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Three generations of knowledge January 20th, 2019 by

“As a youth I planted a little and my grandparents told me nothing about these bioindicators. My potatoes had a lot of worms. I was discouraged and decided to seek another life,” said don Miguel Ortega when we visited his farm a while ago in Voloco village. Now in his mid 40s don Miguel runs a prosperous organic farm in the Northern Altiplano of Bolivia (see also our previous blog: Harsh and healthy).

During his interview in front of the camera, don Miguel explained why he returned to his home village and picked up farming again: “Because when you work in a company, coming on time, leaving on time it is a form of slavery. So now that I work for myself I am a free man.”

In the meantime, don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, expert farmers who shares his knowledge with his peers and anyone who is interested in learning from nature and learning about healthy farming. But to become an expert farmer who can predict the weather based on observing plants, animals and insects has not been easy. The elders in the village were not forthcoming with sharing their knowledge about natural indicators, as don Miguel explained:

“When I asked the elders, they said “in this way.” But you do not ask them just like that with the mouth empty. You have to give them a little soft drink. I managed it this way. I did not pick up a piece of paper at that moment. I held it in my mind. I held it in my mind and when I arrived home, I wrote it on paper. That is how I worked. By questioning. If we would pick up a sheet of paper and write they would not want to tell us everything.”

Five days after meeting with don Miguel, we drive to the village of Ch’ojñapata, at an altitude of 4,250 meters. We interview Mery Mamani, who is in her early 20s. She runs a little shop where she sells soft drinks, beer and home-made cheese. Although we planned to interview her about an app that forecasts the weather, it soon became clear that this young woman had much more to tell us.

Full of energy she guides us down the steep slopes to a valley behind her house. A pretty cactus with red flowers, called sank’ayu in the local Aymara language, is what she wants to show us. “The app is great to tell us which day it will freeze or rain in the coming days, but this cactus tells us when is the best time to plant potatoes,” she said.

While Marcella films Mery in her little shop, she opens WhatsApp on her smart phone and shows photo after photo of various plants, mainly cactuses. All are bioindicators (see previous blog stories below that define “bioindicator”). Mery is clearly interested in making the right decisions on when to plant and do the other activities on her farm and she cleverly combines knowledge from the past with modern forecasting. Youth like Meri who remain in the countryside, and who are interested in ancestral knowledge can share those ideas and their observations with peers in other communities and other parts of the country. New communication devices can keep old knowledge alive.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in the coming month

Recording the weather

Weather forecasting

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information, and to Edwin Yucra from UMSA for introducing us to farmers in Ch’ojñapata.

Death of the third flowers January 13th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Uncertainty is a way of life for farmers.  But the better they can predict what’s going to happen, the more successfully they will adapt. One of the main uncertainties is the weather, particularly in harsh environments like the Bolivian Altiplano, the high plains, where the periods and patterns of rain, hail and frost are different each year. Miguel Ortega, Enrique Huallpa and Constantino Franco explained to me last December how they try to forecast what is going to happen by observing when the t’ola plant flowers. They live in the municipality of Waldo Ballivián, in the Altiplano, where the t’ola plant usually flowers in three bursts in August. According to Miguel, Enrique and Constantino each of these three blooms indicates what the frosts will be like later in November. The farmers then use this information to schedule potato planting.

These farmers of the southern hemisphere plant potatoes three times in the springtime between August and late September, roughly one or two weeks apart.

As don Bernabé, another local farmer, explained in last week’s blog, if the flowers get wet from the rain, they die. Which flowers survive the rains of August foretells which potatoes will survive the frosts of November. Or so farmers like Miguel, Enrique and Constantino believe. But is this happenstance? Or maybe even wishful thinking? Another explanation is that a lifetime of living in the elements has given observant rural people the skills to predict the weather.

Miguel Ortega is a yapuchiri or farmer extensionist, and one of his jobs is to share information with other farmers. In 2018, don Miguel told his neighbors that there would be a frost late in the spring because he had seen that the third flowering of the t’ola had withered. Not everyone listened. When it froze, on the last two nights of November, some people lost the potatoes that they had planted late. Don Miguel had planted early, and he avoided the frost.

Modern meteorology can tell farmers relatively little about the weather two months away. Being able to forecast crucial weather events two months in the future is a crucial survival skill for smallholders who must rely on their own knowledge to plan their crop every year.

Related blog stories

Harsh and healthy

Cultivating pride in the Andes

 

DE T’OLAS Y PAPAS

Jeff Bentley, 13 de enero del 2014

Los campesinos conviven con la incertidumbre.  Pero cuanto mejor puedan predecir lo que va a pasar, mejor se adaptarán. Una de las principales incertidumbres es el clima, particularmente en ambientes hostiles como el Altiplano boliviano, donde los períodos y patrones de la lluvia, del granizo y de las heladas son diferentes cada año. Miguel Ortega, Enrique Huallpa y Constantino Franco me explicaron el pasado mes de diciembre cómo intentan pronosticar lo que va a pasar observando cuándo florece una planta, la t’ola. Viven en el municipio de Waldo Ballivián, en el Altiplano, donde la t’ola florece tres veces en agosto. Según don Miguel, don Enrique y don Constantino, cada una de estas tres floraciones indica cómo serán las heladas a finales de noviembre. Los agricultores usan esta información para programar la siembra de papas.

