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Peasants, not princes: the potato finds a home in Europe April 18th, 2021 by

The French philosopher Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introduced the potato into his country by having it planted with great fanfare in the king’s gardens. Guards were posted to protect the new crop, ostensibly to prevent thefts, but really to draw attention to it. When the guards were withdrawn overnight from the now mature crop, curious farmers snuck in and dug up the potatoes to plant in their own fields, just as the clever Parmentier had intended.

Some years ago I told this story from the podium of the National Potato Congress in Bolivia. My audience of Andean potato experts loved the tale, which is one reason why I must retract it now, for it is simply a bit of fake history, penned by Parmentier’s friend and biographer, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Perhaps I should have known better, but in the potato story I learned in grad school, European peasants resisted the tuber brought back by Spanish sailors fresh from the conquest of Peru in the 1530s. Europeans were used to eating cereals, and the potato lived underground, like the devil, or so went the story.

In a recent book, British historian Rebecca Earle sets the potato record straight. She points out that European peasants did eat root crops, like carrots and turnips.

Earle also shows that European peasants embraced the potato from the start, often growing it discretely in a home garden, for once a new crop was widely grown and sold, it acquired a market value and could be taxed and tithed.

According to court records from Cornwall in 1768, a clergyman sued one of his flock because she was growing potatoes without paying him a tithe. Witnesses testified that the potato had already been grown for many generations in Cornwall. The potato was also mentioned in Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook published in Frankfurt in 1681. During the Nine Years War (1688-1697) so many potatoes were grown in Flanders that soldiers were able to survive by pilfering potatoes from peasants’ fields.

The potato was widely grown all over Europe (in France, too) before Parmentier was born. Then as now, smallholder farmers were eager to experiment with new crops. Peasants spread the potato across Europe long before the nobles paid it much attention. Earle also writes that potatoes were being grown commercially in the Canary Islands by the 1570s, and shipped to France and the Netherlands.

In Earle’s analysis, after widespread hunger in the mid-1700s fueled popular revolts, kings began to realize that a well-fed, healthy population would be more productive. Rulers finally saw that it was in their own self-interest for the state to assume some responsibility to ensure that their subjects’ had enough food to eat.

Potatoes yielded as much as three times more food per hectare than rye and other grain crops. Monarchs, like King Louis XIV (patron of Parmentier) belatedly began to understand the advantages of potatoes and entered the history books as a promotor of the new crop. Other historical inaccuracies arose. Frederick the Great is erroneously portrayed as introducing Germans to the potato.

The myth that the conservative peasants were afraid to grow and eat potatoes, or that the potato was spread across Europe by emperors and philosophers has proven a pervasive piece of fake history. These stories burnished the reputations of the elites at the expense of the peasants and home gardeners. Many of the true potato promotors were women, who tended the home gardens, ideal spaces for the experiments that helped the potato become the world’s fourth most widely grown crop, now produced in nearly every country of the world. Yet further proof that smallholder farmers have always been eager to try new crops and other innovations.

Further reading

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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CAMPESINOS, NO PRÍNCIPES: ACOGIENDO LA PAPA EN EUROPA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de abril del 2021

El filósofo francés Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introdujo la papa en su país haciéndola sembrar a bombo y platillo en los jardines del rey. Se colocaron guardias para proteger el nuevo cultivo, aparentemente para evitar robos, pero en realidad para llamar la atención. Cuando los guardias se retiraron de la noche a la mañana del cultivo ya maduro, los campesinos curiosos se colaron y desenterraron las papas para sembrarlas en sus propios huertos, tal y como pretendía el astuto Parmentier.

Hace algunos años conté esta historia desde el podio del Congreso Nacional de la Papa en Bolivia. A mi público de expertos andinos en la papa le encantó el relato, lo cual es una de las razones por las que debo retractarme ahora, ya que es nada más que una historia falsa, escrita por el amigo y biógrafo de Parmentier, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Tal vez debería haberlo sabido, pero en la historia de la papa que aprendí en la universidad, los campesinos europeos se resistieron al tubérculo traído por los marineros españoles recién llegados de la conquista de Perú en la década de 1530. Los europeos estaban acostumbrados a comer cereales, y la papa vivía bajo tierra, como el diablo, o al menos así me contaban.

