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The pleasure of bread April 26th, 2020 by

No matter what you do for a living, money is not the only reason to enjoy your work.

Years ago, I was enlisted into a team of economists in Portugal, who looked at the profitability of every crop in every “system” (such as maize for grain, versus maize for silage). In their view, if a crop was not profitable, farmers would not grow it. Fair enough, but one day the we got onto the topic of rye, then grown in small amounts in northwest Portugal.

“It’s not profitable,” the economists sneered, checking their numbers.

“But the farmers do grow it,” I said.

“Well, they won’t for long,” the economists shrugged. Obviously if the crops were at odds with the numbers, the farmers were wrong, and the models were right.

I tried to explain that rye was an important ingredient in sourdough bread. The economists dismissed this idea out of hand. No doubt they thought that farmers should grow more profitable crops, and buy their bread at the store.

But not all bread does come from the store. In Pedralva, Portugal, I rented a room from three elderly farmers, sisters who had never married. Like every other farm family in Pedralva, they made bread once a week in a wood-fired, stone oven. To start, they would get out their sourdough starter, a fermented loaf of dough. The raw loaf of dough houses a colony of wild yeast and bacteria, kept from one week to the next in the kitchen. The farmer-bakers would mix the starter with an enormous amount of maize flour, this being one of the few parts of Europe where people eat much maize bread. But maize flour needs gluten to hold the loaf together. So, the farmers would add a generous helping of rye flour and a little paper bag of white flour, the only store-bought ingredient in their bread.

They shaped the dough into some eight large loaves, each one bigger than a dinner plate. Seven of these would fill the oven, but one loaf of dough would be put into the flour box, to ferment for a week, to start the next week’s bread.

One day I was watching one of the three sisters make bread. She slipped the last loaf into the oven, and closed it with a hand-carved stone door. To seal the door, she took some dung (still warm from the cow) and, with a practiced finger, packed it into the space around the oven door, to keep in the heat.

Then she looked at me and, with a comic-dramatical air, explained that an oven was unlike a person, because it had “bread up its ass and shit in its mouth” (pão no cu e merda na boca). The dung was an option, by the way; some of the neighbors sealed their oven with a bit of raw bread dough. The bread was a bit sour, dense, slightly smokey, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside, and full of flavor.

These farmers obviously enjoyed making bread and eating it. At every meal they crumbled into soup, and held in the hand to scoop up the food and to soak up the sauce.

For such a satisfying bread, folks were willing to grow and mill their own rye flour.

Few pleasures compare with eating a perfect, homemade bread. While more people are enjoying baking bread at home, during this coronavirus crisis, other changes may also be taking place in society. Industrial farming has dominated our food systems over the past few decades, but there is a growing appreciation of the art of farming, gardening and bread-baking, suggesting that the value of food cannot be reduced to a mere money value.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1989 “Bread Forests and New Fields: The Ecology of Reforestation and Forest Clearing Among Small-Woodland Owners in Portugal.” Journal of Forest History 33(4):188-195.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Watch documentary: “Cereal – Renaissance in the field” (Duration: 25 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=FE23SDj19uU&feature

Friendly germs April 5th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

At a recent event in Cochabamba, just before Bolivia went into lockdown over coronavirus, I had a rare opportunity to see how to make products or inputs used in agroecological farming.

The organizers (the NGO AgroecologĂ­a y Fe) were well prepared. They had written recipes for the organic fertilizers and natural pesticides, an expert to explain what each product did and to show the practical steps. The materials for making the inputs were neatly laid out in a grassy meadow. We had plenty of space to build fires, mix materials such as cow dung with earth and water, and to stand and chat. Agronomist Freddy Vargas started by making bokashi, which extensionists have frequently demonstrated in Latin America for decades, especially among environmentally sensitive organizations.

Bokashi is sometimes described as fertilizer, but it is more than that; it is also a source of minerals and a culture of microorganisms. Freddy explained that for the past 25 years, ever since university, he has been making bokashi. He uses it on his own farm, and teaches it to farmers who want to bring their soil back to life.

