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Poisoning our friends October 20th, 2019 by

Except for entomologists, no one knows more about insects than farmers. Wherever researchers have bothered to talk to smallholders about insects, whether in Honduras, Nepal, or among the Dogon of Mali, or the KayapĂł of the Brazilian rainforest, we see that rural people know the names of hundreds of insects and spiders. This is especially true of critters that are conspicuous (such as the big ones that are active during the day) or those that make themselves important, e.g. by eating crops.  

However, a recent, quantitative global literature review by Kris Wyckhuys and colleagues confirms that farmers know little about beneficial insects, especially in industrialized countries. As we saw in this blog last week, it is fairly easy to notice toads and other relatively large animals eating insect pests. Many farmers know that birds, frogs and cats are natural enemies of pests. Yet Wyckhuys found that worldwide, farmers mention on average only 0.9 insects or spiders that help to control insect pests.

Farmers can have sophisticated knowledge of certain, individual insect species. For example, Paul Van Mele and colleagues have described Vietnamese farmers who used weaver ants to control pests in fruit orchards. Such cases are, however, disappointingly rare. Weaver ants are big, diurnal, and easy to spot in their treehouse nests sewn together from leaves. Farmers were also motivated to watch weaver ants because they prey on insects like fruit flies in high-value orchards.  Most other natural enemies of insect pests, “farmers’ friends” go unnoticed. Hardly any rural people know about other common natural enemies of pests, such as parasitic wasps, insect-eating fungi and nematodes.

Farmers tend to use more pesticides in cash crops, and know fewer natural enemies for these crops, than in food staples. The use of pesticides is growing worldwide, while the pest problems are as bad as ever. Farmers are born experimenters, but to find alternative to pesticides, they need to know more about the natural enemies of insect pests.

Wyckhuys suggests that some of the world’s half trillion-dollar subsidies for agriculture could be devoted to agro-ecological education. Farmers will never find alternatives to pesticides unless they understand that most insects are beneficial. As farmers use insecticides to kill pests, they unwittingly poison their friends, the insects that eat and kill those pests.

Further reading

Van Mele, P 2008 “The importance of ecological and socio-technological literacy in R&D priority setting: the case of a fruit innovation system in Guinea, West Africa.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 6: 183–94.

Wyckhuys, K.A.G., K.L. Heong, F. Sanchez-Bayo, F.J.J.A. Bianchi, J.G. Lundgren and J.W. Bentley 2019 “Ecological Illiteracy Can Deepen Farmers’ Pesticide Dependency.” Environmental Research Letters 14: 093004

Related videos

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

The wasp that protects our crops

Killing fall armyworms naturally

See also the many other farmer learning videos about Integrated Pest Management on www.accessagriculture.org.

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Toads for watermelon October 13th, 2019 by

The south coast of Jamaica is just right for growing watermelon, where I recently saw the fruit stacked under the shade trees in front of comfortable farm houses. Farmers can earn a tidy living from selling melons on the local market and to the hotels and resorts.

But the trick is to get enough water. In the dry season, a tanker truck will deliver 1000 gallons (almost 4,000 liters) for $50. Most of the farmers economize on water by using drip irrigation. For many years, farmers have saved on water by using mulch, made from the light-weight Guinea grass.

Professional crews cut and dry the grass, which is grown in small fields scattered among the patches of watermelon.  The grass crews lay out a neat carpet of mulch, which not only keeps the soil moist, but also suppresses weeds, and creates a soft, clean bed for the fruit to grow, so it develops an attractive, green rind all the way around the fruit. After harvest, the grass decomposes, enriching the soil with organic matter.

I learned about this while visiting Jamaican farmer Junior Dyer, with a group of colleagues. We asked when Junior watered his plants. He said at 9 or 10 AM. “I never water at night,” Junior explained, because if he does that frogs and toads come into the field to eat the insect pests, but then the amphibians stay for the night, digging holes into the moist soil and disturbing the roots. The frogs and toads still come and eat the insect pests when watering is done in the morning, but then they bed down on the edge of the field.

