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Enlightened Agroecology August 4th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena grew up in the countryside of Ecuador and decided that the best way to help smallholder farmers was to get an education. So, he went abroad for a Ph.D. in anthropology. He came home feeling like “the divine papaya”, he says, thinking that he could change the world with his doctorate.

After a year of teaching at the university, Pacho wanted do something more practical, so he and his wife Maritza sold the house and the car and bought four hectares of land for farming not too far from Quito. But making this work was going to be a huge challenge. The land had no trees and the soil was degraded.

From day one, the family decided that they would use no agrochemicals. They gradually improved the soil by recycling the crop residues and manure back into the soil. Pacho estimates that in this way the family has applied the equivalent of 4000 truckloads of compost since he first began farming here over 35 years ago.

I met Pacho recently on his farm in Puembo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, where he happily showed me and a few other visitors his four dairy cows. He puts sawdust in their stall to absorb their manure and urine. Each cow eats 90 kilos of feed daily and produces about 70 kilos of waste every day, equivalent to 25 tons of organic fertilizer each year for every cow. A single cow can fertilize one hectare of crops. All the manure goes onto the farm, along with all of the composted crop residues.

Pacho rotates his vegetable crops on his four-hectare farm. Potatoes are followed by broccoli, lettuce, radishes and green beans. He employs ten people and is proud that his small farm can give jobs to local families by producing healthy vegetables to sell direct to consumers in the local markets.

His grown son and daughter have also found work on the farm. Pacho jokes that he has retired and that now his daughter is his boss—and a pretty demanding one.

Besides recycling organic matter, Pacho also has some more unusual strategies for building up the soil. He enriches it with wood ash from pizzerias and with powdered rock from quarries. As the quarries cut stone, they leave behind a lot of powdered rock, as waste, which Pacho collects. Rocks are rich in minerals (with up to 80 elements) and are one of nature’s main components of soil.

Pacho is up front about his limitations, which adds to his credibility. A new phytoplasma disease (punta morada) is sweeping Ecuador, wiping out potato fields, including his. He also has to import vegetable seed from the USA and Europe.

But Pacho’s vegetable fields are lush, like gardens, and now surrounded by trees that the family has planted “providing room, board and employment for the birds and for beneficial insects,” Pacho explains. An ornithologist friend counted 32 bird species on the farm, including 22 insectivores. Pacho is convinced that the birds help him to control pests without the need for insecticides. Predatory insects also provide a natural biological control of pests.

He also thinks that it is important to share what he has learned, welcoming around 32,000 smallholders to visit his farm over the years. It helps that he was the director of Swiss Aid in Ecuador for 20 years and has built a large network of collaborating farmers. Many come in groups, and some stay for several days to learn about organic farming and agroecology.

The farm’s family and staff feed us a big lunch of kale salad, potato soup and a lasagna made with green leaves instead of pasta. All vegetarian and delicious. The farm has a clear emphasis on nutritious food and produces lots of it. By intercropping and rotating crops, they get 92 tons of vegetables and other crops per hectare each year, a more than respectable yield by any standard. Since buying the farm, the organic matter, or carbon held in the soil has increased from 2% to 12% or more. In a hectare that is at least 500 tons of carbon.

Not everyone is in favor of organic, biological agriculture. For example, in an otherwise excellent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that organic agriculture is not sustainable, because it supposedly uses more land that conventional agriculture.

In fact, in developing countries organic agriculture yields 80% more than conventional agriculture, but without the yield stagnation or decline that occurs with the high use of external inputs (see Uniformity in Diversity by IPES Food).

But Pinker, in his characteristic optimism, also writes that even though climate change is the world’s most serious problem, it can be solved if we really work on it.

That brings us back to the Gangotena family farm, which is providing jobs, and lots of healthy food, while removing carbon from the air where it is harmful and putting it underground where it is useful.  Organic agriculture may be one of the world’s greatest techniques for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing in the soil as rich, black earth for productive farming.

Further reading

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Related blog story

Out of space

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pacho Gangotena and his family for their generosity of spirit and for the example they set, to Ross Borja and Pedro Oyarzún of EkoRural for organizing the visit to the farm. EkoRural is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarzún, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading an earlier draft of this story.

