luego, el aserrín rico en microbios se mezcla con la corteza y se esparce cuidadosamente en capas profundas entre los camellones de hortalizas, donde ahora se mueve el suelo lo menos posible. Las hortalizas se siembran en bandejas y luego se trasplantan al campo abierto.

No importa cuánta corteza y aserrín que Steve y su equipo pongan, la tierra siempre la absorbe. El suelo parece comerse la corteza, como en un bosque. Los microbios del suelo se alimentan de la corteza para crear estructuras vivas, como micelios: hilos de hongos que llegan hasta los camellones, entre los senderos llenos de corteza. Steve y Myriam han aprendido que los microbios tienen una relación simbiótica con las plantas; los microbios ayudan a las raíces de las plantas a encontrar humedad y nutrientes y, a su vez, la planta devuelve a los microbios la tercera parte de toda la energía que obtiene de la fotosíntesis.

Myriam y Steve han comprobado que a medida que el suelo se vuelve más sano, sus cultivos tienen menos problemas de plagas de insectos y enfermedades. En gran parte, esto se debe al exitoso matrimonio entre las plantas y la creciente población de microbios del suelo. Urkuwayku es más verde cada año. Produce lo suficiente para alimentar a una familia y emplear a cuatro personas, al tiempo que provee regularmente verduras, frutas y otros productos de primera calidad a 300 familias. Una comunidad de consumidores apoya a la granja con ingresos, mientras que una comunidad de microorganismos construye el suelo y alimenta a las plantas.

Previos blogs de Agro-Insight

Una revolución para nuestro suelo

La luz de la agroecología, acerca de Pacho Gangotena, agricultor ecológico en el Ecuador quien ha sido una influencia para Steve y Myriam

Experimentos con árboles

Reviving soils

The guinea pig solution

Living Soil: A film review

Dung talk

A market to nurture local food culture

Videos sobre temas relacionados en la plataforma de Access Agriculture

Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

El mulch mejora el suelo y la cosecha

Turning fish waste into fertiliser

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

 

An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

Further reading

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

Acknowledgements

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

Scientific name

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

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artículos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

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

Agradecimientos

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

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

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

Videos sobre la forma agroecológica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

Grocery shops and farm shops December 6th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

Related blogs

Stuck in the middle

Blocking out the food

Marketing something nice

Mobile slaughterhouses

Forgotten vegetables

Fighting farmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Navajo terms

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

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

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

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

Spellings checked against:

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

Further reading

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

Photos

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

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

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