Freddy mixes leaf litter and top soil from around the base of trees (known as sach’a wanu (“tree dung”) in Quechua. The tree dung contains naturally occurring bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter, add life to the soil and help control plant diseases. Freddy adds a few packets of bread yeast for good measure. As a growth medium for the microbes, he adds rice bran and rice husks, but any organic stuff would work. Next, raw sugar is dissolved in water, as food for the microorganisms. He also adds minerals: rock flour (ground stone) and “fosfito” (rock flour and bone flour, burned on a slow fire). The pile of ingredients is mixed with a shovel, made into a heap and covered with a plastic tarpaulin, to let it ferment. Every day or so it gets hot from fermentation, and has to be turned again. The bokashi will be ready in about two weeks, depending on the weather.

This elaborate procedure is why it has taken me some time to accept bokashi.  It seemed like so much work. Freddy explained that he adds bokashi to the surface of the soil on his farm, and over the years this has helped to improve the soil, to allow it to retain water. “We used to have to water our apple trees every two days, but now we only have to irrigate once a week,” he explained. His enthusiasm and clear evidence of benefits made me re-assess my previous skeptical view of bokashi.

Next, agronomist Basilio Caspa showed how to make biol, a liquid culture of friendly microbes. He mixed fresh cow dung, raw sugar and water with his hands, in a bucket, a demonstration that perplexes farmers. “How can an educated man like you mix cow dung with your hands?” But Basilio enjoys making things, and he is soon up to his elbows in the mixture before pouring it into a 200-liter barrel, and then filling it the rest of the way with water.

Basilio puts on a tight lid, to keep out the air, and installs a valve he bought for 2 pesos at the hardware store, to let out the methane that is released during the fermentation. The biol will be ready in about four weeks, to spray on crops as a fertilizer and to discourage disease (as the beneficial microorganisms control the pathogens).  Basilio has studied biol closely and wrote his thesis on it. He found that he could mix anything from half to two liters of biol into a 20 liter back pack sprayer. Higher concentrations worked best, but he always saw benefits whatever the dilution.

We also learned to brew a sulfur lime mix, an ancient pesticide. This is easy to make: sulfur and lime are simply boiled in water.

But do farmers actually use these products?

Then MarĂ­a Omonte, an agronomist with profound field experience, shared a doubt. With help from AgroecologĂ­a y Fe, she had taught farmers in Sik’imira, Cochabamba to make these inputs, and then helped the communities to try the inputs on their farms. “In Sik’imira, only one farmer had made bokashi, but many had made biol.” This seasoned group agreed. The farmers tended to accept biol more than bokashi, but they were even more interested in the brews that more closely resembled chemicals, such as sulfur lime, Bordeaux mix (a copper-based fungicide) and ash boiled with soap.

The group excitedly discussed the generally low adoption by farmers of these products. They suggested several reasons: first, the products with microbes are often made incorrectly, with poor results and so the farmers don’t want to make them again. Second, the farmers want immediate results, and when they don’t get them, they lose heart and abandon the idea. Besides, making biol and bokashi takes more time to prepare than agrochemicals, which is discouraging.

Bokashi and biol do improve the soil, otherwise, agronomists like Freddy would not keep using them on their own farms. But perhaps farmers demand inputs that are easier to use. The next step is to study which products farmers accept and which ones they reject. Why do they adopt some homemade inputs while resisting others? An agroecological technology, no matter how environmentally sound, still has to respond to users’ demands, for example, it must be low cost and easy to use. Formal studies will also help to show the benefits of minerals, microbes and organic matter on the soil’s structure and fertility.

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Acknowledgements

The event I attended was the Congress of the Regional Soils Platform in Cochabamba, organized by the NGO Agroecología y Fe. Thanks to María Omonte, Germán Vargas, Eric Boa, and Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.

MICROBIOS AMIGABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 5 de abril del 2020

En un reciente congreso en Cochabamba, justo antes de que Bolivia entrara en cuarentena por el corona virus, tuve la rara oportunidad, como parte de un grupo pequeño, de ver cómo hacer insumos o productos para la agricultura agroecológica.

Los organizadores (la ONG Agroecología y Fe) estaban bien preparados con recetas escritas para los abonos y plaguicidas naturales, con un experto para cada insumo para explicar qué hacía cada producto y para mostrar los pasos prácticos. También tenían sus materiales debidamente preparados de antemano.

En un campo de pasto, teníamos mucho espacio para hacer hogueras, mezclar materiales como estiércol de vaca con tierra y agua, y para observar y charlar. El Ing. Freddy Vargas comenzó haciendo bocashi, que los extensionistas han demostrado muchas veces en América Latina durante varias décadas, especialmente entre las organizaciones sensibles al medio ambiente.