Junior also showed me some of his 13 beehives, which he moves around to pollinate his melons, cantaloupe and cucumbers. I asked Junior if he used insecticides to control major insect pests such as whiteflies, thrips and especially aphids, which transmit disease (like watermelon mosaic virus). He admitted, a bit reluctantly, that he did use insecticides. I asked how he managed that without killing his bees. Junior replied that he looks for insecticide labelled as bee-friendly. In truth, insecticides are never good for bees, but some are less toxic than others.

Junior’s extension agent, Jermaine Wilson, said that Junior belongs to a farmers’ group, but that the farmers had already observed on their own that toads and frogs are beneficial creatures. Farmers see them eating insects. Beneficial amphibians are an example of how valuable local knowledge often develops around a topic that is culturally important (like watermelon pests) and easy to observe (like toads eating bugs). I found it encouraging that Junior appreciated the frogs and toads, even though they tend to eat larger insects rather than the really small ones that are the main pests in Jamaican watermelon.

I admired the efficient system the Jamaicans have for producing watermelon, even though they still largely rely on insecticides, with little organic production. But the Jamaican farmers are moving in the right direction by encouraging frogs and toads, and beekeeping will certainly motivate them to further reduce insecticides. Watermelons are a fairly sustainable, commercial crop from family farms. The bees pollinate the melon flowers, and the fruit grows nestled in a bed of mulch, precision-watered with drip irrigation. It’s a nice blend of appropriate technology and local knowledge, with frogs and toads contributing along the way.

Acknowledgements

RADA (Rural Agricultural Development Authority) graciously hosted my visit to Saint Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, as part of the 10th Annual Meeting of GFRAS (Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services).

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Two heads film better than one September 15th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

I used to think that committees and group work killed creativity, but teamwork can help individuals produce things – like a cool video – that they couldn’t do by themselves.

Late last year, I was part of a team making a video in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, along with Paul (the director), Marcella (the cameraperson) and Milton Villca. Milton is an agronomist who grew up in a village on the windswept plains where we were filming. He still lives in the area, helping local farmers to cope with challenges, especially the immense loss of soil caused by wind erosion.

After watching Marcella film for two days, Milton confided that he had tried making his own video, about a wasp that attacks and helps to control some of the caterpillar pests of the quinoa crop. But like the farmers, Milton had also struggled with the wind, losing two cameras because of damage by the fine sand. He’d continued filming the wasps with his cell phone, but he told Marcella he wasn’t sure about the quality of the images. Would she mind taking a look at them?

Marcella was happy to watch Milton’s video clips. All was fine. There were fabulous close ups of a wasp that digs a tunnel in the earth, hides it with grains of sand, finds a big, fat caterpillar, paralyzes it, and drags it back to the burrow, which the wasp is miraculously able to find, with the precision of a GPS. The video clips showed how the wasp uncovers the nest, inserts the unfortunate caterpillar, and lays an egg on it. A wasp grub hatches from the egg, eats the caterpillar and eventually emerges in the summer as an adult wasp.

Paul was immediately taken by the story of the wasp, which locals call nina nina. In our interviews with farmers for a video on windbreaks he decided to also ask them what they knew about the wasp. Unlike many parasitic wasps, which are too small to see clearly with the naked eye, the nina nina is pretty big, and local people know about it and can describe its ecology.

Asking a professional cameraperson to critique your videos can be daunting, but Milton no doubt sensed that Marcella would give him sympathetic and positive criticism. His risk paid off. We collaborated with Milton to write a script for his video. Marcella edited his clips and combined them into a short video, which we are proud to release this week.

Watch the video

The wasp that protects our crops

Related video

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

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Acknowledgements

Milton Villca works for the Proinpa Foundation. Our work was generously supported by the CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program) of the McKnight Foundation.

DOS CABEZAS FILMAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de septiembre del 2019

Yo solĂ­a pensar que los comitĂ©s y el trabajo en grupo mataban la creatividad, pero el trabajo en equipo puede ayudar a los individuos a producir cosas – como un video genial – que no podrĂ­an hacerse por sĂ­ mismos.