En un libro reciente, la historiadora británica Rebecca Earle aclara la historia de la papa. Señala que los campesinos europeos sí comían cultivos de raíces, como zanahorias y nabos.

Earle también demuestra que los campesinos europeos adoptaron la papa desde el principio, a menudo cultivándola discretamente en el jardín de su casa, ya que una vez que un nuevo cultivo se extendía y se vendía, adquiría un valor de mercado y podía ser gravado y diezmado.

Según las actas judiciales de Cornualles de 1768, un clérigo demandó a un miembro de su congregación, porque ella cultivaba papas sin pagarle el diezmo. Los testigos declararon que la papa ya se había cultivado durante muchas generaciones en Cornualles. La papa también se menciona en el libro de cocina de Marx Rumpolt, publicado en Frankfurt en 1681. Durante la Guerra de los Nueve Años (1688-1697) se cultivaron tantas papas en Flandes que los soldados pudieron sobrevivir robando papas de los campos de los campesinos.

La papa se cultivaba ampliamente en toda Europa (también en Francia) antes de que naciera Parmentier. En aquel entonces, igual que hoy en día, a los pequeños agricultores les gusta experimentar con nuevos cultivos. Los campesinos difundieron la papa por toda Europa mucho antes de que los nobles le prestaran mucha atención. Earle también escribe que en la década de 1570 ya se cultivaban papas comercialmente en las Islas Canarias y se enviaban a Francia y los Países Bajos.

Según el análisis de Earle, después de que el hambre generalizada a mediados del siglo XVII alimentara las revueltas populares, los reyes empezaron a darse cuenta de que una población bien alimentada y sana sería más productiva. Los gobernantes finalmente vieron que les interesaba que el Estado asumiera alguna responsabilidad para garantizar que sus súbditos tuvieran suficientes alimentos para comer.

Las papas producían hasta tres veces más alimentos por hectárea que el centeno y otros cultivos de cereales. Los monarcas, como el rey Luis XIV (mecenas de Parmentier), empezaron a comprender tardíamente las ventajas de la papa y entraron en los libros de historia como promotores del nuevo cultivo. Surgieron otras inexactitudes históricas. Federico el Grande es presentado erróneamente como el introductor de la patata para los alemanes.

El mito de que los campesinos conservadores tenían miedo de cultivar y comer papas, o que la papa fue difundida por toda Europa por emperadores y filósofos, ha resultado ser una pieza omnipresente de la historia falsa. Estos relatos han servido para engrosar la reputación de las élites a costa de los campesinos y los jardineros. Muchos de los verdaderos promotores de la papa fueron mujeres, que cuidaban los huertos caseros, espacios ideales para los experimentos que ayudaron a que la papa se convirtiera en el cuarto cultivo más extendido del mundo, que ahora se produce en casi todos los países del globo. Una prueba más de que los pequeños agricultores siempre han estado dispuestos a probar nuevos cultivos y otras innovaciones.

Lectura adicional

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

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Further reading

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

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

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ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivía en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salía antes del amanecer compartía el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi última visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicó que cuando el Covid acabó con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero había un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecológica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña éramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecológicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aún calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

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Lectura adicional

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

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

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Redes contra insectos en almácigo

The next generation of farmers March 28th, 2021 by

Whether in Europe or in the global South, young farmers, unless they are born into a farm family, often lack three key things: land, finance and knowledge. But a new breed of farmers has risen, fuelled by passion to produce food in a healthy way, free from agrochemicals. Their journeys are often difficult, but with support from the community and by helping each other, they are heading towards a fairer and brighter future, as I learned this week on a revealing road trip.

Recently, I joined my farmer friends Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers on their weekly trip to deliver and buy organic produce from wholesalers and fellow farmers to stock up their farm shop that opens from Friday afternoon until Saturday noon. Johan and Vera have been pioneer organic farmers in north-eastern Belgium.

