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Learning to teach June 7th, 2020 by

Versión en español a continuación

A really good teacher will teach you both subject matter and how to explain it to others. Elías Sánchez mentored thousands of Central Americans in organic agriculture. He started his adult life as a rural schoolteacher because he wanted to help people. But he soon realized that rural people needed agricultural training as much as the usual school subjects, so he studied agronomy and became an extension agent. When he found government bureaucracy too limiting, he started a teaching farm called Loma Linda, in Santa Lucía, in a pine-covered canyon in the mountains above Tegucigalpa, Honduras. That’s where I met him, in the late 1980s.

Loma Linda had dormitories, a classroom and a dining hall, where 30 farmers could come in to take a five-day course, usually paid for by NGOs or development projects. These were the days when donors were generous with NGOs in Honduras.

In the short course, don ElĂ­as, as everyone called him, taught an effective alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture. Don ElĂ­as expected people to make radical changes in how they farmed, after attending his course.  At the time, the forests on the steep hillsides were rapidly disappearing as people cut and burned trees, brush and crop residues before planting maize fields. The smoke was so thick in the springtime that every year the Tegucigalpa airport had to close because pilots couldn’t see the runway. There was also widespread soil erosion.

Don Elías taught his adult students how to build terraces, plant vegetables, fruits and grains, to make compost and natural remedies for pests and diseases. Thousands of smallholders from all over Honduras took don Elías’ course and slowly began to burn less, and to use organic fertilizer. He was pretty convincing; I’ve made compost ever since taking his course.

Don Elías realized that his audience didn’t see manure as fertilizer. Honduran smallholders would let manure pile up in the corral, and never think of spreading it on nearby maize fields. He held long discussions with the farmers to define organic matter (as anything living or that had once been alive, or came from a plant or animal). Then he taught them that any organic matter could be made into fertilizer. He kept his explanations simple and avoided pedantic words.

During the course we would eat fresh vegetables from the teaching farm for lunch, then get our hands dirty, making new compost heaps and spreading fertilizer from ones that were ready to use. “Compost needs two things,” don ElĂ­as would say: “water and air.” He taught that rain usually provided enough water, and by making compost above ground, air could circulate, as long as you didn’t pack the material.  But for good measure he would heap the organic matter around a thick wooden pole, which he would then pull out, to leave an air hole. Don Elias said that you could make compost in a pit, but it was more work. He did advise us to scrape the leaves and other debris off of the soil surface, so the compost was in contact with the dirt, where the soil-dwelling bacteria would help to start the decomposition.

Don Elías knew that the smallholders already worked hard, so his innovations had to be easy to use. Compost heaps could be left until they decomposed into rich, black earth. Turning wasn’t necessary. He taught people to make compost in the field, so they wouldn’t have to carry the materials very far.

I recalled ElĂ­as Sánchez last week, when I dug up one of our compost pits at home (a perfect quarantine activity). We don’t make compost piles, because we live in the city and our compost includes some ugly garbage. Sometimes we cover the pits with soil and grow something on top (a trick I learned from a farmer in Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Although our compost pit is unlike the compost piles that don ElĂ­as used to make, ours followed all his basic principles.

1) It was made from organic matter.

2) It had air pockets, from cardboard boxes I left in it, which in due time decomposed.

3) It had water. While digging it out I found a couple of teaspoons I had accidentally tossed out with the dishwater. Soapy water may kill beneficial microorganisms, so I won’t try it again. Even after thirty years I’m still learning.

4) I didn’t work too hard on this compost pit. I never did turn it.

The compost was worth it, rich and black, full of earthworms, retaining moisture for several days once we spread it on the soil. Don ElĂ­as would have been pleased. He would also be pleased that many farmers, teaching farms and organizations in Latin America have adopted his ideas about organic agriculture.

To be a good mentor, teach the basic principles of subjects that students want to learn about. Show people how to make a prototype and then encourage them to keep on experimenting. Innovations need to be adapted if they’re going to be used for a lifetime.

Related blog stories

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Composting to beat striga

And other videos about Sustainable Land Management

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Keith Andrews, Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for excellent comments on a previous version of this story.

APRENDER A ENSEĂ‘AR

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de junio del 2020

Un buen profesor no solo te enseña la materia sino cómo explicarla también. Elías Sánchez fue mentor de miles de centroamericanos en la agricultura orgánica. Empezó su vida adulta como maestro de escuela rural porque quería ayudar a la gente. Pero pronto se dio cuenta de que la gente del campo necesitaba aprender más de la agricultura, así que estudió agronomía y se hizo un extensionista. Cuando se dio cuenta de que la burocracia gubernamental era demasiado limitante, comenzó una granja de aprendizaje llamada Loma Linda, en Santa Lucía, en un cañón cubierto de pinos en las montañas cerca de Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Allí es donde lo conocí, a finales de los 80.