LA LUZ DE LA AGROECOLOGÍA

Por Jeff Bentley, 4 de agosto del 2019

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena creció en el campo en Ecuador y decidió que la mejor manera de ayudar a los campesinos era obtener una educación. Así que, se fue al exterior para hacer un doctorado en antropología. Llegó a casa sintiéndose como “la divina papaya “, dice, pensando que podría cambiar el mundo con su doctorado.

Después de un año de enseñar en la universidad, Pacho quería hacer algo más práctico, así que él y su esposa Maritza vendieron la casa y el auto y compraron cuatro hectáreas de tierra cerca de Quito. Pero la agricultura iba a ser un gran desafío. La tierra no tenía árboles y el suelo estaba degradado.

Desde el primer día, la familia decidió que no usaría agroquímicos. Poco a poco mejoraron el suelo volviendo a incorporar los rastrojos y el estiércol. Pacho estima que de esta manera la familia ha aplicado el equivalente a 4000 camiones de compost desde que empezaron a trabajar la tierra hace 35 años.

Conocí a Pacho hace poco en su finca en Puembo, en los Andes ecuatorianos, donde con toda felicidad él mostró a mí y a algunos otros visitantes sus cuatro vacas lecheras. Pone aserrín en su establo para absorber el estiércol y la orina. Cada vaca come 90 kilos de alimento al día y produce unos 70 kilos de estiércol al dia, unas 25 toneladas de abono orgánico por vaca, al año. Cada vaca fertiliza una hectárea. Todo el estiércol fertiliza el suelo junto con los rastrojos del campo convertidos en compost.

Pacho rota sus cultivos en sus cuatro hectáreas de cultivo que constituyen su finca. Después de las papas pone brócoli, lechuga, rábanos y arvejas. Emplea a diez personas y está orgulloso de que su pequeña finca dé empleo a las familias locales, produciendo verduras sanas para venderlas directamente a los consumidores en los mercados locales.

Su hijo y su hija también traban en la finca. Pacho bromea que se ha jubilado y que ahora su hija es su jefa, y que es muy dura.

Además de reciclar la materia orgánica, Pacho también tiene algunas estrategias más originales para crear suelo. La enriquece con ceniza de leña de pizzerías y con el polvo de roca de las canteras. Como las canteras cortan piedra, dejan mucha roca en polvo, como desecho, que Pacho recoge. La rocas son ricas en minerales (hasta 80 elementos) y constituyen uno de los principales componentes naturales del suelo.

Pacho admite francamente sus limitaciones, lo cual le da más credibilidad. Un nuevo fitoplasma (una enfermedad—punta morada) está arrasando con las papas del Ecuador, incluido las suyas. También tiene que importar varias de sus semillas de hortalizas de los Estados Unidos y Europa.

Pero las hortalizas de Pacho son exuberantes, como jardines, y ahora están rodeados de árboles que la familia ha plantado “para dar ‘room and board’ y trabajo a los pájaros e insectos benéficos”, explica Pacho. Un amigo ornitólogo contó 32 especies de aves en la granja, incluyendo 22 insectívoros. Pacho está convencido de que las aves le ayudan a controlar las plagas sin necesidad de usar insecticidas. Los insectos depredadores también hacen un control biológico natural de las plagas.

También cree que es importante compartir lo que ha aprendido y 32.000 campesinos han visitado su granja a lo largo de los años. Es una ventaja haber sido director de Swiss Aid en Ecuador durante 20 años y ha creado una amplia red de agricultores colaboradores. Muchos vienen en grupos, y algunos se quedan varios días para aprender sobre la agricultura orgánica y la agroecología.

La familia y el personal de la granja nos alimentan con un gran almuerzo de ensalada de col rizada, sopa de papas y una lasaña de hojas verdes sin pasta. Todo vegetariano y delicioso. La finca tiene un claro énfasis en la comida nutritiva, la cual produce en abundancia. A través del policultivo y la rotación de cultivos, obtienen 92 toneladas de hortalizas y productos agrícolas por año en las cuatro hectáreas, por año, más que respetables bajo cualquier sistema. Desde que compró  la finca, la materia orgánica o carbono retenido en el suelo ha subido del 2% al 12% o más. En una hectárea de al menos 500 toneladas de carbono.