El bocashi se describe a veces como fertilizante, pero en realidad es más que abono orgánico; es tambiĂ©n una fuente de minerales, y microorganismos para el suelo.  Freddy explicĂł que desde que Ă©l estuvo en la universidad, durante los Ăşltimos 25 años, ha estado fabricando bocashi. Lo usa en su propia finca, y lo enseña a los agricultores que quieren devolver la vida a su suelo.

Freddy mezcla la hojarasca y con tierra que recoge debajo de los árboles (conocido como sach’a wanu, en quechua, “estiĂ©rcol de árbol”). El estiĂ©rcol de árbol contiene bacterias y hongos naturales que descomponen la materia orgánica, dan vida al suelo, y controlan las enfermedades de las plantas. Freddy agrega unos cuantos paquetes de levadura de pan por si acaso. Pone salvado de arroz y cascarilla de arroz como un medio de cultivos, pero podrĂ­a usar cualquier cosa orgánica. TambiĂ©n pone minerales: harina de roca (piedra molida) y fosfito (harina de roca y harina de hueso, quemado a fuego lento). Él añade chancaca disuelta en agua, como alimento para los microbios, luego da vuelta a todos los ingredientes con una pala, y se cubre con una lona, para dejarla fermentar. Más o menos cada dĂ­a el bocashi se calienta por la fermentaciĂłn, y de nuevo hay que darle vuelta a la mezcla. El bocashi estarĂ­a listo en unas dos semanas, segĂşn la temperatura ambiental.

Es un procedimiento exigente, que parece mucho trabajo, pero Freddy explicĂł que Ă©l agrega bocashi a la superficie del suelo en su finca para liberar los microorganismos en la tierra. A lo largo de los años esto ha ayudado a mejorar el suelo, para que retenga más humedad. “Antes tenĂ­amos que regar nuestros manzanos cada dos dĂ­as, pero ahora sĂłlo tenemos que regar una vez a la semana”, explicĂł. Su entusiasmo y la clara evidencia de los beneficios me ayudĂł a reevaluar mi opiniĂłn escĂ©ptica del bocashi.

A continuaciĂłn, el Ing. Basilio Caspa mostrĂł cĂłmo hacer biol, un cultivo lĂ­quido de microbios amistosos. En un balde, mezclĂł estiĂ©rcol fresco de vaca, chancaca y agua, explicando que cuando muestra a los agricultores cĂłmo mezclar el biol, se oponen. “ÂżCĂłmo es que un hombre educado como tĂş puede mezclar estiĂ©rcol de vaca con sus manos?” Pero a Basilio le gusta hacer cosas con las manos, y pronto está hasta los codos en la mezcla, antes de echarla en un barril de 200 litros, y luego llenarlo el resto con agua.

Basilio pone una tapa hermĂ©tica al turril, para que no entre el aire, e instala una válvula que comprĂł por 2 pesos en la ferreterĂ­a para dejar salir el metano que el biol liberará al fermentar. En un mes, el biol estará listo para fumigar los cultivos como fertilizante foliar y para evitar las enfermedades (por que los microorganismos benĂ©ficos controlan a los patĂłgenos).  En realidad, Basilio escribiĂł su tesis sobre el biol. EncontrĂł que podĂ­a mezclar desde medio litro de biol hasta 2 litros en una bomba de mochila de 20 litros, y que entre más biol que pone, más fuertes son las plantas. En base a eso, Ă©l recomiendo poner dos litros de biol para arriba en una bomba de 20 litros.

También aprendimos a preparar una mezcla de azufre y cal (caldo sulfocálcico), un antiguo plaguicida. Es fácil hacerlo; se hierve cal y azufre en agua.

ÂżPero los agricultores realmente usan estos productos?

Entonces MarĂ­a Omonte, una ingeniera agrĂłnoma con profunda experiencia de campo, compartiĂł una duda. Con la ayuda de AgroecologĂ­a y Fe, ella habĂ­a enseñado a los agricultores de Sik’imira, Cochabamba, a fabricar estos insumos y luego ayudĂł a las comunidades a probar los insumos en sus fincas. “En Sik’imira, solo un agricultor ha hecho bocashi, pero muchos han hecho biol”. Este experimentado grupo estuvo de acuerdo; asĂ­ era. Los agricultores tendĂ­an a aceptar el biol, más que el bocashi, pero más que eso, están interesados en los caldos que parecen más a los quĂ­micos, como el caldo sulfocálcico, el caldo bordelĂ©s (un fungicida cĂşprico) y el caldo ceniza (ceniza hervida con jabĂłn).