A finales del año pasado, formé parte de un equipo que hacía un video en el Altiplano sur de Bolivia, junto con Paul (el director), Marcella (la camarógrafa) y Milton Villca. Milton es un técnico agrónomo de un pueblo del altiplánico ventoso donde filmábamos. Él todavía vive en la zona, ayudando a los agricultores locales a manejar sus desafíos, especialmente a la inmensa pérdida de suelo causada por la erosión del viento.

Después de ver a Marcella filmar durante dos días, Milton confió que él había intentado hacer su propio video, sobre una avispa que ataca y ayuda a controlar algunos de los gusanos plagas del cultivo de la quinua. Pero al igual que los agricultores, Milton también había luchado contra el viento, perdiendo dos cámaras debido a los daños causados por la arena fina. Había seguido filmando las avispas con su celular, pero le dijo a Marcella que no estaba seguro de la calidad de las imágenes. ¿Ella estaría dispuesta a verlas?

A Marcella le encantaron los videos de Milton. Hubo excelentes primeros planos de una avispa que excava un tĂşnel en la tierra, lo esconde con granos de arena, encuentra una oruga grande y gorda, la paraliza y la arrastra hasta el tĂşnel del nido, que la avispa milagrosamente logra encontrar, como si tuviera un GPS. Los videos muestran cĂłmo la avispa descubre el nido, inserta al desafortunado gusano y pone un huevo en Ă©l. Luego, la crĂ­a de la avispa sale del huevo, se come al gusano y eventualmente emerge como una avispa adulta en el verano.

A Paul le cautivó inmediatamente la historia de la avispa, a la que la gente local llama nina nina. En nuestras entrevistas con los agricultores para un video sobre las barreras vivas, decidió también preguntarles lo que sabían sobre las avispas. A diferencia de muchas avispas parásitas, que son demasiado pequeñas para ver claramente a simple vista, la nina nina es bastante grande, y la gente local sabe de ella y puede describir su ecología.

Pedirle a un camarĂłgrafo profesional que critique sus videos puede ser desalentador, pero Milton sin duda sintiĂł que Marcella le darĂ­a una crĂ­tica positiva, con empatĂ­a. Su riesgo valiĂł la pena. Colaboramos con Milton para escribir un guion para su vĂ­deo. Marcella editĂł sus clips y los combinĂł en un video corto, que estamos orgullosos de lanzar esta semana.

Ver el video

La avispa que protege nuestros cultivos

VĂ­deo relacionado

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Historias de blogs relacionadas

RecuperaciĂłn lenta

Despertando las semillas

Organic agriculture and mice

Agradecimientos

Milton Villca trabaja para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Nuestro trabajo fue generosamente apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn sobre Cultivos) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable September 8th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Of well over 4000 potato varieties, the great majority only grow in the Andes, a cordillera of great heights (with farming up to 4500 meters above sea level) and tropical latitudes (with little variation in daylight hours between summer and winter). Potato varieties adapted to these special conditions can rarely survive outside the Andes.

The native varieties are endangered, and if they disappear, they will take with them the genes that breeders need to create the varieties adapted to a changing world.

But the Andean farmers fear the extinction of native potatoes for other reasons. Near Cusco, Santiago Huarhua and Ernestina Huallpayunca, with their children, tell us that native potatoes are much nicer to eat than the modern varieties. The native potatoes are of many colors, even red and blue. They are floury and tasty. Don Santiago and doña Ernestina produce them only with natural fertilizer, which they say helps to preserve the potato’s special flavor. The couple grows the potatoes on the high mountain slopes above their village, while the so-called improved potatoes are white and are produced with chemical fertilizer, on the valley bottom.

Even though the family preserves native potatoes, they grow more of the improved ones, because of market demand, to make fried potatoes and chips. The native potatoes tend to be smaller and too dry to fry, but perfect for boiling.

Don Santiago says that when he was a child, there were many native potato varieties, more than he can remember, but now there are only five. He shows us where he keeps his seed potato. He has three shelves, each about one by two meters, enough to plant about 1500 square meters of each variety; that makes one small plot for each kind of potato. The survival of these vulnerable varieties depends on a few kilos of seed, curated by relatively isolated households.