No todos están a favor de la agricultura orgánica y biológica. Por ejemplo, en un libro por lo demás excelente, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argumenta que la agricultura orgánica no es sostenible, porque supuestamente usa más tierra que la agricultura convencional.

De hecho, en los países en desarrollo la agricultura orgánica rinde un 80% más que la agricultura convencional, pero sin los rendimientos estancados o en disminución que sucede con el alto uso de insumos externos (véase Uniformity in Diversity por IPES Food).

Pero Pinker, con su característico optimismo, añade que aunque el cambio climático es el problema más grave del mundo, puede resolverse si realmente trabajamos en eso.

Esto nos lleva de nuevo a la granja de la familia Gangotena, que crea puestos de trabajo y produce abundantes alimentos saludables, a la vez que extrae el carbono del aire donde hace daño y lo pone bajo tierra donde hace bien.  

Leer más

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Historia de blog relacionada

Out of space

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Pacho Gangotena y su familia por su espíritu generoso y por el ejemplo que nos dan, a Ross Borja y Pedro Oyarzún de EkoRural por organizar la visita a la granja. EkoRural recibe apoyo de la Fundación McKnight. Gracias a Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarzún, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por leer una versión anterior de esta relación.

Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

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The diesel wheat mills May 5th, 2019 by

The people of Yuraj Molino (“white mill”) live surrounded by wheat fields, in a large valley near the small town of Pocona, Bolivia. As the name suggests, there have been flour mills in Yuraj Molino for some time. But by the late 1970s, customers were complaining of how long it took to grind the wheat; they got tired of waiting all day for their flour. And then millers began to notice that with the warmer, dryer climate, the streams no longer carried as much stream water, to power the mills. Some of the mills closed. Ana and I visited the ruins of a miller’s house, the yard full of weeds, with the mill still there and a calendar for 1984 still on the wall.

Other mills survived. Local miller Juan Torrico showed us his old mill house, with the canal that once brought water from the mountains. In 2001, Juan’s brother Sergio designed a new mill at the mill house. He bought two large, new stones from a master craftsman near Epizana, Cochabamba, who still carves the massive limestone wheels. Sergio bought a diesel engine, and a used truck axel. The brothers built a new mill house and mounted the stones in it, fixed the axel upright below them, and then used a steel rod to connect the axel to the diesel engine, which Sergio put in the next room. This way they kept the diesel smoke and the engine noise out of the mill room. They don’t want the smoke to spoil the delicate flavor of the flour, which people love.

Five or six other mills in the valley are also sited where old water mills used to be, near running water. But most of them are also now powered by diesel motors.

One by one the old water mills around Pocona adapted to diesel, and one or two are still using water power. The change to diesel was gradual and there was never a break in service, never a time when the farmers had no mills to go to. The mills themselves also stayed in the same places. Although the mills were originally sited to be near water, they were also near the wheat fields, and the millers owned the land where their mills were, and they had community ties to the area. So, the diesel mills stayed right where the water mills had been.

There is no research institution providing expertise on how to motorize Bolivian water mills. At some point, the millers themselves had to blend their traditional knowledge with a lot of new information about motors and old truck parts. As always, people in rural areas are constantly creating and making sophisticated adaptations to changing conditions.

Let nature guide you March 17th, 2019 by

Farmers need to take decisions every day. Smallholders living in remote areas often have no one to turn to to ask advice. Nobody tells them which crop to grow or when is a good time to plant. In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about the Yapuchiris, experienced organic farmers on the Bolivian altiplano who started recording their observations on weather, natural indicators and their crops on a daily basis. Some have done so for over 10 years.

In this harsh environment predicting the weather correctly can make the difference between harvesting a crop or harvesting nothing at all.

As always, when producing farmer training videos, we are fortunate to interact with farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, one of the Yapuchiris, Don Bernabé, explains that if frost hits your quinoa, you can lose your crop from one day to the next, all past efforts being in vain. He guides us in the brush land and shows us a local bush called tara t’ula in the Aymara language. “This plant doesn’t like the cold very much, so if you find many of these plants, it is a good place to build your farm house, your corral to keep your llamas and grow your crop.”