El grupo discutió animadamente la poca adopción que en general hacen los productores de estos preparados. Decían que hay varias razones: una es que no siempre se hace correctamente los mezclados con microbios, y los resultados no son buenos y los productores no quieren hacerlos nuevamente. Otra razón es que los campesinos quieren resultados inmediatos, y al no ver esto desconfían y lo dejan. Además, hacer biol y bocashi requiere mayor tiempo y esfuerzo en su preparación que los agroquímicos y eso los desmotiva.

El bocashi y el biol sí mejoran el suelo, si no fuera así, ingenieros como Freddy no los seguirían usando en su propia finca. Pero tal vez los agricultores demandan insumos más fáciles de hacer. El siguiente paso es hacer un estudio más al fondo para averiguar qué insumos aceptan los agricultores y cuáles no. ¿Por qué adoptan algunos insumos caseros y se resisten a usar otros? Una tecnología agroecológica, por más sana que sea, todavía tiene que responder a las demandas de los usuarios, por ejemplo, de tener bajo costo y ser fácil de hacer. Este tema también merece estudios formales sobre los efectos de los minerales, materia orgánica y microbios a la fertilidad y estructura del suelo.

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Agradecimientos

El Congreso de la Plataforma Regional de Suelos en Cochabamba fue organizado por la ONG Agroecología y Fe. Gracias a María Omonte, Germán Vargas, Eric Boa, y Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa.

Strawberry fields once again March 15th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Like many Bolivians, Diego Ramírez never thought about remaining in the village where he was born, and starting a business on his family’s small farm. As a kid, he loved picking fruit on his grandparents’ small strawberry patch in the village of Ucuchi, and swimming with his friends in a pond fed with spring water, but he had to leave home at a young age to attend high school in the small city of Sacaba, and then he went on to study computer science at the university (UMSS) in the big city of Cochabamba, where he found work after graduation.

Years later, Diego’s dad called his seven children together to tell them that he was selling their grandparents’ farm. It made sense. The grandparents had died, and the land had been idle for about 15 years. Yet, it struck Diego as a tragedy, so he said “I’ll farm it.” Some people thought he was joking. In Ucuchi, people were leaving agriculture, not getting into it. Many had migrated to Bolivia’s eastern lowlands or to foreign countries, so many of the fields in Ucuchi were abandoned. It was not the sort of place that people like Diego normally return to.

When Diego decided to revive his family farm two years ago, he turned to the Internet for inspiration. Although strawberries have been grown for many years in Ucuchi, and they are a profitable crop around Cochabamba, Diego learned of a commercial strawberry farm in Santo Domingo, Santiago, in neighboring Chile, that gave advice and sold plants. Santo Domingo is 2450 km from Cochabamba, but Diego was so serious about strawberries that he went there over a weekend and brought back 500 strawberry plants. Crucially, he also learned about new technologies like drip irrigation, and planting in raised beds covered with plastic sheeting. Encouraged by his new knowledge, he found dealers in Cochabamba who sold drip irrigation equipment and he installed it, along with plastic mulch, a common method in modern strawberry production.

Diego was inclined towards producing strawberries agroecologically, so he contacted the Agrecol Andes Foundation which was then organizing an association of ecological farmers in Sacaba, the small city where Diego lives (half way between the farm and the big city of Cochabamba). In that way Diego became a certified ecological farmer under the SPG PAS (Participatory Guaranty System, Agroecological Farmers of Sacaba).  Diego learned to make his own biol (a fermented solution of cow dung that fertilizes the soil and adds beneficial microbes to it). Now he mixes biol into the drip irrigation tank, fertilizing the strawberries one drop at a time.

Diego also makes his own organic sprays, like sulfur-lime brew and Bordeaux mix. He applies these solutions every two weeks to control powdery mildew, a common fungal disease, thrips (a small insect pest), red mites, and damping off. I was impressed. A lot of people talk about organic sprays, but few make their own. “It’s not that hard,” Diego shrugged, when I asked him where he found the time.

Diego finds the time to do a lot of admirable things. He has a natural flair for marketing and has designed his own packing boxes of thin cardboard, which he had printed in La Paz. His customers receive their fruit in a handsome box, rather than in a plastic bag, where fruit is easily damaged. He sells direct to customers who come to his farm, and at agroecological fairs and in stores that sell ecological products.