“When we started some 30 years ago, it was just us and one other family who had a basic food packaging machine. Whenever needed, we could use their machine,” Johan said. In the meantime, the number of organic farmers has grown, and an amazing informal network is coming to life.

The back of the van is loaded with freshly harvested potatoes, a few crates of cabbages and leek seedlings that Johan and Vera had reared for the new season. Having left their farm before 6 am, by 8 o’clock we finished our first delivery. Biofresh, a main organic retailer, bought their potatoes. At the same time, we collect the produce they had ordered online a few days earlier. Vera guides me through the warehouse, explaining how the whole system works.

I see crates of organic pineapples from Côte d’Ivoire, bright mangoes from Ghana, ginger from Peru, fava beans, artichokes and oranges from Italy, and various local products, including their potatoes, amongst other things.

“At first, our name was mentioned on the label,” Vera says, “but they have now replaced our name with a number, so people no longer know who has produced them. I think it is to protect themselves from their competitors.” This may well be the case, but as we continue our road trip it dawns on me that the effectiveness of this strategy may only be short-lived.

As we load the van in the parking lot, Floriaan D’Hulster, a young fellow organic farmer whom we had met indoors 10 minutes earlier arrives. He has come to buy Johan and Vera’s crates of cabbages and hands over a little carton box. My curiosity triggered, Johan proudly opens it and shows little seed packages.

“This is from our group of farmers with whom we started to produce vegetable seed. The seed has been cleaned, nicely labelled and packaged at the premises of Akelei, the organic farm where Floriaan works, and will be available in our farm shop as of tomorrow,” Johan smiles. Their non-profit association “Vitale Rassen” was formalised in 2019 and regroups organic farmers across Flanders who produce seed under EU organic standards.

On to the next destination. Like Biofresh, Sinature is a wholesaler, but they also have their own greenhouses behind their warehouse. “We like to buy as much locally produced food as possible,” Vera says, “as that is in line with our philosophy and many clients also ask me about this.”

As we walk through the warehouse, Vera carefully goes over various lists. I learn that they are at the same time buying produce for other fellow farmers. “Many of us have started to sell our produce ourselves directly to consumers, whether at farm markets or farm shops,” Vera says, “and it is good to be able to offer clients a rich diversity of food on top of your own produce. As we have a van and a trailer, we provide this service to our fellow farmers against a small fee to cover our costs.”

At Bernd Vandersmissen’s farm I am excited to see how even in greenhouses, they successfully integrate crops and livestock. Two pigs are happily sleeping under a trailer in an area secured by a temporary electric fence. While the pigs feed on the green manure (a mixture of rye and phacelia), they keep the soil loose and fertile.

Many of the new generation of farmers have managed one way or the other to secure some land. To gain knowledge and become professional growers, the non-profit organisation Landwijzer has been offering both short and two-year long courses on organic and biodynamic farming for the past 20 years.

The remainder of the day we make various stops to buy and deliver fresh produce at some inspiring farms. As Johan and Vera are pioneers, they know everyone involved in the organic food system. Many of the new generation of farmers have also done their internship with them as part of their Landwijzer course, so they have a strong bond. By providing this weekly service, they also get a chance to chat with their colleagues and exchange ideas and recent news.

When I ask Johan how the new generation of farmers is coping with the purchasing power of large buyers that push down prices, he explains that price formation and market diversification are key aspects covered in the courses offered by Landwijzer.

A few days earlier I had an online meeting with one of the coordinators of the Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation from Latin America. To secure a living income, cocoa and coffee growers are also forced to increasingly look at income and market diversification. While the food industry may gradually come to realize that paying a fair price for food is needed to keep farmers in business, it is reassuring to see that farmers continue to innovate by pro-actively strengthening ties between themselves and the community of consumers. Belonging to a network may make a vital difference for new farmers, who often lack land and a family connection to agriculture.

Related blogs

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Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Against or with nature February 14th, 2021 by

Ask any tourist what comes to mind when they think of the Netherlands and there is a good chance they will say “windmills”. Ask any agricultural professional what the Netherlands is known for and they may mention “water management” and “dairy” (you know, the big round cheeses). Few people may realize how these are all intricately interwoven, and how their interaction over time has created an environmental disaster.

