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Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

“How can you stand to eat your old friend?” one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

The old cat and mouse game November 24th, 2019 by

Did ancient farmers domesticate cats to catch mice? If so, this would have been a classic example of biological pest control, but so far the evidence is largely circumstantial.

Evidence for domestication of a crop or animal is generally based on two lines of study, genetic and archaeological. When both types of research are well and thoroughly done, they tend to support each other. In the case of cats, we still have a ways to go for archaeology to match the genetics.

Oxford zoologist Carlos Driscoll and colleagues explain that there are five living sub-species of wildcats, from Europe to Africa to Asia. Modern domesticated cats are genetically quite close to the Near Eastern wild cat; they even share the same mitochondrial DNA. Based on genetic evidence Driscoll suggests that cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (modern Turkey and Iraq) about the same time that grain farming and livestock tending started there.

Cat domestication at the dawn of agriculture would suggest that early farmers appreciated the wildcats as mousers. With early farming came stores of grain, attracting mice.  

Yet cats are a poor candidate for domestication, because they are obligate carnivores and solitary. Driscoll agrees with archaeologists that ancient farmers did actively domesticate herd animals (sheep, goats and cattle), i.e. penning them, culling undesired individuals, selecting for smaller, tamer, food animals. But Driscoll says that cats were different: cats domesticated themselves—much like dogs, pigs and even swallows, rats and mice. Cats were attracted to the food scraps, the fat mice, and the warm nest sites to be found on small farms. Cats moved in with the farmers, who tolerated them.

This is of course just a hypothesis, consistent with (but not demonstrated by) the genetic evidence and there is little archaeology to back it up.

Some of the earliest cat bones from an archaeological site are much later and far from the Fertile Crescent, in China, from a 6000-year-old site where Yaowu Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues found cat bones tossed into the refuse pits of Quanhucun village. One cat bone was from an old individual, suggesting that the individual had been cared for by farmers.

Ancient farmers quite possibly gave kittens to their neighbors, spreading cats of Near Eastern extraction from Ireland to China to South Africa. Cats then reached the Americas with the Spanish Conquest.

Cats are not universally appreciated as mice killers. Pest control advice books encourage homeowners to get traps to control mice, writing that cats bring in fleas and disease, kill songbirds, and that their effectiveness as biological control agents of mice is not scientifically documented.

My own experience suggests that if you bring a kitten into a mice-infested household, you will have no rodents left in the house or garden by the time the cat is half grown.

Modern smallholders I have met from Portugal to Honduras to Bolivia do keep cats expressly to control mice, and the cats are often treated with a respectful distance, not petted, not given medical attention and not fed (although they may be allowed to eat scraps). Even today, in the large, informal market of Cochabamba, La Cancha, kittens are sold in little wire cages, along with chickens, guinea pigs and other small farm animals.

To get back to the dawn of agriculture, if ancient farmers perceived cats as mice-killers, that may have been enough to earn cats a space to live on farms, where they could domesticate themselves.

Further reading

Driscoll, Carlos A., Marilyn Menotti-Raymond, Alfred L. Roca, Karsten Hupe, Warren E. Johnson, Eli Geffen, Eric H. Harley, Miguel Delibes, Dominique Pontier, Andrew C. Kitchener, Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Stephen J. O’Brien, and David W. Macdonald. 2007 “The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication.” Science 317(5837): 519-523.

Driscoll, Carlos A., David W. Macdonald, and Stephen J. O’Brien. 2009 “From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106. Supplement 1: 9971-9978.

Hu, Yaowu, Songmei Hu, Weilin Wang, Xiaohong Wu, Fiona B. Marshall, Xianglong Chen, Liangliang Hou, and Changsui Wang. 2014 “Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(1): 116-120.

Keep your cows in the family October 27th, 2019 by

In the 1980s, the Portuguese farmers I lived with kept two or three cows per household. Instead of hosing down the barns—the greatest use of water on dairy farms—the cows were stabled in a large room on the ground floor of the farm house. Every couple of days, farmers would lay down a clean bed of gorse, fern, heather and other wild plants. Instead of creating toxic lagoons of manure, the families would dig the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields as organic fertilizer.

The parish of Pedralva, near Braga, Portugal, had four milking parlors. Twice a day the farmers (almost all women) would walk their cows down the lane to the milking parlor, where the operator, also a young woman, would milk the cows mechanically, record the amount of milk (clearly visible in a large, glass jar) and pipe the milk into a cold storage tank, to be picked up later by the dairy.

The milking parlor became a place where the farmers would chat and exchange ideas as they stood in line with their cows. I realize now that it was also a chance for the cows to get out of the house and take a stroll. The cows were not pets, but they all had names, enough to eat and drink, and they were never caged. The cows were usually fed on leftover maize stalks and pasture grass, although a handful of farmers with a dozen cows were starting to make silage. So, most of the feed was a byproduct of food production, rather than a diversion of human food to livestock.