Estos agricultores del hemisferio sur siembran sus papas tres veces en primavera, entre agosto y finales de septiembre, con una o dos semanas de diferencia.

Como explicó don Bernabé, otro agricultor del Altiplano, en el blog de la semana pasada, si las flores se mojan por la lluvia, mueren. Las flores que sobreviven a las lluvias de agosto pronostican qué papas sobrevivirán a las heladas de noviembre. O eso creen los agricultores como don Miguel, don Enrique y don Constantino. Pero, ¿es esto una casualidad? ¿O hasta una ilusión? Otra explicación es que la gente rural es observante, y después de toda una vida viviendo en los elementos, han desarrollado las habilidades para predecir el tiempo.

Miguel Ortega es un yapuchiri o extensionista agrícola, y uno de sus trabajos es compartir información con otros agricultores. En el 2018, don Miguel dijo a sus vecinos que habría una helada a finales de la primavera porque había visto que la tercera floración del t’ola se había marchitado. No todos escucharon. Cuando se congeló, en las últimas dos noches de noviembre, algunas personas perdieron las papas que habían plantado tarde. Don Miguel había plantado temprano, y evitó la helada.

La meteorología moderna puede informar relativamente poco a los agricultores sobre el tiempo a dos meses de distancia. Poder pronosticar eventos climáticos cruciales dos meses en el futuro es una habilidad crucial para la supervivencia de los pequeños agricultores que deben confiar en sus propios conocimientos para planificar sus cultivos cada año.

Historias de blogs relacionadas

Harsh and healthy

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Harsh and healthy December 23rd, 2018 by

Hours away from any city and a half hour drive from the pavement, we meet don Miguel Ortega, a warm, welcoming man in his late 40s, along with his wife, Sabina Mamani, and three of their five children on their farm in Viloco village.  In this remote area on the northern Altiplano of Bolivia, I wonder how he manages to feed his family. But first impressions can be deceiving; later in the day we meet his daughter who studies at the university and I realize that this is a prosperous family that is investing in education and healthy food.

The landscape is quite unlike the Southern Altiplano, where the sandy soils and the mere 150 mm of rainfall per year allow farmers to only grow quinoa and rear llamas and sheep. Here, further north, there are more options; soils are more fertile and with 500 mm of rainfall farmers grow quinoa, potatoes, broad beans, barley and alfalfa as fodder. Dairy cows are as prevalent as llamas.

Don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, experienced farmers on the Altiplano who share their skills with their peers. He is hired by several NGOs to train groups of farmers on organic agriculture, including how to make organic inputs, such as biol (fermented liquid manure), and how to fill out the Pachagrama, a locally invented method to record natural weather indicators and cropping calendar so farmers can make better decisions.

Don Miguel’s home, a cluster of adobe buildings, houses animals and vegetables that produce a tasty and healthy diet. The farm also has three neo-Andean greenhouses, made with adobe walls and topped with yellow agro-film, a tough plastic that withstands the sun. But one greenhouse is not used to grow vegetables. It turns out to be a home-made biogas installation. The greenhouse structure ensures that the manure and organic waste keeps fermenting during the cold winter months. The unit provides the family year-round gas to cook for 2 hours per day. Being off the grid, a solar panel supplies the household the minimum amount of electricity.

Mid-morning, one of the young girls brings us a mandarin. We accept the fruit with a sense of wonder. At nearly 4000 meters altitude there are hardly any trees, certainly none that require mild Mediterranean temperatures. When don Miguel invites us in one of his greenhouses, we see a single mandarin tree with a few fruits.

In the greenhouse he opens a black plastic sheet laying on the soil. Hundreds of earthworms seek shelter from the light, crawling deeper into the decomposing manure. He tells us that he watched a video a while ago from Bangladesh where farmers were also rearing earthworms. The video had been translated into Aymara and Spanish. While don Miguel had been rearing earthworms before he saw the video, he was pleasantly surprised to see farmers growing earthworms on the other side of the world, and he realized that in the future he could perhaps make enough vermicompost to have some to sell. Training videos from other countries not only give farmers new ideas, they also give them confidence about their own innovations and practices.

The family treated their visitors to a delicious, traditional Andean meal with mutton, potatoes and chuño (potatoes that are freeze-dried outside during the winter nights). Unusual for household on the Altiplano, they also serve organic, leafy vegetables, fresh from the greenhouse. All comes with a delicious, yellow sauce, which later on, we are told is prepared by their teenage son who aspires to become a chef one day.