In his thought-provoking book Against the Grain, James Scott draws on earlier work of anthropologists and archaeologists to provide some insights into how early humans changed their environment to source food from closer to home. Through controlled fires, certain plants and wildlife species were favoured, while cooking enabled our ancestors to extract more nutrients from plants and animals than was previously possible. The very act of domesticating plants, animals and fire, in a sense also domesticated us as a species. While modern cows and many of our crops can no longer survive without us, we can no longer survive without them. Besides fire, people also relied heavily on water. In fact, everywhere in the world, ancient peoples first settled near rivers or at the fringes of wetlands which, along with the nearby forests, provided a rich variety of food.

Agricultural technology was fairly stable for centuries, but slowly began to change in medieval times, which brings us back to the windmill. While fixed windmills were found in Flanders by the 11th century, they were mainly used to grind grain. In the 1600s a Dutchman, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, added a crankshaft, an Arab invention, to convert the rotating movement of a windmill into an up-and-down one. Windmills could now also be used to saw wood, and to pump water. Soon the landscape was dotted with thousands of windmills. The now so typical Dutch landscape of peat grasslands and ditches is a manmade ecosystem shaped through drainage by windmills. The new pastures with lowered groundwater tables were especially apt for dairy farming, serving what became the world-renown Dutch dairy sector.

The drainage of the wetlands sounds like a great agronomic achievement, but a Dutch veterinarian Katrien van ‘t Hooft, director of Dutch Farm Experience, recently showed me the other side of the coin. The continuous drainage of surface water and lowered groundwater table, combined with modern dairy farming and use of tractors, has caused a drop in the peatland. The land has been sinking several centimeters per year for a long time, faster than the rise in sea level. Projections are that under current management the peat soils will further sink 2 meters before 2050, and become a major threat to the country. Although the Dutch government is taking urgent measures to restore the groundwater table, the challenges do not stop there.

As drained peat releases CO2, the Dutch government has set up a scheme to reward farmers who help raise the groundwater table. But wet pastures require a very different management, as farmers are now beginning to learn. When collecting hay on wet pasture, overloaded machines risk getting stuck. Maize cannot be grown, because this water-loving crop lowers the groundwater level in the peat land. The typical Holstein-Friesian cow, commonly used in the Netherlands for its high milk production, requires maize and concentrated feed. In the peat lands it is therefore now being crossed with ‘old fashioned’ local cattle breeds, such as Blister Head (Blaarkop) and MRY (Maas-Rijn-Ijssel breed). These so-called dual purpose cows yield milk and meat, perform well on plant-rich pastures and have the benefit that they can produce milk with minimal use of concentrated feed.

However, as the peat pastures need to become wetter again, these cows are increasingly suffering from some ‘old diseases’, including intestinal worms and the liver fluke, which spends part of its life cycle in mud snails. Farmers are using anthelmintics (anti-worm chemicals) to control this, but the anthelmintics to control liver fluke are forbidden in adult cows, for milk safety reasons. Moreover, just as with antibiotics, the internal parasites are quickly building up resistance against anthelminitics, and the dairy sector is forced to rethink its position of always trying to control nature.

Now here comes a twist in the story. As Katrien explained to me, these common animal diseases used to be managed by appropriate grassland management, use of resilient cattle breeds and strategic use of (herbal) medicines.  But most of this traditional knowledge has been lost over the past decades. With a group of passionate veterinary doctors and dairy farmers, Katrien has established a network with colleagues in the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Uganda and India to promote natural livestock farming. Inspired by ethnoveterinary doctors from India, Dutch veterinary doctors and dairy farmers have gained an interest in looking at herbs, both for animal medicine and for enriching grassland pastures to boost the animals’ immune system. Together they have developed the so-called NLF 5-layer approach to reduce the use of antibiotics, anthelmintics and other chemicals in dairy farming.

Resistance to chemical drugs used in livestock, whether against bacteria, fungi, ticks or intestinal worms, will have a dramatic effect on people. For example, the bacteria that gain resistance to antibiotics in animals become ‘superbugs’, that are also resistant to antibiotics in human patients. The abuse of antibiotics in livestock can ruin these life-saving drugs for people.