Loma Linda tenĂ­a dormitorios, un aula y un comedor, donde 30 agricultores podĂ­an entrar para tomar un curso de cinco dĂ­as, normalmente pagado por una ONG o por proyectos de desarrollo. Eran los dĂ­as en que los donantes eran generosos con las ONGs en Honduras.

En el curso corto, don ElĂ­as, como todos le llamaban, enseñaba una alternativa eficaz a la agricultura de tala y quema. Don ElĂ­as esperaba que la gente hiciera cambios radicales en la forma de cultivar, despuĂ©s de asistir a su curso.  En ese momento, los bosques de las escarpadas laderas estaban desapareciendo rápidamente, ya que la gente cortaba y quemaba árboles, matorrales y rastrojos antes de sembrar milpa. El humo era tan espeso en la primavera que cada año el aeropuerto de Tegucigalpa tenĂ­a que cerrar porque los pilotos no podĂ­an ver la pista. TambiĂ©n se produjo bastante erosiĂłn del suelo.

Don Elías enseñó a sus alumnos adultos a construir terrazas, a sembrar verduras, frutas y granos, a hacer abono y remedios naturales para las plagas y enfermedades. Miles de pequeños agricultores de toda Honduras tomaron el curso de don Elías y poco a poco empezaron a quemar menos, y a usar fertilizante orgánico. El fue bastante convincente; he hecho compost desde que tomé su curso.

Don Elías se dio cuenta de que su público no veía el estiércol como fertilizante. Los pequeños propietarios hondureños dejaban el estiércol apilado en el corral y nunca pensaban en esparcirlo en los maizales cercanos. Mantuvo largas discusiones con los agricultores para definir la materia orgánica (como cualquier cosa viviente o que alguna vez estuvo viva, o que salga de una planta o animal). Luego les enseñó que cualquier materia orgánica podía convertirse en fertilizante. Mantenía sus explicaciones simples y evitaba las palabras pedantes.

Durante el curso almorzábamos hortalizas frescas de la finca, luego nos ensuciábamos las manos, haciendo nuevas aboneras y esparciendo el fertilizante de las que estaban listas para usar. “El abono necesita dos cosas”, decĂ­a don ElĂ­as: “agua y aire”. Enseñó que la lluvia usualmente daba suficiente agua, y al hacer abono en cima la tierra, el aire podĂ­a circular, si no se empacara el material.  Pero por si acaso, hacĂ­a la abonera alrededor de un grueso poste de madera, que luego sacaba, para dejar un agujero de aire. Don ElĂ­as dijo que se podĂ­a hacer abono bajo tierra, pero era más trabajo. Nos aconsejĂł que raspáramos las hojas y otros desechos de la superficie del suelo, para que el abono estuviera en contacto con la tierra, donde las bacterias que viven en el suelo ayudarĂ­an a iniciar la descomposiciĂłn.

Don Elías sabía que los pequeños agricultores ya trabajaban duro, así que sus innovaciones tenían que ser fáciles de usar. Se podían dejar la abonera hasta que se descompusieran en una tierra rica y negra. No era necesario moverla. Enseñó a la gente a hacer compost en el campo, para que no tuvieran que llevar los materiales muy lejos.

RecordĂ© a ElĂ­as Sánchez la semana pasada, cuando desenterrĂ© una de nuestras aboneras en casa (una perfecta actividad de cuarentena). No hacemos abonera sobre el suelo, porque vivimos en la ciudad y nuestro abono incluye alguna basura fea. Hacemos el abono en una fosa que a veces tapamos con tierra y cultivamos algo encima (un truco que aprendĂ­ de un agricultor en Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Aunque nuestra abonera enterrada no es como las que don ElĂ­as solĂ­a hacer sobre el suelo, la nuestra seguĂ­a todos sus principios básicos.

1) Estaba hecha de materia orgánica.

2) TenĂ­a bolsones de aire, de cajas de cartĂłn que metĂ­, que con el tiempo se descompusieron.

3) Tenía agua. Mientras desenterraba el composte encontré un par de cucharaditas que había tirado accidentalmente con el agua lavar los trastos. El agua jabonosa puede matar a los microorganismos buenos, así que no lo intentaré de nuevo. Incluso después de treinta años todavía estoy aprendiendo.

4) No trabajé muy duro en esta abonera. Nunca la movía.