In recent years, Peruvians have started to appreciate these little gourmet potatoes, and buy them. This new demand for native potatoes helps to ensure their survival, but varieties are still being lost. Yet native potatoes do have one thing in their favor: farmers like them more than other varieties.  

A note on potato varieties

The International Potato Center curates 4354 native potato varieties. Genebank.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Ing. RaĂşl Ccanto, of the Grupo Yanapai, and to Ing. Willmer PĂ©rez and Ing. Andrea Prado, both of the International Potato Center (CIP). They are writing a video script about native potatoes. I have learned a lot from them in a week of sharing and writing.  Our script writing course was generously supported by The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

PAPAS NATIVAS, DELICIOSAS Y VULNERABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 8 de septiembre del 2019

De las mucho más de 4000 variedades de papa, la gran mayoría solo viven en los Andes, una cordillera con grandes alturas (con agricultura hasta 4500 msnm) y latitudes tropicales (con poca variación de horas luz entre invierno y verano). Las variedades adaptadas a estas condiciones especiales raras veces sobreviven en otros lugares.

Las variedades nativas están en peligro de extinción, y si se desaparecen, llevarán consigo los genes que los fitomejoradores necesitarán para crear variedades aptas a un mundo cambiante.

Pero los agricultores andinos temen la extinción de la papa nativa por otras razones. Cerca de Cusco, Santiago Huarhua y Ernestina Huallpayunca, con sus hijos, nos explican que las papas nativas son mucho más ricas que las mejoradas. Las nativas son de muchos colores, hasta rojo y azul. Son harinosas y sabrosas. Don Santiago y doña Ernestina las producen solo con abono natural, que según ellos ayuda a preservar su sabor especial. Las cultivan en las alturas, en los cerros arriba de su comunidad, mientras las papas mejoradas son blancas, y se producen con fertilizante químico, en el piso del valle.

A pesar de que la familia preserva papas nativas, más producen papas mejoradas, porque es lo que el mercado demanda, para hacer papa frita. Las papas nativas tienden a ser pequeñas y no muy buenas para freír, pero perfectas para sancochar.

Don Santiago nos cuenta que cuando era un niño, había muchas variedades nativas. No se acuerda cuántas, pero ahora solo quedan cinco. Nos muestra donde guarda su papa, para semilla. Tiene tres estantes, cada uno de un metro por dos, suficiente para sembrar 1500 metros cuadrados de cada variedad; es una parcela pequeña para cada clase de papa. La sobrevivencia de estas variedades vulnerables depende de unos cuantos kilos de semilla, custodiadas por familias relativamente aisladas.

El preservar a las papas nativas será una actividad social. Nadie lo puede hacer solo. El público tendrá que aprender a apreciar estas papitas gourmet, y comprarlas. Los agricultores tendrán que tener acceso a la semilla de otros lugares cuando su papa se degenera y hay que cambiarla.

En los últimos años, los consumidores peruanos han empezado a querer a esas pequeñas papas gourmet. Esta nueva demanda para la papa nativa ayuda a asegurar su sobrevivencia, pero se siguen perdiendo variedades. Sin embargo, la mejor ficha que tienen las papas nativas es que los mismos agricultores las prefieren a las otras variedades.

Una nota sobre las variedades de papa

El Centro Internacional de la Papa conserva 4354 variedades de papa nativa. Genebank

Agradecimientos Agradezco al Ing. RaĂşl Ccanto, del Grupo Yanapai, y al Ing. Willmer PĂ©rez y la Ing. Andrea Prado, ambos del Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP). Ellos están escribiendo un guion para un video sobre las papas nativas. En una semana de convivencia y redacciĂłn he aprendido bastante de ellos.  Nuestro curso de redacciĂłn de guiones recibiĂł el apoyo generoso del Programa Colaborativo de Investig

Stored crops of the Inka August 11th, 2019 by

Much of what ancient people leave behind is related to farming, as I was reminded on a recent trip to Inka Llajta, the largest Inka site in Bolivia, in Pocona, Cochabamba.