But even if your farm is wel located, frost can strike. So don Bernabé has many other natural indicators to inform him about what actions to take. “If the lizard makes a fresh house it will rain tomorrow, but if it starts to close its burrow, it will freeze that night. I then collect t’ula plants and burn them in my quinoa field from 3 to 5 am so that the frost will not settle on my crop,” he continues.

Apart from observing plants and animals, don Bernabé also reads the clouds and wind. Amazingly, winds in June and July already tell him how the next rainy season that starts in January will be. Arrived at a large sand dune, he points to the pattern of vertical ridges blown into the side of the dune. “If the lines are some 10 centimeters apart, the rains will come close to each other and we will have a good harvest. But if they are further apart, the rains will also be sparser and our crop will suffer.”

Don Bernabé has written a book about these natural weather indicators. As he shows us around the landscape, he proudly carries his book with colour photographs that clearly explain all the natural indicators he knows. Reading nature is a skill that requires spending a lot of time outdoors, observing natural phenomena.

The next few days we met some other extraordinary Yapuchiris, each sharing their knowledge with us in front of the camera. It is exciting to be part of this and at the same time an eye opener as to how much industrial agriculture in the West has become disconnected from nature.

With climate change, the need to build on local knowledge will grow in importance.

I cannot think of a better way to end this blog then by quoting don Bernabé once more: “Well these plants and animals are more intelligent than the human being. They know how to live in this land and they know it perfectly. For that reason, it is necessary not to lose this knowledge and that the young people should keep practicing this ancestral knowledge that is so rich.”

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform, in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara:

Recording the weather

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Acknowledgement The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Betting on the weather March 10th, 2019 by

Recently, we have had the chance to interact intensively with farmers and agronomists in the Bolivian Altiplano to develop two videos on weather forecasting. The first video focused more on natural indicators, such as plants, animals, wind and clouds. The second video highlighted a weather app. While we encourage in both videos to merge traditional knowledge with daily observations and modern science, a certain level of risk remains.

At an altitude of 4,250 meters, in the village of Ch’ojñapata (which means “green mountain” in the Aymara language), we meet don Juan Mamani with some of his fellow farmers. On the walk to his house in the Green Mountains, field after field of young potato plants showed black, wilted leaves. Despite their rich, traditional knowledge, receiving weekly forecasts on their phone and being connected with other fellow farmers through WhatsApp, the farmers of Ch’ojñapata village saw their potato crop destroyed by frost.

Weather forecasts can be a blessing for farmers and help them to decide when to prepare the land, when to plant, irrigate and harvest their crop. But while rain is relatively easy to predict, frost is less so, especially in a changing climate, as don Juan explains:

“Sometimes the weather is cloudy with good clouds, but during the night they suddenly disappear. It gets cold and starts to freeze, there is no way to be aware of it. I do not understand the climate, the climate is heating up, it confuses us, so for that I say that one should try to understand the climate and we have to adjust to it.”

But I was still concerned, standing on the edge of this ruined potato field. Don Juan is an expert farmer, with the benefit of modern and ancestral knowledge, who had known that there was likely to be a freeze early in the season, which he could have avoided by planting later.

Edwin Yucra, an agronomist who has studied weather for years on the Altiplano, explained what happened. First farmers forecast which part of the summer will be best for planting potatoes, then they plant potatoes early, middle or late in the season, depending on their prediction. But they always hedge their bets, never putting all of their potatoes in one basket. If farmers predict that the last part of the season will be best (as in the southern summer of 2018-19), they still plant a few potatoes in the early season. The farmers also use the forecast to decide where to plant, planting in wetter areas during predicted dry years, for example, or on the warmer slopes if they anticipate a freeze.

Farming is a gamble in many ways. Every time farmers plant they are betting on the weather. While modern forecasting technologies help smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve the odds, crop insurance (and fair food prices) may be required to make farming attractive to new generations of commercial small-scale farmers.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

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Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

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