James Scott describes in his book that when we started intensifying our food production thousands of years ago, we lost an encyclopaedia of knowledge based on living with and from nature. In the same vein, traditional knowledge of agriculture has been eroding since the mid twentieth century, with intensification brought on by machinery and chemicals, like the Dutch dairy farmers who lost most of their folk knowledge about plants and the ‘old’ cattle diseases.

While the challenges are rising, it is fortunate that the 21st century humans are able to learn from each other’s experiences at a scale and speed unseen in history. Dutch dairy farmers are not the only ones to have lost traditional knowledge. It has happened across the globe, and more efforts are needed to help make such worthwhile initiatives of knowledge-sharing go viral (as a matter of speaking).

Credit

Katrien van ‘t Hooft kindly reviewed earlier drafts of this blog and provided photographs.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care

Watching videos to become a dairy expert

Trying it yourself

Stuck in the middle

Kicking the antibiotic habit

Why people drink cow’s milk

Big chicken, little chicken

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

The Foundation for Natural Livestock Farming. https://www.naturallivestockfarming.com/

Dutch Farm Experience – Lessons learnt in Dutch Dairy Farming https://www.dutchfarmexperience.com/

Groen Kennisnet wiki: Herbs and herbal medicines for livestock (in Dutch) https://wiki.groenkennisnet.nl/display/KGM/Kruiden+voor+landbouwhuisdieren

https://www.natuurlijkeveehouderij.nl/kennisbank/

Watch Access Agriculture videos on herbal medicine in animal healthcare

Keeping sheep healthy

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal medicine against mastitis

Natural ways to manage bloat in livestock

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

A convincing gesture January 31st, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In last week’s blog (We think with our hands), I wrote that people use gestures intentionally to convey meaning, while many other hand movements are unconscious. Moving our hands helps us to grasp the right words. But human speech is also much more than words and hand gestures.

Tone and volume of voice (screaming, whispering), facial expression, head movements (like nodding) and body language (slouching vs standing ramrod straight) all help to reinforce meaning and to convey emotion. We also make humming and clicking noises, which are sounds, but not speech. This non-verbal communication is convincing because it’s natural. We can spot the difference; a phony smile is made with the lips only, while you use your whole face for a sincere one.

At Agro-Insight, when we make videos with farmers, we never tell them what to say. We ask them questions, and film their answers, which we transcribe and translate into other languages. For example, if the farmer is speaking Arabic, we will use her voice in the Arabic version of the video, but we will dub over her voice for the English, French and other versions.

In these learning videos, the farmers’ non-verbal communication is typical of unscripted, sincere speech. For example, in a video filmed in India, farmer Maran explained that he had a problem with the neighbors’ turtles coming into his fish pond to eat their feed. As he said that, he moved his hands as if to suggest movement from one place to another. After hiring professional turtle catchers to remove the unwanted guests, everything was fine, an idea he reinforced by patting both hands downwards in a comforting gesture. The film crew didn’t tell him to do that. Unless you watch the Tamil version of the video, you will hear a voice artist dubbing Mr. Maran’s words, but you can still tell that his gestures go with his narrative.

In the final cut of the video, we usually leave in some of farmers’ original voice, before starting the voiceover. This lets the audience hear some of the emotion. For instance, in our video on feeding dairy goats, Teresia Muthumbi explains that when she gives her goats banana stems with sweetpotato vines and a little grass, “They give a lot of milk.” She is speaking from experience: you can hear the sound of authority in her voice, even if you don’t understand Swahili.

In one video from Togo, farmer Filo Kodo tells how the maize harvest had increased a lot after rotating the corn with velvet bean (mucuna). One neighbor even asked her what magic she had used. “I told him it was with mucuna magic,” she said, and you can see the smile in her eyes as well as on her lips.

I’ve written before how smallholders in Malawi called people on the farmer learning videos their “friends”, even though they had never met (Friends you can trust). Farmers in Uganda referred to their “brothers and sisters” in West Africa, who they had only seen on the videos.

