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Trying it yourself May 24th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blogs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Related videos, freely downloadable from www.accessagriculture.org

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Good microbes for plants and soil

Offbeat urban fertilizer May 17th, 2020 by

Some urbanites in Covid lockdown are rediscovering their neglected gardens. Living in or near the city also gives you access to some products that are hard to find in farm country. For example, cabinet makers in the city may be able to give you wood shavings that you can use to make beds for pigs or chickens.

I’ve written before about the Taquiña brewery that releases waste water—sometimes with a fine head of beer on it—while at other times it has detergent, or barley hulls, or it is clear. An irrigators’ association channels the water to grow carnations and other high value crops.

Taquiña has its factory in the foothills above Cochabamba, Bolivia, where spent, fermented barley mash, the grain solids left over from beer brewing, is heaped into large piles. We occasionally notice the mash when we park at the brewery to hike in the mountains. Ana always said it would make a good organic fertilizer, but it wasn’t until February last year that she decided to do something about her idea. The brewery was happy for her to take the mash, on one condition: she had to take it all.

Ana rented a vintage truck and hired a driver, then returned to the brewery with a shovel and a hired helper. The mash was golden brown, with a light, yeasty smell, and all appeared fine until they dug into it. Inside the pile was rotten and flies had laid their eggs in it, the result of staying out too long in the rain. Peri-urban farmers use the mash to feed their pigs, but they hadn’t been to collect it for some time.

Ana and her helpers made three trips home with around ten tons of mash. The mash smelled like sewage and it had the thick, sticky consistency of children’s modelling clay. I called it the stinky playdough.

Our neighbors had some choice words about the stench. Eventually we managed to get all of the stinky playdough spread over our small garden and the stench gradually disappeared. The flies went away, the plants grew and we forgot about the rotten mash. Until we were quarantined.

By March of this year our garden was overgrown with weeds. But then I found time in the evenings and the weekends to pull up the weeds and plant some vegetable beds. Years ago, the dirt in our garden was dull red, and lifeless, but after taking on the stinky playdough, the soil was rich and black, full of earthworms and just right for growing organic vegetables.

If I had to do it again, I would look for smaller, fresher batches of barley mash. Even so, the obnoxious, stinky playdough turned out to be a great fertilizer. Ana also collects a few other sources of organic matter, including lawn clippings from the neighbors. A lady who sells fresh-squeezed juice in the park gives us orange rinds, which compost quickly in Cochabamba.  

Cities have abundant organic matter, partly from urban gardens, but mainly pulled in from the countryside. With a little creativity, you can grow your own healthy food in the city at low cost, without the need for chemical fertilizer.

Related blog stories

Smelling is believing

Trash to treasure

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

On using wood shavings to raise chickens near the city:

Working together for healthy chicks and

Making a business from home raised chicks

Further reading

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

Make luffa, not plastic April 19th, 2020 by

During the Second World War, cut off from many supplies, the USA looked to the laboratory for help. Large teams of chemists were specifically engaged in the war effort, explains historian Daniel Immerwahr in his 2019 book How to Hide an Empire. Agricultural products like rubber were replaced by a synthetic made from petroleum. Nylon and rayon substituted for silk. Fiberglass was born, along with plywood, and many plastic synthetics.

Plastic sponges invaded our homes, replacing their natural originals, which came from the sea. But, as we will see below, there is also a vegetable sponge.

My family has always washed the dishes with plastic sponges. Then last year we grew weary of having to frequently replace the plastic sponges, because they retained food bits which rotted and gave off a bacterial stench. Then we started to feel bad about throwing away so many sponges. Once discarded, they never decay, and we were fueling demand for plastic from polluting factories.

You can’t stop using something unless you have an alternative. Older people in Cochabamba remember how their parents would keep a luffa plant, whose fruits can be used as kitchen sponges. The luffa is a member of the squash family; it grows on a vine and looks a bit like a big cucumber when it is green.

When Ana decided that we had to grow luffa to replace the plastic sponges, our first problem was getting the seed. The plant is no longer popular, but fortunately a neighbor was one of the last people in the city still growing luffas. They grow vigorously and when their vine grew over the garden wall and into the street, we waited for the fruit to dry and when no one was looking, we plucked it off. We were on our way to growing luffa.

