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A Greener Revolution in Africa May 2nd, 2021 by

After settling in the USA in the 1990s, Isaac Zama would visit his native Cameroon almost every year, until war broke out in late 2016, and it became too dangerous to go home. About that same time a new satellite TV company, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation (SCBC), was formed to broadcast news and information in English. (Cameroon was formed from a French colony and part of a British one in 1961).

In 2018, Isaac approached SCBC to start a TV program on agriculture to help Southern Cameroonians who could no longer work as a result of the war, and the thousands of refugees who sought refuge in Nigeria. The broadcasters readily agreed. With his PhD in agriculture and rural development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his roots in a Cameroonian village, Isaac was well placed to find content that farmers back home would appreciate. “I did some research on the Internet, and I found Access Agriculture,” said Isaac. “I liked it so much that I watched every single video.”

Isaac soon started a TV program, Amba Farmers’ Voice, which began to air every Sunday at 4 PM, Cameroon time. It is rebroadcast several times a week to give more people a chance to watch the program. With frequent power cuts many are not able to tune in on Sundays.

The program is broadcast live from Isaac’s studio in Virginia. He starts with a basic introduction in West African Pidgin. “If I’m going to show a video on rabbits, I start by explaining what a is rabbit,” Isaac explains. “And that we can learn from farmers in Kenya how to build a rabbit house, and to care for these animals.” After playing an Access Agriculture video on the topic (in English), Isaac comments on it in Pidgin, for the older, rural viewers who may not speak English. His remarks are carefully scripted, and based on background reading and research.

The show lasts an hour or more and allows Isaac to play several videos. Amba Farmers’ Voice has its own Facebook and YouTube pages. While his program is on the air, Isaac checks out the Facebook page to get an idea of how many people are watching. A popular topic like caring for rabbits may have 1,000 viewers just on Facebook. But most people watch the satellite broadcast. SCBC estimates that two to three million people watch Amba Farmers’ Voice in Cameroon, but many others also watch it in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and even in some Francophone countries, like Benin and Gabon.

Some farmers reciprocate, sending Isaac pictures and videos that they have shot themselves, showing off their own experiments, adapting the ideas from the videos to conditions in Cameroon. Isaac heard from one group of “mothers in the village” who showed how they were using urine to fertilize their corn, after watching an Access Agriculture video from Uganda.

People in refugee camps watched the video on sack mounds, showing how to grow vegetables in a large, soil-filled bag. But gunny sacks were scarce in the refugee camp, so people improvised, filling plastic bags with earth and growing tomatoes in them, so they could grow some food within the confines of the camp.

Isaac mentioned that people were installing drip irrigation after seeing the video from Benin about it.

“That can be expensive,” I said. “People have to buy materials.”

“Not really,” Isaac answered. Gardeners take used drink bottles from garbage dumps, fill them with water, poke holes in the cap, and leave them to drip slowly on their plants.

After seeing the video from Benin on feeding giant African snails (for high-quality meat), one young man in the Southern Cameroons got used tires and stacked one on top of the other to make the snail pen. It’s an innovation he came up with after watching the Access Agriculture video. He puts two tires in a stack, puts the snails in the bottom, and feeds them banana peels and other fruit and vegetable waste. Isaac tells his audience “We don’t need to buy anything. Just open your eyes and adapt. See what you can find to use.”

Solar dryers were another topic that people adapted from the videos. To save money, they made the dryers from bamboo, instead of wood, and shared one between several families. As a further adaptation, people are drying grass in the solar dryer. Access Agriculture has four videos on using solar dryers to preserve high value produce like pineapples, mangoes and chillies, but none show grass drying. Isaac explains that you sprinkle a little salt on the grass as you dry it. Then, in the dry season you put the grass in water and it turns fresh again. Now he is encouraging youth to form groups so they can dry grass to store, to sell to farmers when forage is scarce.

I was delighted to see so many local experiments, just from people who watch videos on television, with no extension support.