It is often stated that people in remote areas only grow organic crops by default, because they cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Don Miguel and the many Yapuchiris we have met during this trip confirm that such statements are an insult to the many farmers who decide to live in harmony with nature, with care for their environment, their health and their families. Enabling farmers in remote areas to learn from their peers within and beyond their own country deserves the necessary attention.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform. Shortly the following ones will be added:

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

Other related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

From uniformity to diversity

Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

Videos on farmer rights to seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

Farmers’ rights to seed: Guatemala

Dick’s Ice Box September 2nd, 2018 by

In 2005, a few years before my Mom died, she took some of her grown children and grandchildren to Dewey, Utah, a ghost town on the Colorado River, to show us one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen. On a blistering day in July we walked through the sage brush and the red sand to a canyon wall. Mom led us through a neat little door through the cliff-face into a darkened room, surprisingly cooler than the outside and big enough for a dozen people to crowd in.

Mom’s grandfather, Richard Dallin “Dick” Westwood had carved this room from solid stone. Dick’s children called the place ‘Dad’s Ice Box.” Dick would stack winter ice from the Colorado River into his ice box to keep food cold all through the summer. “They could even keep butter in here,” Mom added proudly. My great-grandfather lived from 1863 to 1929; there was no electricity in Dewey and household refrigerators were rare before 1927.

Off and on between 1901 and 1916 Dick ran the ferry at Dewey, where the wagon road from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado crossed the Colorado River. The trip was a hundred miles (160 km), so travelers often spent the night at Dewey, where my great-grandmother Martha had a little boarding house and diner. The family had a small farm and some cattle that provided meat and other provisions. The ice box filled with food was important for Martha’s business.

That day in 2005, my Mom told us that Dick carved the ice box with dynamite. The rectangular doorway and the spacious room it led into were clearly the work of a craftsman. Carving stone with dynamite is a dangerous business, a good way to lose life or limb, and I always wondered how Dick knew what he was doing.

This remained a mystery until this year, when my cousin, Richard “Rick” Westwood wrote a book about our great-grandfather. It finally helped me make sense of Dick’s Ice Box.

Dick held many professions, from sheriff to muleskinner to Shakespearean actor, but until I read Rick’s book I never realized that Dick was also a miner. From childhood I knew that Dick had staked a mine claim, which he named “The Silver Dick.” I was aware that my great-grandfather had a sense of humor, but until I read Rick’s book I didn’t know that the Silver Dick was a working silver mine. Discovered in August 1908, it may have been the only one in Southeastern Utah. Dick worked the mine until 1909 when he filled a box car with valuable ore, enough to make his fortune. Sadly, this never happened, because the shipment was stolen by railroad workers en route to buyers. But Dick’s mine enriched him with the skill of working sandstone with dynamite.

The Ice Box may have been partly inspired by the root cellar, a small structure dug into the ground, topped off with a timber roof. Many families in Utah stored their food in root cellars. During their early years in Dewey, Dick and Martha’s root cellar burned down. Martha would later tell my grandmother how devastating it was to lose all their stored food. Dick took the loss stoically, saying: “Oh we’ll get us another sack of flour and another bag o’ taters (potatoes) and we’ll be as good off as ever.” But losing the root cellar may have inspired Dick to think of a fire-proof place to store the household food. As luck would have it, Dick was well placed to get ice. Rick explains that in the early 1900s, the Colorado River used to freeze so hard in winter that Dick could drive his family over the river in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The ferry was sited between two sharp bends in the river, near the modern-day Dewey Bridge. In the spring the ice would break with great force, and some big slabs would pile up on the bank, where they were relatively easy to collect.

In her history of ice, Elizabeth David observes the sunken ice houses made by Scandinavian farmers, but in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century USA, ice houses were typically wooden barn-like structures, made and operated by professional ice mongers, not by smallholder farmers. Dick’s Ice Box is the only one I know of carved into a sandstone cliff.

The ice box was crucial for running a family business on a small, desert farm.

Farmers’ creativity is often stimulated by new ideas, as we often say in our weekly Agro-Insight blog. Those ideas can come from science or from a technology the farmer learned somewhere else, even by mining. Dick was flexible, tough and creative. He took misfortune in stride, and adapted, just like many of the farmers we still meet today.

Acknowledgement

I thank my cousin, Rick Westwood, for letting me read his book manuscript. Thanks also to Rick and to my brothers Brett and Scott Bentley for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this story. I gratefully acknowledge Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele who gave me thoughtful feedback on this story, as they always do.

Related blog story

The Ice Harvest

Further reading

Richard E. “Rick” Westwood is publishing his excellent biography, Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood later in 2018.

See also:

Westwood, Richard E. 2010 Westwood Family History, Vol II. R. Westwood: Highland, Utah.

My great-grandmother, Martha Wilcox (1871 to 1962) wrote an autobiography, edited by her daughter, Grace Westwood Morse:

Autobiography of Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, privately printed in 1983.

And for the definitive story of ice boxes:

David, Elizabeth 1994 Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. London: Faber and Faber. 413 pp.

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