Diego still does his day job in the city, while also being active in community politics in Ucuchi. He also tends a small field of potatoes and he is planting fruit trees and prickly pear on the rocky slopes above his strawberry field. Diego has also started a farmers’ association with his neighbors, ten men and ten women, including mature adults and young people who are still in university.

The association members grow various crops, not just strawberries. Diego is teaching them to grow strawberries organically and to use drip irrigation. To encourage people to use these methods he has created his own demonstration plots. He has divided his grandparents’ strawberry field into three areas: one with his modern system, one with local varieties grown the old way on bare soil, with flood irrigation, and a third part with modern varieties grown the old way. The modern varieties do poorly when grown the way that Diego’s grandparents used. And Diego says the old way is too much work, mainly because of the weeding, irrigation, pests and diseases.

Ucuchi is an attractive village in the hills, with electricity, running water, a primary school and a small hospital. It is just off the main highway between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, an hour from the city of Cochabamba where you can buy or sell almost anything. Partly because of these advantages, some young people are returning to Ucuchi. Organic strawberries are hard to grow, and rare in Bolivia. But a unique product, like organic strawberries, and inspired leadership can help to stem the flow of migration, while showing that there are ways for young people to start a viable business in the countryside. Diego clearly loves being back in his home village, stopping his pickup truck to chat with people passing by on the village lanes. He also brings his own family to the farm on weekends, where he has put a new tile roof on his grandparents’ old adobe farm house.

Agriculture is more than making a profit. It is also about family history, community, and finding work that is satisfying and creative.

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EN EL FRUTILLAR DE NUEVO

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de marzo del 2019

Como muchos bolivianos, Diego Ramírez nunca pensó en quedarse en la comunidad donde nació, y empezar un emprendimiento agrícola en las pequeñas chacras de su familia. Diego cuenta que de niño le encantaba recoger fruta en la pequeña parcela de frutillas de sus abuelos en la comunidad de Ucuchi, y nadar con sus amigos en una poza de riego, llena de agua de manantial, pero de joven tuvo que vivir en la ciudad pequeña de Sacaba para estudiar en colegio. Luego se fue a estudiar a la Universidad UMSS, la carrera de ingeniería de sistemas. Culminado los estudios, empezó a trabajar en la ciudad de Cochabamba.

Años más tarde, el padre de Diego llamĂł a sus siete hijos para decirles que estaba vendiendo el terreno de sus abuelos. TenĂ­a sentido. Los abuelos habĂ­an fallecido, y nadie habĂ­a trabajado la tierra durante unos 15 años. Sin embargo, a Diego le pareciĂł una tragedia, asĂ­ que dijo: “Yo la voy a trabajar”. Algunos pensaron que era un chiste. En Ucuchi, la gente estaba en plan de dejar la agricultura, no meterse en ella. PreferĂ­an emigrar al Oriente de Bolivia y muchos se habĂ­an ido del paĂ­s. Por esta razĂłn muchas de las parcelas están abandonadas. No es el tipo de lugar al que la gente como Diego normalmente regresa.

Cuando Diego decidió revivir su finca familiar ya hace dos años, buscó inspiración en el Internet. Aunque la frutilla es un cultivo ancestral de la comunidad de Ucuchi y muy rentable en Cochabamba, Diego se enteró de una empresa productora de frutillas en Santo Domingo, Santiago, en el vecino país de Chile, que daba consejos y vendía plantas. Santo Domingo está a 2450 km de Cochabamba, pero Diego se tomó tan en serio las frutillas que fue allí un fin de semana y trajo 500 plantas de frutillas. Crucialmente, también aprendió sobre el cultivo tecnificado de frutillas, aplicando el riego por goteo y plantado en camas tapadas con plástico. Movido por sus nuevos conocimientos, buscó distribuidores en Cochabamba que vendían equipos de riego por goteo y los instaló, junto con el mulch plástico, un método común en la producción moderna de fresas.

Diego se inclinó más en la producción agroecológica para producir frutillas, así que se contactó con la Fundación Agrecol Andes que estaba organizando una asociación de productores ecológicos en Sacaba, la pequeña ciudad donde Diego vive, a medio camino entre su terreno y la ciudad grande de Cochabamba. Diego ya tiene certificación de productor ecológico con SPG PAS (Sistema Participativo de Garantía Productores Agroecológicos Sacaba), Diego aprendió a hacer su propio biol (una solución fermentada de estiércol de vaca que fertiliza el suelo mientras añade microbios buenos). Ahora mezcla el biol en el tanque de riego por goteo, fertilizando las frutillas una gota a la vez.