All of this interaction, between Isaac Zama and his compatriots, the teaching, feedback and organisation, is all happening on TV and online. He hasn’t been to Cameroon since he started his program.  Isaac’s interaction with his audience amazes me. It’s a testimony to his talent, but also to the improved connectivity in rural Africa.

“People think that Africans don’t have cell phones,” Isaac says, “but 30% of the older farmers in villages have android phones. Their adult children, living in cities or abroad, buy phones for their parents so they can stay in touch and so they can see each other on WhatsApp.” Isaac adds that what farmers need now is an app so they can watch agricultural videos cheaper.

Dr. Isaac Zama wants to encourage other stations to broadcast farmer learning videos: “Those videos from Access Agriculture will revolutionize agriculture in Africa in two or three years, if our national leaders would just broadcast them on TV. The farmers would do it themselves, just from the information they can see on the videos.” Isaac is willing to collaborate with other TV stations across the world, to share his experience or to broadcast Amba Farmers Voice, but particularly with broadcasters in Africa who are interested in agricultural development

Related Agro-Insight blogs

To drip or not to drip

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

Cell phones for smallholders

A connecting business

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana

Watch the Access Agriculture videos mentioned in this story

How to build a rabbit house

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Drip irrigation for tomato

Feeding snails

Solar drying pineapples, Making mango crisps, Solar drying of kale leaves and Solar drying of chillies

 

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.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

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.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

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.

Artículos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

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.

Videos sobre la forma agroecológica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

A revolution for our soil

Reviving soils

The intricacies of mulching

Stop erosion

What counts in agroecology

The big mucuna

Farming with trees

Videos on soil health practices

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Good microbes for plants and soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Grass strips against soil erosion

Intercropping maize with pigeon peas

Intercropping pineapples

The wonder of earthworms

Reviving soils with mucuna

Validating local knowledge July 26th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Paul and I have written earlier stories in this blog about the yapuchiris, expert farmer-researcher-extensionists on the semi-arid, high plains of Bolivia. At 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 feet), seasoned farmers know how to observe plants and animals, clouds and stars, to predict the weather, especially to answer the Big Question on their minds: when will the rains start, so I can plant my crop?

All of the yapuchiris know some traditional ways of predicting the weather. Some yapuchiris also write their observations on a special chart they have designed with their agronomist colleagues at Prosuco, an organization in La Paz. The chart, called a Pachagrama, allows the yapuchiris to record the weather each day of the year, just by penciling in a few dots, so they can see if their predictions come true, and how the rains, frosts and hail affect their crops.

It can be daunting to prove the value of local knowledge, but it is worth trying.

Eleodoro Baldivieso is an agronomist with Prosuco, which has spent much of the past year studying the results of the Pachagrama weather-tracking charts. As he explained to me recently, Prosuco took four complete Pachagramas (each one filled out over seven years) containing 42 cases; each case is a field observed over a single season by one of the yapuchiris. Comparing the predicted weather with the recorded weather allowed Prosuco to see if the Pachagramas had helped to manage risk, mainly by planting a couple of weeks early, on time, or two weeks late.

Frost, hail and unpredictable rainfall are the three main weather risks to the potato and quinoa crops on the Altiplano. In October, a little rain falls, hopefully enough to plant a crop, followed by more rain in the following months. Average annual rainfall is only 800 mm (about 30 inches) in the northern Altiplano, and a dry year can destroy the crop.

For the 42 cases the study compared the yapuchiri’s judgement on the harvest (poor, regular, or good) with extreme weather events (like frost), and the planting date (early, middle or late) to see if variations in the planting date (based on weather predictions) helped to avoid losses and bring in a harvest.

The study found that crops planted two weeks apart can suffer damage at different growth stages of the plant. For example, problems with rainfall are especially risky soon after potatoes are planted, affecting crops planted early and mid-season. Frost is more of a risk for early potatoes at the start of the season, and for late potatoes when they are flowering. Hail is devastating when it falls as the mid and late planted potatoes are flowering.