The luffa has a strange way of spreading its seed. The tip of the hanging fruit is covered with a little cap, which pops off when the shell dries and the seed is ready. Then as the luffa sways in the breeze, still swinging on the vine, it spills its seed on the ground.

The luffa plant needs little care, just a structure to climb on. We have yet to find any pests or diseases on this beautiful plant. Its big, yellow flowers attract bumblebees, and the plant climbs the walls like ivy, taking up little space on the ground.

After the fruit dries, Ana simply breaks off the crunchy, papery skin revealing a clean, dry vegetable sponge. Knock out any remaining seeds and the luffa is ready to use. It is the perfect size and shape to wash out a drinking glass. You can also scrub up in the shower with a luffa. You can use the luffa whole or cut it into pieces. The sponge is full of holes, so it stays clean and odor-free for weeks. When you replace your luffa sponge with a new one, you can toss the old one into the compost pit.

The luffa loves warm weather. If you can’t grow luffa yourself you can always buy it. Say farewell to those synthetic plastic sponges and welcome back their natural alternatives, straight from the garden.

Further reading

Immerwahr, Daniel 2019 How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States. London: Bodley Head. 516 pp.

Scientific names

The luffa (or loofah) belongs to the cucurbit family, along with watermelon and pumpkin. There are two species, Luffa cylindrica, also called Luffa aegyptica, and Luffa acutangula.

Spanish mulch September 22nd, 2019 by

Linguists will tell you that each language arranges the world differently. No two languages classify objects, activities or emotions in the same way. This is especially true of the words used in farming.

I was reminded of this recently when translating a video script from English to Spanish. The video, from northern India, forced me to grapple with “mulch”, an English word that is also widely used in Spanish, in real life and on the Internet.  Yet the world’s authority on the Spanish language, the Real Academia Española, does not include “mulch” in its magnificent dictionary, the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española.

It is odd that “mulch” is a new word in Spanish, when it is an old word in English. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mulch as a “Partly rotted plant material, etc.; (Horticulture) loose material consisting of straw, decaying leaves, shredded cuttings and bark etc., spread on soil or around or over a plant to provide insulation, protect from desiccation and deter weeds.” “Mulch” comes from a Middle English word, “molsh” or “mulsh” and has been in the language at least since 1440, and possibly much earlier.

I had my doubt about using “mulch” in Spanish. Various on-line dictionaries suggest “mantillo”, literally “little blanket” instead. But a web search of mantillo usually shows commercial bags of chipped bark used for landscaping and suppressing weeds. Not quite the same as the straw, leaves and husks that farmers have on hand.

I wrote to three agronomists I respect, native Spanish speakers who work closely with farmers. They confirmed that “mulch” was the word to use in Spanish. But one offered a little twist: if the video from northern India was being translated into Quechua, we could say “sach’a wanu.” Now there is a term to savor. “Wanu” means dropping, and is the source of the English word “guano,” meaning bird dung. In Quechua, “wallp’a wanu” is chicken dung, “llama wanu” is llama dung, and “sach’a wanu” is forest mulch, or the fallen leaves of trees.

I was back where I started. So, I decided to use “mulch” in the script, although at the first mention I did offer the alternative “mantillo.”

While languages describe the world in different ways, they also level those differences as they aggressively borrow words from each other, for example “silo”, “lasso”, and “stevedore.” These are all recent loanwords from Spanish to English. New words take time to be defined in dictionaries, which cautiously avoid including fad words that may fade away before really entering the language. But one day “mulch” will be included in the Diccionario de la Real Academia, joining “whisky,” “sandwich,” and other recent English loan words that have enriched the Spanish language.

Watch the video

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Roundup: ready to move on? August 25th, 2019 by

At our local garden shop, in northeast Belgium, I recently overheard a conversation between the shopkeeper and a young customer, who asked about Roundup®. Since glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide, was banned in Belgium for home use (see note below), a new glyphosate-free Roundup is now aggressively promoted in garden centres. The original Roundup can only be used for professional farming, so the shopkeeper told the customer that her husband is continuously asked to go and spray people’s ornamental home gardens. Even chemical habits can be hard to kick.