Diego tambiĂ©n hace sus propias soluciones orgánicas, como el sulfocálcico y el caldo bordelĂ©s. Fumiga estas preparaciones cada dos semanas para controlar el oĂ­dium, los thrips (un pequeño insecto), la arañuela roja, y la pudriciĂłn de cuello. Me impresionĂł. Mucha gente habla de aplicaciones orgánicos, pero pocos hacen las suyas. “No es tan difĂ­cil”, Diego dijo cuando le preguntĂ© de dĂłnde hallaba el tiempo.

Diego encuentra tiempo para hacer muchas cosas admirables. Tiene un talento natural para el marketing y ha diseñado sus propias cajas de cartón delgado, que ha hecho imprimir en La Paz. Sus clientes reciben la fruta en una bonita caja, en lugar de en una bolsa de plástico, donde la fruta se daña fácilmente. Vende directamente a los clientes que vienen a la misma parcela, en las ferias agroecológicas y en tiendas que comercializan productos ecológicos.

Diego todavía hace su trabajo normal en la ciudad, mientras que también tiene una cartera en la comunidad de Ucuchi. También cultiva una pequeña chacra de papas y está plantando árboles frutales y tunas en las laderas pedregosas arriba de su frutillar. Diego también ha iniciado una asociación de agricultores con sus vecinos, diez hombres y diez mujeres, incluidos adultos mayores y jóvenes que todavía están en la universidad.

Los miembros de la asociación cultivan diversos cultivos, no sólo frutillas. Diego les enseña a cultivar frutillas orgánicamente y a usar el riego por goteo. Para animar a la gente a usar estos métodos, ha creado sus propias parcelas de demostración. Ha dividido el frutillar de sus abuelos en tres áreas: una con su sistema moderno, tecnificado, otra con variedades locales cultivadas al estilo antiguo en suelo desnudo, con riego por inundación, y una tercera parte con variedades modernas cultivadas a la manera antigua. Las variedades modernas no rinden bien cuando se cultivan al estilo de los abuelos. Y Diego dice que la forma antigua es mucho trabajo, principalmente por el desmalezado, el riego y las enfermedades además de las plagas.

Ucuchi es una atractiva comunidad en las faldas del cerro, con electricidad, agua potable, una escuela primaria y un pequeño hospital. Está justo al lado de la carretera principal a Santa Cruz, a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba donde se puede comprar o vender casi cualquier cosa. En parte por estas ventajas, algunos jóvenes se están volviendo a la comunidad de Ucuchi. Las frutillas orgánicas son difíciles de cultivar, y son raras en Bolivia. Pero un producto único, como las frutillas orgánicas, y un liderazgo inspirado pueden ayudar a frenar el flujo de la migración, al mismo tiempo de mostrar que hay maneras viables para que los jóvenes empiecen con un emprendimiento personal en el campo. A Diego le encanta estar de vuelta en su comunidad: para su camioneta para charlar con la gente que pasa por los caminos del pueblo. También trae a su propia familia a la finca los fines de semana, donde ha puesto un nuevo techo de tejas en la vieja casa de adobe de sus abuelos.

La agricultura es más que la búsqueda de lucro. También se trata de la tradición familiar, la comunidad y de sentirse realizado con un trabajo satisfactorio y creativo.

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A common ground March 8th, 2020 by

Farmers need new ideas, and researchers need data. When these two professional groups meet in the framework of collaborative or participatory research, it is often not clear who has to evolve in what direction: do farmers need to learn about research protocols, systematically collecting and analysing data, or do researchers need new ideas from farmers to guide their research agenda?

When grantees of the McKnight Foundation from West Africa recently met in Montpellier, France, at a Community of Practice (COP) meeting to share experiences, it was refreshing to see how this network has over time taken ownership of some key values on doing research with farmers on agroecology, as a way to move towards a more just and equitable food system with care for the people and the planet.

Out of the more than 60 people from farmer organisations, NGOs, research institutes and universities from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, I was glad to run into some old friends. Ali Maman Aminou is a farmer and director of the federation of farmer unions in Maradi (FUMA Gaskiya), one of the main farmer organisations in Niger.