The yapuchiris are often able to accurately predict frost, hail, and rainfall patterns months in advance. Scientific meteorology does a good job predicting such weather a few days away, but not several months in advance. When you plant your potatoes, modern forecasts cannot tell you what the weather will be like when the crop is flowering. Forecasting the weather in a challenging environment is helpful, at least some of the time. Planting two weeks early or two weeks late may help farmers take best advantage of the rain, but then expose the crop to frost or hail. Changing the planting dates can help farmers avoid one risk, but not another.

The weather is so complicated that risk can never be completely managed. And because scientific meteorology cannot predict hail and frost months in advance, local knowledge fills a void that science may never replace.

Previous blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

To see the future

Predicting the weather

Watch the video

Recording the weather

Watch the presentation by Eleodoro Baldivieso (in Spanish)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana and Santos Quispe are the yapuchiris who participated in this research. Thanks to Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, and Sonia Laura of Prosuco for reading and commenting on a previous version of this story. The first two photos are courtesy of Prosuco.

VALIDANDO LOS CONOCIMIENTOS LOCALES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de julio del 2020

Paul y yo hemos escrito historias anteriores en este blog sobre los Yapuchiris, expertos agricultores-investigadores y extensionistas en el Altiplano semiárido boliviano. A los 4000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores experimentados saben cómo observar plantas y animales, nubes y estrellas para predecir el clima, especialmente para responder a la Gran Pregunta en sus mentes ¿cuándo comenzarán las lluvias para yo pueda sembrar mi chacra?

Todos los Yapuchiris conocen algunas formas tradicionales de predecir el tiempo. Algunos Yapuchiris también apuntan sus observaciones en un cuadro especial que han diseñado con sus colegas, los ingenieros agrónomos de Prosuco, una organización en La Paz. El cuadro, llamado Pachagrama, permite a los Yapuchiris registrar el tiempo cada día del año, con sólo dibujar algunos puntos, para que puedan ver si sus predicciones se hagan realidad y como las lluvias, heladas y granizadas afectan sus cultivos.

Puede ser difícil comprobar ese conocimiento local, pero vale la pena intentarlo.

El Ing. Eleodoro Baldivieso, de Prosuco, ha pasado gran parte del año pasado estudiando los resultados de los Pachagramas. Cómo él me explicó hace poco, Prosuco tomó cuatro Pachagramas completos (de siete campañas agrícolas) y 42 casos; cada caso es una parcela observada durante una campaña por uno de los yapuchiris. El comparar el tiempo previsto con el tiempo registrado permitió a Prosuco ver si los Pachagramas habían ayudado a manejar el riesgo, principalmente mediante la siembra temprana (dos semanas antes), intermedia y tardía (dos semanas después).

Las heladas, el granizo y la lluvia impredecible son los tres principales riesgos meteorológicos para los cultivos de papa y quinua en el Altiplano. En octubre cae un poco de lluvia, con la esperanza de que sea suficiente para sembrar un cultivo, seguida hasta marzo por más lluvia. La precipitación media anual es sólo 800 mm en el Altiplano Norte, y un año seco puede destruir la cosecha, lo mismo que un año con mucha lluvia.

Para los 42 casos el estudio comparó la evaluación del Yapchiri de la cosecha (malo, regular, o bueno) con eventos extremos de tiempo (como heladas), con las fechas de siembra (temprano, mediano, o tarde) para ver si el variar la fecha de siembra (basado en el pronóstico del Yapuchiri) ayudó a evitar pérdidas y lograr una cosecha.

El estudio halló que los cultivos sembrados a dos semanas de diferencia pueden sufrir daño en diferentes etapas de crecimiento da las plantas. Por ejemplo, los problemas con las lluvias son especialmente arriesgados poco después de la siembra de la papa, afectando más a la siembra tempran, a principios y mediados de la temporada. Las heladas son más riesgosas para las papas tempranas al comienzo de la temporada, y para las papas tardías justo en la época de floración. El granizo es devastador para las siembras intermedias y tardías, si la papa está en flor.