When people speak from the heart, their tone, gestures, expressions and body language convey conviction, even if the words themselves are translated into another language, and spoken by another person. Non-verbal communication adds a richness, a sincerity that is hard to fake. This is one reason why realistic farmer-to-farmer training videos are a far richer experience than fully animated videos.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs – Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Watch the videos mentioned in this blog

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Dairy goat feeding

Reviving soils with mucuna

GESTOS QUE CONVENCEN

Por Jeff Bentley, 31 de enero del 2021

En el blog de la semana pasada (Pensamos con las manos), escribí que las personas usan los gestos a propósito para transmitir un significado, mientras que muchos otros movimientos de las manos son inconscientes. Mover las manos nos ayuda a captar las palabras que buscamos. Pero la comunicación humana es también mucho más que palabras y gestos con las manos.

El tono y el volumen de la voz (gritos, susurros), la expresión facial, los movimientos de la cabeza (como para asentir) y el lenguaje corporal (ponerse cómodo o mantenerse erguido) ayudan a reforzar el significado y a transmitir emociones. También emitimos zumbidos y chasquidos, que son sonidos, pero no son palabras. Esta comunicación no verbal es convincente porque es natural. Podemos notar la diferencia; una sonrisa falsa se hace sólo con los labios, mientras una sincera es con toda la cara.

En Agro-Insight, cuando hacemos videos con agricultores, nunca les decimos lo que tienen que decir. Les hacemos preguntas y filmamos sus respuestas, que transcribimos y traducimos a otros idiomas. Por ejemplo, si la agricultora habla en árabe, usamos su voz de ella en la versión árabe del video, pero la doblamos para las versiones en inglés, francés y otras.

En estos videos de aprendizaje, la comunicación no verbal de los agricultores es la típica del habla sincera y sin guion. Por ejemplo, en un video grabado en la India, el agricultor Maran explicó que tenía un problema con las tortugas de los vecinos que entraban en su estanque de peces para comer su alimento. Mientras lo decía, movía las manos como si quisiera sugerir un movimiento de un lugar a otro. Después de contratar a cazadores profesionales para eliminaran a las tortugas, todo estaba bien, idea que reforzó dando palmaditas con ambas manos hacia abajo en un gesto de satisfacción. El equipo de filmación no le dijo que hiciera eso. A menos que se vea la versión en tamil del video, se oirá a un locutor doblando las palabras del Sr. Maran, pero aun así se nota que sus gestos realmente acompañan su narración.

En la edición final del vídeo, solemos dejar algo de la voz original de la gente, antes de empezar el doblaje. Esto permite al público escuchar parte de la emoción. Por ejemplo, en nuestro video sobre la alimentación de las cabras lecheras, Teresia Muthumbi explica que cuando da a sus cabras tallos de plátano con hojas de camote y un poco de pasto, “Dan mucha leche”. Habla por experiencia: se puede oír el sonido de la autoridad en su voz, aunque no se entienda el suajili.

En un video de Togo, la agricultora Filo Kodo cuenta cómo la cosecha de maíz ha aumentado mucho después de rotar el maíz con el frijol terciopelo (mucuna). Un vecino incluso le preguntó qué magia había usado. “Le dije que era con la magia de la mucuna”, dijo, y se puede ver la sonrisa en sus ojos además de en sus labios.

Ya he escrito antes cómo los campesinos de Malawi llamaban “amigos” a las personas que aparecían en los vídeos de aprendizaje, aunque no se conocieran (Amigos confiables). Los agricultores de Uganda se referían a sus “hermanos y hermanas” de África Occidental, a los que sólo habían visto en los videos.

Cuando la gente habla con el corazón, su tono, sus gestos, sus expresiones y su lenguaje corporal transmiten convicción, aunque las palabras mismas estén traducidas a otro idioma y sean pronunciadas por otra persona. La comunicación no verbal añade una riqueza, una sinceridad que es difícil de fingir. Esta es una de las razones por las que los videos realistas de agricultor-a-agricultor son una experiencia mucho más rica que los videos de pura animación.

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, y Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs – Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Vea los videos mencionados en este blog

Estanque vivero para criar alevines

Alimentando a cabras lecheras

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

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