In 2011, Aminou was one of the twelve people we trained during a 2-week intensive workshop on making quality farmer-to-farmer training videos. Ever since, Aminou has been using video in his interactions with the growing number of members, now some 18,000. The series of 10 videos on integrated striga and soil fertility management that were developed with ICRISAT and its partners were all translated into Hausa, which made it an ideal tool to trigger lively discussions with farming communities. Striga is a parasitic weed that attaches its roots to the roots of cereal crops, as such depriving the crop from the water and nutrients it needs.

“During one of the evenings that we showed the videos,” Aminou says, “one of the farmers spoke out and told he liked the videos, but that they had another technology to fight striga that was also efficient.” Aminou listened intently as the man went on to explain that farmers mix their millet seed with the powdery substance found around the seeds of the néré, a common tree across West Africa. When farmers sow millet, the néré powder apparently inhibits the striga seeds in the soil from germinating.

“This is amazing,” I told Aminou. “It would be great if you could turn this into a training video.” At that stage, it became apparent how much farmers and researchers had already begun to interact as equal players. Aminou swiftly turned to Salifou Nouhou Jangorzo, a lecturer from the University of Maradi in Niger, who had joined our discussion and said: “We need to find out more about this practice. We need all the details of how farmers do this.” Professor Salifou looked surprised at first; he had never heard of this practice before, but after 5 minutes of discussing with Aminou he was convinced. It turns out that he is planning a survey on a labour-saving weeding technology and so he decided on the spot that he would add some questions about managing striga with néré to his survey.

Farmer-to-farmer training videos, like the ones in the striga series, trigger farmers to experiment with new ideas. They also give farmers confidence to openly share their real-life experiences, knowledge and practices. Through a functional network these ideas can find their way back to researchers. In a progressive and collaborative research network, communication is not an end-product in itself, as Aminou has shown, but it feeds into a life of learning to make agriculture more resilient, profitable and responsive to farmers’ needs.

Finding a common ground between researchers and farmers does not happen overnight, it needs a concerted and long-term effort.

Note

The scientific name of the néré tree is Parkia biglobosa, also known as the African locust bean.

Acknowledgement

We greatly appreciate the endeavours and commitment of the Collaborative Crop Research Programme (CCRP) supported by the McKnight Foundation.

Farmer training videos

The videos on striga and on more than 200 other topics are freely downloadable from the Access Agriculture video platform www.accessagriculture.org

Related blogs

Social innovations triggered by videos: Evidence from Mali

Fighting striga and improving soil fertility with videos in Mali

Killing the vampire flower

Version française

Un terrain d’entente

Les agriculteurs ont besoin de nouvelles idĂ©es et les chercheurs ont besoin de donnĂ©es. Lorsque ces deux groupes professionnels se rencontrent dans le cadre d’une recherche collaborative ou participative, il est souvent difficile de savoir qui doit Ă©voluer dans quelle direction : les agriculteurs ont-ils besoin de connaĂ®tre les protocoles de recherche, de collecter et d’analyser systĂ©matiquement les donnĂ©es, ou les chercheurs ont-ils besoin de nouvelles idĂ©es de la part des agriculteurs pour orienter leur programme de recherche ?

Lorsque les projets financĂ©s par la Fondation McKnight en Afrique de l’Ouest se sont rĂ©cemment rencontrĂ©s Ă  Montpellier, en France, lors de la rĂ©union de comitĂ© de pratique (CoP) pour un Ă©change d’expĂ©riences, il Ă©tait intĂ©ressant de voir comment ce rĂ©seau s’est appropriĂ©, au fil du temps, certaines valeurs clĂ©s sur la recherche avec les agriculteurs en matière d’agroĂ©cologie comme moyen d’Ă©voluer vers un système alimentaire plus juste et plus Ă©quitable, soucieux des populations et de la planète.

Sur plus de 60 personnes issues d’organisations de producteurs, d’ONG, d’instituts de recherche et d’universitĂ©s du Mali, du Burkina Faso et du Niger, j’ai Ă©tĂ© heureux de rencontrer de vieux amis. Ali Maman Aminou est agriculteur et directeur de la fĂ©dĂ©ration des unions de producteurs de Maradi (FUMA Gaskiya), l’une des principales organisations paysannes du Niger.