Little is known for sure about Inka Llajta, except that it was built on the far, southeast border of the Inka Empire, which they called Tawantinsuyu. The Inka were often at war, expanding into the territory of their neighbors, so it’s possible that the 30-hectare settlement was built as a garrison. Inka Llajta is built on the bottom of a steep cliff, on a bluff above the river. The spot would have been fairly easy to defend, while a waterfall on the site provided essential water.

Fortunately, the site has recently been cleared of much of its vegetation and it is now easier to see. Although I have been to Inka Llajta several times, thanks to the recent brush removal I was now able to see that ringing the front of the site is a row of storage pits.

Until a generation ago, potatoes were planted mostly in the rainy season. Now there is more irrigation and potatoes can be planted somewhere in Bolivia year-round. But until twenty or thirty years ago, some potatoes were stored in underground pits, where the tubers could be kept for six months or more.

I pointed out the row of pits to our guide, doña Berta, who is from one of the local communities. The pits were not on the tour. They had no sign to label and explain them. Humble agricultural features are easy to ignore.

“These were phinas,” I suggested, using the Quechua word I had learned for potato storage pits.

Doña Berta said that in Pocona, such pits are called “k’ayus,” but she immediately recognized them. “We used to make pits, put straw on the bottom, fill them with potatoes and cover them with earth,” she said, confirming that the pits were for potato storage. She added that the pits can also hold other roots and tubers, such as oca.

Inka Llajta is a grand site. It has one building that was 70 meters long, one of the largest roofed structures in the ancient Americas. But Tawantinsuyu lived by farming, and if we look close enough, we can still see where they kept their potato harvest, just a few steps from the fortified buildings, overlooking the valley below. 

When I first visited Inka Llajta 20 years ago it appeared much the way that the Inka had left it. Since then, the site has acquired a parking lot, a visitor’s center, and now you have to hire a guide (like the good-natured Berta, or one of her 16 colleagues, all from the local area). Inka Llajta is now full of signs offering information, including speculation about the site’s past.

One large block of rooms is labelled as an administrative area, while another was supposedly a “specialist’s area” where astronomers, agricultural specialists and builders gathered to organize their calendar based on the weather and the stars. The signs refer to another building as an aqllawasi, where girls of Tawantinsuyu were trained in weaving and brewing chicha, an alcoholic maize drink. In fact, these rooms could have been used for anything, and everything.

A natural boulder in the center of the large plaza is described as an “altar”, based on tales told by the hacienda workers to Erland Nordenskiöld, the Swedish ethnographer, in 1913.

A small tower near the edge of Inka Llajta has a view up the river, where a sentinel might have looked out for approaching enemies. But a sign says the tower was an astronomic observatory that the Inka used to gaze at the stars and decide when to plant. No explanation tells why being two meters closer to the heavens provides a better view for a stargazer.

As we have seen in earlier blogs, contemporary Andean peoples do look at the stars, but they also observe foxes, lizards, wild plants, cactus, clouds, mountains and use many other indicators to predict the year’s weather. A tower would have been of limited use.

Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies to interpret the past. The function of a structure or an artifact may be understood by comparing it to a similar item used by recent people. For example, it is reasonable to interpret the pits at Inka Llajta as places to store tubers, because rural people living near the site still kept potatoes and oca in similar holes until recently.

When archaeological sites are interpreted for the public, speculation can do more harm than good, fixing ideas in peoples’ minds that are hard to shift when new evidence emerges. As surely as an army marches on its stomach, in past civilizations agriculture made the world go around. Ancient peoples no doubt worshipped their gods and pondered the stars, but they also went about the mundane business of feeding themselves, and at archaeological sites you can still get a glimpse of how they produced and stored their food, if you keep your eyes open.

Further reading

Jesús Lara popularized Inka Llajta in newspaper stories after his 1927 visit. Lara’s description of the site is admirably free of speculation; he debunks the idea that the boulder on the site was an altar. His book can still be read with profit.

Lara, Jesús 1988 Inkallajta—Inkaraqay. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. 109 pp.

Previous blog stories

Forgetting Inca technology

Let nature guide you

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Scientific name

Oca is a native Andean tuber crop, Oxalis tuberosa

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