The documentary film “Cowspiracy,” by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, tells of the complacency of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana: large, environmental organizations that ignore animal farming as a leading cause of climate change. Livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while the whole transportation sector makes up just 13%. Cows make greenhouse gas as they fart out methane while the tractors and fertilizer factories all burn fossil fuel.

Livestock in the USA produce 30 times more feces than people. Fecal slurry from cows and pigs is kept in “lagoons” that often leak into rivers. In tropical countries forests are cleared to make pastures. Much of the forest burned in Bolivia this year was being cleared to graze cows for beef exports to China.

In Eat for the Planet, journalists Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone raise similar concerns, especially about the use of water. In the USA it takes 2000 liters of water to make a liter of milk, 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of meat. More corn, soybeans and wheat is produced to feed animals than humans, requiring vast amounts of water, energy and land.

Add this all together and it makes sense that the livestock sector is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

Food and Animal Welfare, a recent book by Henry Buller and Emma Roe, raises concerns about the cruelty inflicted on the animals themselves. Cows, pigs and chickens have inherited instinctive behaviors from their wild ancestors: chickens like to build nests for their eggs, pigs love to dig into the moist earth, and cows enjoy grazing in the sunshine. The animals become stressed when they are unable to act out these behaviors.

On small, family farms, animals are usually handled in kinder, more environmentally sound ways. Adopting this approach on factory farms is costly and easy to avoid where regulation of animal welfare is poor and consumers don’t know or don’t care about the stresses animals face when penned up all day, every day, unable to move.

Cruelty to animals, deforestation, fecal pollution, the extravagant waste of water and the use of food grains to feed animals are all real problems of agriculture if the animals are just seen as cogs in the factory. But I have seen family farms in Latin America, Africa and Bangladesh where animals are treated a bit like they were in Portugal in the 1980s. The animals are kept clean without big hoses of water. The manure is used as fertilizer instead of being stored in lakes of filth. The animals eat at least some crop residues and spend at some time outdoors. The cows do still fart on family farms, but most other environmental problems are mitigated. Governments and the public should be thinking of more ways to encourage shorter food chains, decent prices for family farmers, enforcement of better standards, and research on appropriate technologies.

Further reading

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

Buller, Henry, and Emma Roe 2018 Food and Animal Welfare. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 222 pp.

Zacharias, Nil and Gene Stone 2018 Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time. New York: Abrams Image. 160 pp.

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Toads for watermelon October 13th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

In my blog, Out of space, I talked about how the energy crisis may make chemical fertilizers unaffordable to farmers in the foreseeable future. Modern agriculture will need to become less dependent on expensive external inputs such as animal feed and fertilizer, and make better use of knowledge of the ecological processes that shape the interplay between soil, nutrients, microorganisms and plants. But whether farming will remain a viable business for European farmers in the next decade, will not only depend on new knowledge.

A recent radio broadcast on Radio 1 mentioned that in Belgium since 1980 two thirds of the farmers have abandoned this profession, with currently only some 30,000 farmers remaining in business. And many see a bleak future. With large corporations and supermarkets keeping the price of commodities at rock bottom, and at times even below the production cost, it comes as no surprise that few young people still see a future in farming. A neighbouring dairy farmer in Belgium told me once that the difference of 1 Euro cent per litre of milk he sells can make or break his year. In 2016, around 30% of French farmers had an income below €350 per month, less than one third of the minimum wage.

One French farmer (often a dairy farmer) commits suicide every two days, according to a survey conducted by the French national public health agency. The suicide rate among Swiss farmers is almost 40% higher than the average for men in rural areas. The reasons include financial worries and inheritance problems related to passing the farm on to their children. The EU farmers’ union said this alarming situation should be addressed immediately, emphasising that the farming community deserves better recognition.

How has it come so far? And is there still time to change the tide?

While reading a book on the history of the Belgian farmers’ organisation, called the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League), I was struck by how deeply engrained our food crisis is and how much history has shaped our agricultural landscape and food crisis.

As the steam engine made it possible to transport food much faster and over longer distances, from 1880 onwards large amounts of cheap food from America, Canada, Russia, India and Australia flooded the European markets. This resulted in a sharp drop in food prices and many farmers were forced to stop or expand, others migrated to Canada, the USA, Argentina, and Brazil.

From the early 1890s Belgian farmers began organising into a cooperative to make group purchases of chemical fertilisers, seed, animal fodder, milking machines and other equipment. Milk adulteration was one dubious strategy some farmers used to make a living.