En 2011, Aminou Ă©tait parmi les douze personnes que nous avons formĂ©es lors d’un atelier intensif de deux semaines sur la rĂ©alisation de vidĂ©os de formation de qualitĂ© paysan Ă  paysan. Depuis, Aminou utilise les vidĂ©os dans ses interactions avec le nombre croissant de membres de l’organisation, qui s’Ă©lève aujourd’hui Ă  environ 18 000 personnes. La sĂ©rie de 10 vidĂ©os sur la gestion intĂ©grĂ©e du striga et de la fertilitĂ© des sols, dĂ©veloppĂ©e avec l’ICRISAT et ses partenaires, a Ă©tĂ© traduite en Haoussa, ce qui rend l’outil idĂ©al pour susciter de vives discussions avec les communautĂ©s agricoles. Le striga est une mauvaise herbe parasite qui attache ses racines aux racines des cultures cĂ©rĂ©alières, privant ainsi la culture de l’eau et des nutriments dont elle a besoin.

“Lors d’une soirĂ©e oĂą nous avons montrĂ© les vidĂ©os”, raconte Aminou, “un des agriculteurs a pris la parole et a dit qu’il aimait les vidĂ©os, mais qu’ils avaient une autre technologie pour lutter contre le striga qui Ă©tait aussi efficace”. Aminou a Ă©coutĂ© attentivement comment les agriculteurs mĂ©langent leurs graines de millet avec la substance poudreuse qui se trouve autour des graines du nĂ©rĂ©, un arbre commun dans toute l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Lorsque les agriculteurs sèment du millet, la poudre de nĂ©rĂ© empĂŞche apparemment la germination des graines de striga dans le sol.

“C’est incroyable”, ai-je dit Ă  Aminou. “Ce serait gĂ©nial si vous pouviez en faire une vidĂ©o de formation.” Ă€ ce stade, il est apparu clairement que les agriculteurs et les chercheurs avaient dĂ©jĂ  commencĂ© Ă  interagir en tant qu’acteurs Ă©gaux. Aminou s’Ă©tait rapidement tournĂ© vers Salifou Nouhou Jangorzo, un professeur de l’UniversitĂ© de Maradi au Niger, qui s’Ă©tait joint Ă  notre discussion et a dĂ©clarĂ© “Nous devons en savoir plus sur cette pratique. Nous avons besoin de tous les dĂ©tails sur la façon dont les agriculteurs font cela “. Le professeur Salifou a d’abord eu l’air surpris ; il n’avait jamais entendu parler de cette pratique auparavant, mais après 5 minutes de discussion avec Aminou, il Ă©tait convaincu. Il s’avère qu’il prĂ©voit d’effectuer une enquĂŞte sur une technologie de dĂ©sherbage permettant d’Ă©conomiser la main-d’Ĺ“uvre et il a donc dĂ©cidĂ© sur-le-champ d’ajouter Ă  son enquĂŞte quelques questions sur la gestion de la striga avec la poudre de nĂ©rĂ©.

Les vidĂ©os de formation paysan Ă  paysan, comme celles de la sĂ©rie sur le striga, incitent les agriculteurs Ă  expĂ©rimenter de nouvelles idĂ©es. Elles donnent Ă©galement aux agriculteurs la confiance nĂ©cessaire pour partager ouvertement leurs expĂ©riences, leurs connaissances et leurs pratiques rĂ©elles de la vie. Grâce Ă  un rĂ©seau fonctionnel, ces idĂ©es peuvent ĂŞtre transmises aux chercheurs. Dans un rĂ©seau de recherche progressive et collaborative, la communication n’est pas un produit final en soi, comme l’a montrĂ© Aminou, mais elle alimente une vie d’apprentissage pour rendre l’agriculture plus rĂ©sistante, plus rentable et plus sensible aux besoins des agriculteurs.

Trouver un terrain d’entente entre chercheurs et agriculteurs ne se fait pas du jour au lendemain, il faut un effort concertĂ© et Ă  long terme.

Note :

Le nom scientifique du néré est Parkia biglobosa, également connu sous le nom de caroubier Africain.

Remerciements

Nous apprĂ©cions grandement les efforts et l’engagement du Programme de recherche collaborative sur les cultures (CCRP) soutenu par la Fondation McKnight.

Vidéos de formation des agriculteurs

Les vidéos sur le striga et sur plus de 200 autres sujets sont téléchargeables gratuitement sur la plateforme vidéo Access Agriculture www.accessagriculture.org/fr

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.

Related blog stories

Toads for watermelon

Battling the armyworm

Biological pest control in the Galapagos forest

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