When it is my turn at the counter (I am looking for organic chicken feed), I tell the shopkeeper that I just returned from an international conference where American professors revealed how various ingredients of Roundup can be related to male infertility, cancer, Alzheimer and at least 40 other human diseases. She took in the information without being shocked and countered that many people have since resorted to home-made remedies like vinegar to kill weeds, which she preposterously claimed did much more harm to the soil than commercial products. Apparently, the people who sell chemicals, even at the retail level, can become jaded about their dangers.

Both in developed and developing countries, very few people think it necessary to protect themselves when spraying pesticides. People either cannot read, fail to make the effort to read the label or ignore the risks.

While debates on cause-effect relationship can last for decades (the tobacco lobby successfully denied the carcinogenic effects of tobacco for decades, knowing all the while that smoking was a killer), the scientific presentations at the international conference I attended also revealed the shortcomings of official systems that have been put in place to protect our public health. For one, toxicity trials before new products are released only look at short-time effects, whereas diseases of mice (and humans) often show symptoms after years of chronic exposure, as the toxins build up in the body. Equally important, official tests are only done on the active ingredient, not on the full product as it is sold and used.

Protected by intellectual property rights, companies are not obliged to reveal and list the ingredients of the inert material that makes up the bulk of herbicides and pesticides. Laboratory tests showed that one of the ingredients in Roundup is arsenic, which is at least 1000 times more toxic than glyphosate in itself. In short, the glyphosate-free Roundup is still as toxic as before, only it does not show in official tests.

The sad irony is that while the owner of the garden shop is busy spraying people’s gardens with Roundup, the government of Belgium spent millions of Euros to protect those same people, by cleaning the soil from the arsenic factory in Reppel, which was closed in 1971. Although scientific evidence was available that the soil and groundwater were heavily polluted with arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals, it took more than 30 years before the site was cleaned up, and apparently more work is still required.

Environmental damage, including pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss are hard to measure in simple economic terms. As Jeff mentioned in last week’s blog, environmental costs are often seen as “externalities” and not considered when calculating the cost:benefit of farms. This has given conventional farming an unfair advantage over organic or agroecological farming.

Although the narrow focus on a single active ingredient, such as glyphosate, may have been good to trigger a public debate around food safety and the danger of corporate interests in our food system, a more holistic approach to crop protection and food production is required that takes into account these externalities.

Managing weeds is a key challenge for farmers across the globe. While mulching, crop rotation, intercropping and green manures are all options, additional weeding may be required—often by appropriate, small machines. Alternatives to herbicides do exist. For commercial (conventional and organic) farmers affordable mechanical weeding technologies, based on precision technology, would make a huge difference.

For instance, the food processing industry has benefitted a lot from optic food sorting machines. In a fraction of a second, a stone the size of a pea can be removed from millions of peas. With a simple mobile app called PlantNet I can take a photo of any plant which immediately tells me what plant it is, even if I only have the leaves at hand and the plant is not yet flowering.

Despite what the industry wants to make us believe, farmers do not need herbicides. If countries are serious about public health, more research is needed to support non-chemical food production. Agricultural robots are getting better. In the near future it would be possible to engineer a wheeled robot that could systematically drive over a field, scanning for weeds, and eliminating them mechanically, even within crop rows.

If governments would invest more in alternatives to chemical agriculture and organise nation-wide campaigns (as they have done for decades to inform people of other health risks, such as smoking, and drinking and driving), farmers, gardeners and shopkeepers (like the lady near my village) would become more aware of the dangers of herbicides and more open to promoting and using alternatives.

As I walked out of the village garden shop without my organic chicken feed (she did not have it in stock for lack of demand), I realized that shopkeepers are happy to sell what people ask for, if enough people ask for it. I hope one day to go back and find them selling better tools for controlling weeds.

Further reading

Defarge, N., Spiroux de VendĂ´mois, J. and SĂ©ralini, G.E. 2018. Toxicity of formulants and heavy metals in glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides. Toxicology Reports 5, 156-163.

First International Conference on Agroecology Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa: Reducing Synthetic Pesticides and Fertilizers by Scaling up Agroecology and Promoting Ecological Organic Trade. 2019, Nairobi, Kenya. https://www.worldfoodpreservationcenterpesticidecongress.com/

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

Related videos

Effective weed management in rice

Rotary weeder

Over 140 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

Related blogs

From uniformity to diversity

Stop erosion

What counts in agroecology

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