Los Yapuchiris a menudo son capaces de predecir con certeza las heladas, el granizo y los patrones de lluvia, con meses de antelación. La meteorología científica a menudo puede predecir ese tiempo a unos pocos días, pero con meses de anticipación. Cuando siembras tu papa, el pronóstico moderno no te puede decir cómo será el tiempo cuando tu cultivo está en flor. Pronosticar el tiempo en un entorno desafiante es útil, al menos parte del tiempo. Sembrar dos semanas antes o dos semanas después puede ayudar a los agricultores a aprovechar mejor la lluvia, pero se expone el cultivo a las heladas o granizo, cuando es más vulnerable. Cambiar las fechas de siembra puede ayudar a los agricultores a evitar uno de los riesgos, pero no siempre a todos.

El clima es tan complicado que el riesgo nunca puede ser manejado completamente. Y debido a que la meteorología científica no puede predecir el granizo y las heladas con meses de anticipación, el conocimiento local llena un vacío que la ciencia tal vez nunca reemplace.

Historias previas del blog

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Conocer el futuro

Prediciendo el clima

Ver el video

Hacer un registro del clima

Vea la presentación por Eleodoro Baldivieso (en español)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight. Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana y Santos Quispe son los Yapuchiris que participaron en esta investigación. Gracias a Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, y Sonia Laura de Prosuco por leer y hacer comentaros sobre una versión previa de esta historia. Las primeras dos fotos son cortesía de Prosuco.

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

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

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

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Acknowledgements

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

MICROBIOS AMIGABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 5 de abril del 2020

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

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

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

El bocashi se describe a veces como fertilizante, pero en realidad es más que abono orgánico; es también una fuente de minerales, y microorganismos para el suelo.  Freddy explicó que desde que él estuvo en la universidad, durante los últimos 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, “estiércol de árbol”). El estiércol 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 podría usar cualquier cosa orgánica. También 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 día el bocashi se calienta por la fermentación, y de nuevo hay que darle vuelta a la mezcla. El bocashi estaría listo en unas dos semanas, según la temperatura ambiental.

Es un procedimiento exigente, que parece mucho trabajo, pero Freddy explicó que él 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 teníamos que regar nuestros manzanos cada dos días, pero ahora sólo tenemos que regar una vez a la semana”, explicó. Su entusiasmo y la clara evidencia de los beneficios me ayudó a reevaluar mi opinión escéptica del bocashi.

A continuación, el Ing. Basilio Caspa mostró cómo hacer biol, un cultivo líquido de microbios amistosos. En un balde, mezcló estiércol fresco de vaca, chancaca y agua, explicando que cuando muestra a los agricultores cómo mezclar el biol, se oponen. “¿Cómo es que un hombre educado como tú puede mezclar estiércol 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 hermética al turril, para que no entre el aire, e instala una válvula que compró por 2 pesos en la ferretería 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 benéficos controlan a los patógenos).  En realidad, Basilio escribió su tesis sobre el biol. Encontró que podía 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, él 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.

¿Pero los agricultores realmente usan estos productos?

Entonces María Omonte, una ingeniera agrónoma con profunda experiencia de campo, compartió una duda. Con la ayuda de Agroecología y Fe, ella había enseñado a los agricultores de Sik’imira, Cochabamba, a fabricar estos insumos y luego ayudó 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; así era. Los agricultores tendían a aceptar el biol, más que el bocashi, pero más que eso, están interesados en los caldos que parecen más a los químicos, como el caldo sulfocálcico, el caldo bordelés (un fungicida cúprico) y el caldo ceniza (ceniza hervida con jabón).

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.

Blogs relacionados

Una revolución para nuestro suelo

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Videos relacionados

Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

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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