El abono valió la pena, rico y negro, lleno de lombrices, reteniendo la humedad durante varios días una vez que lo esparcimos en el suelo. Don Elías habría estado encantado. También estaría contento de que muchos agricultores, fincas educativas y organizaciones en América Latina hayan adoptado sus ideas sobre la agricultura orgánica.

Para ser un buen mentor, enseña los principios básicos de las materias que los estudiantes quieren aprender. Mostrar a la gente cómo hacer un prototipo y luego animarlos a seguir experimentando. Los alumnos tienen que adueñarse de las innovaciones, para seguir adaptándolas toda la vida.

Historias sobre temas parecidos  

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Microbios amigables

Lombrices de tierra de la i India a Bolivia

Una revoluciĂłn para nuestro suelo

Videos relacionados

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

El mulch mejora el suelo y la cosecha

Composting to beat striga

Manejo sostenible de la tierra

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Keith Andrews, Eric Boa y Paul Van Mele por sus excelentes comentarios sobre una versiĂłn previa de esta historia.

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

Training trees May 10th, 2020 by

Many people are familiar with pruning trees, but on a recent course organised by the association of ecological gardeners (VELT) in Bocholt, Limburg, Belgium, I learned another important trick to shape trees and harvest more fruit. By training trees, you make branches grow in the direction you want. That sounds easy enough, but back home, when trying to apply this to our own fruit trees, I learned once more the importance of understanding the principles, and then adapting them to the local conditions.

Pierre Zanders, the trainer from VELT, explained to us that branches that grow straight upright have tremendous vigour and just continue growing up without giving fruits. The more you can get a branch to grow horizontally, the more fruit it will produce. Young branches that are weighed down by too much fruit can break, so ideally you should aim to train branches to grow at angles between 45 and 60 degrees.

Pierre is such an expert on fruit trees that he is often asked to travel to share his skills. He proudly told us a story about the time he was invited to the USA to train thousands of mature fruit trees. While the job was scheduled to take 6 weeks, Pierre finished the job in just two weeks. In disbelief, the owner of the groves had to accept that Pierre had a much faster way of training branches.

“If you have to train older trees,” Pierre told us, “you don’t need any branch spreaders that cost money. The only thing you need is a very sharp knife. Up in the trees, you find enough wood that can be used as a branch spreader. Prune a stick that is as thick as the twig you want to bend lower. In the stick you have removed from the tree, cut a notch at one end of the stick and then cut the stick to the right length. Fix one end of the stick onto the main tree trunk, and place the end with the notch around the twig you want to bend. Gently push the stick down until the twig reaches the desired angle.” The owner was amazed. This seasoned fruit expert from Belgium had not used any of the commercial branch spreaders the owner had bought to train his trees.

Pierre laughingly provokes us: “why pay money if you can do it much simpler and much faster? Besides, with my technique nobody needs to go back into the orchard a few months later to collect any tree training devices. Over time, the branches will start to grow in the desired direction and the little sticks that I used as branch spreader can stay in the tree or may eventually be blown away by the wind. So, you save money twice.”

During Pierre’s pruning course, we learned that for younger trees it is useful to hang weights to the branches, or to tie strings and use pegs to fix the string down to the soil. After the course I talked to my friend, Johan Hons, an organic farmer, and he kindly gave me a roll of string and taught me a useful knot to loosely tie the string around twigs and branches.

A few days after training my 20 or so fruit trees, I saw in dismay how some of the branches had snapped. “Terrible, how could this happen,” I wondered. “Did I bend them too much?” Taking a closer look at the damage, I noticed some wool on the strings. Apparently, the sheep grazing under my fruit trees had started rubbing themselves against these strings. It was too much for some of the young branches to take.

That was the time I had to come up with my own solution. All my fruit trees have a mesh wire tree shelter guard around their trunk to protect their bark from the sheep. By placing a bamboo stick through the holes at the top of the mesh, I could fix my strings to the bamboo, above reach of the sheep. The two short strings down from the bamboo to the mesh ensure that the bamboo does not snap in half with the pulling forces from the branches.

Farming is about observing what works and what doesn’t work…. If you understand the basic principles of a technology, it is easier to make workable adaptations. Pierre and Johan both gave me good ideas about how to spread branches so they do not grow straight up. But after my sheep undid their good suggestions, I could still invent my own technique, because Pierre had taught me the underlying principle: more horizontal branches produce more flowers and therefore more fruit.

Related videos

Staking and pruning passion fruit

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Coffee: stumping & pruning

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.

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.

Related blogs

A revolution for our soil

Strawberry fields once again

Farming with trees

The bokashi factory

Apple futures

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

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.

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