As early as 1902 the Boerenbond started providing administrative support to its members. Basically, consultants were recruited, subsidised by the Ministry of Agriculture, to keep an eye on the financial books of farmers, and of the quality of their milk. The Ministry also invested in mobile milking schools to teach farm women about dairy and milk processing. Along with milking competitions this boosted the attention to quality and hygiene.

The Boerenbond increasingly tried to bring various regional farmer organisations and milk cooperatives under its wing. In between the two World Wars they had representatives in Parliament, and they had their own oil mills, warehouses, laboratories and animal feed factory (made, for instance from waste chaff from the flax industry). The Boerenbond didn’t risk manufacturing their own chemical fertilizer, but bought shares in some of the large chemical companies. Group marketing, education, social security, credit and insurance were all managed in-house to support its members.

It all seemed so progressive, but by the 1930s, deepened by the stock market crash in 1929, the organisation was in a dire financial situation. After the crash of the potato and milk prices in 1936, the government realised that the Boerenbond was no longer capable of providing all these services, so the government set up its own credit and marketing institutions for milk, grain and horticultural crops.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Marshall Plan provided food aid and contributed to the reconstruction of Europe, under the condition that Western Europe subscribe to international free trade. While economic cooperation and integration gradually took shape, the economic advisors of the Boerenbond pleaded to keep a certain level of national autonomy for matters related to agriculture. But as food and milk production increased, the need for export markets grew and the Boerenbond became a strong advocate of European integration.

In 1958, a year after the European Economic Community was established, member countries developed an agricultural policy meant to guarantee a decent income for farmers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, productivity enhancement was considered a priority, but farmers found it hard to keep on investing in restructuring their farms to ever more specialised production units while over-production resulted in falling prices. In reality, farmers had to take larger loans and earned less and less. As in the USA, European farmers were buying more machinery, paying more for inputs, and falling deeper in debt.

In 1984, the European Community introduced production quotas to address the shocking situation of milk lakes and butter mountains. With very narrow profit margins set by a limited number of buyers, many farmers gave up.

For those who remained in business, the quotas lasted for about 30 years. By 2015 dairy farmers again could produce as much as they wanted.

The European Commission thought that this liberalisation would not bring back those lakes and mountains, because there was a growing market from developing countries, including China, and price monitoring had improved. In reality, in an attempt to prop up prices and curb the dairy crisis, Brussels has been buying up milk since 2015.

Stockpiled in warehouses, mainly in France, Germany and Belgium, the sacks of milk powder are a déjà vu of the milk lakes. Milk farmers and traders fear that these stockpiles are dragging down prices, as buyers expect the dried milk lakes to be sold off at any time.

Classical economics is based on the idea of many willing buyers and many willing sellers. In modern Europe there are many regulated farmers, buying agrochemicals, seed and animal feed from a few corporations and selling to just a few buyers. Farmers are forced to take prices for inputs set by large corporations, while prices of raw milk are fixed by supermarkets who have concentrated the power of the market. Whether they buy or sell, farmers are price takers, caught in the middle between monopolistic suppliers and a few powerful buyers. And farmers are paying a high price: input costs rose by 40% between 2000 and 2010.

The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) will shortly vote on new amendments including the support to protein crops to reduce dependence on imports (read “GMO soya”), and a mandatory introduction of leguminous crops in the rotation in Good Agricultural Environmental Practices.

While EU policies can contribute to protecting our farmers and our environment, consumers also have a crucial role to play. As consumers we have no idea how the continuous search for cheapest products is putting farmers in a stranglehold. While Fairtrade schemes are a nice thought, in reality all food sold anywhere should be fair for the people who produce it, including our own dairy farmers.

For more than a century, strong farmer organisations such as the Boerenbond have tried to protect farmers’ interests by promoting a model of industrial agriculture. How the Boerenbond will deal with farmers’ hard realities, the complexities of a changing climate, environmental degradation and economic pressure of corporations and supermarkets will determine its future relevance.  

Improved consumer awareness to buy local produce at a fair price, enhanced access to affordable animal feed and policies conducive to environmentally sound family farming will decide whether farmers will be able to survive or be replaced by new smart agriculture that can do without farmers, using machineries and investment funds.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp

Ulmer, Karin. 2019. The Common Agricultural Policy of Europe: making farmers in the Global South hungry. In: Who is Paying the Bill. Report published by SDG Watch Europe, pp. 21-30. https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/documents/2019/08/whos-paying-the-bill.pdf/

IPES-Food. 2019. Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU.
www.ipes-food.org/pages/CommonFoodPolicy  

Related blogs

Out of space

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Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers in developing countries.


Hydroponic fodder ; Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows; Herbal medicines against mastitis ; Making rennet ; Making fresh cheese ; Making yoghurt at home

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