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Malawi calling January 21st, 2018 by

Written with Ronald Kondwani Udedi

I was at home in Bolivia when I got a surprise call from southern Africa. “I’m a chilli farmer in Malawi; you’ve been to my house,” said the confident voice on the other end, before the caller ran out of credit and the faint, crackling connection was suddenly cut off.

But the caller, Lester Mpinda, was not easily discouraged. In the time it takes to walk to the village shop and buy a scratch card, he was back on the phone. “I’ve made a lot of profit from chilli,” he said. Then the call was cut off again.

I remembered Mr. Mpinda well. Malawian media expert Ronald Udedi and I had visited Mr.Mpinda’s garden in September of 2016, in Mwanza, southern Malawi, where he showed us how he had started growing local chillies from seed he bought in the market after watching the videos on a DVD. I wanted to learn more, but the phone connection was too poor to chat. Instead, I contacted my friend Ronald on social media and asked him to find out more.

Ronald filled me in on the rest of Mr. Mpinda’s story. Shortly after our visit to his farm in 2016, Ronald and I made a short video on Mr. Mpinda. Access Agriculture then invited Mr. Mpinda to share his story at a meeting with partner organizations in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. I couldn’t attend, but I was a little apprehensive about the outcome, thinking that the event might distract Mr. Mpinda from his everyday work on the farm. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the meeting, Mr. Mpinda met Mr. Dyborn Chibonga, then the head of Nasfam (National Smallholder Farmers’ Association). Mr. Chibonga put Mr. Mpinda in touch with the nearest Nasfam extension agent in Mulanje, who later visited the farm and gave Mr. Mpinda some seed of bird’s eye chilli, the variety used to make tabasco-style hot sauce. The slender red bottles of hot sauce are a common sight on Malawian tables and the dried chilli is exported to food-makers in Europe and elsewhere.

Chilli seed is really small, and a little bit goes a long way, so Mr. Mpinda decided to share his generous gift from Nasfam with his neighbors. Mr. Mpinda started a chilli club with 12 members, of whom eight were women. He showed the club members how to plant the chilli, gave them seed, and once or twice a week he invited the club to his home to show them the chilli videos in Chichewa, the local language. Each member learned more about growing and drying this crop, which was entirely new to them. The club members created a chilli demonstration garden, where they tried out what they saw in the videos.

When the club had a stock of dried chillies, they phoned the Nasfam extension agent, who came from Mulanje, where Nasfam has a factory for making hot sauce. The agent bought 160 kilos of chilli from the individual club members, paying 2,500 Kwacha ($3.50) per kilogram, twice the price of tobacco which is number one export crop. The Nasfam agent left more seed.

Other friends and neighbors who heard of this success asked to join the club. Mr. Mpinda graciously welcomed them and now there are 80 members growing chilli and learning about the crop from the videos.

As Ronald puts it, “the most important thing (that started this new enterprise) was the DVD with the chilli videos. Mr. Mpinda and his friends watched it to learn about everything, from taking care of the nursery beds to transplanting and harvesting.” The videos meant that farmer didn’t have to rely on visits from extension agents, whose time and travel budgets are limited.

For many years only one company, NALI, made hot sauce in Malawi, but now there are over 10. Malawi is now enjoying a kind of chilli boom.  Mr. Mpinda’s story shows that smallholders can independently identify and respond to market openings. Peasant farmers are always open to new opportunities and eager to try useful innovations. I have no idea how long the chilli boom in Malawi will last, but agriculture will never go out of style. As long as smallholders have buyers, seed and good information, they will be able to market quality produce.

Related blog stories

A hot plan

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Related videos

Hear Mr. Mpinda tell, in his own words, how he became a chilli farmer. Watch Ronald Udedi’s video

Videos on chilli

Watch the videos on how to grow and process chilli here

Videos in the languages of Malawi

All the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org are in English and at least one other language, including the following languages spoken in Malawi:

36 videos in Chichewa

7 videos in Tumbuka

13 videos in Yao

13 videos in Sena

Fishing changes November 12th, 2017 by

Two million years ago in East Africa, long before humans lived on any other continent, our ancestors followed the receding shorelines of shallow ponds and lakes, during each annual dry season, scooping up the stranded catfish and eels. People have eaten fish ever since, and fishing may have shaped humans more than big game hunting.

From Rome to China, early civilizations would have been impossible without fish, as renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan tells us in a new book, Fishing. Mesopotamians could always rely on fish, even when the flooding Tigris and Euphrates failed to water the crops. When the Nile flooded, it covered the land in fish, as well as water. The pyramids of Egypt were built by laborers fed on rations of beer, bread and dried catfish, caught every year in the shallow, receding flood waters of the Nile.

Ancient sailors in small boats could not carry enough provisions for long voyages. The mariners would never have been able to explore the Indian Ocean and create the trade routes that linked Europe and Asia, without settled communities of fisherfolk, who caught and dried fish to sell or trade.

Fishing would have been impossible without local knowledge. The Tahitians sailed sophisticated, deep-sea canoes to catch large, predatory fish. The big fish and the sea birds both followed dense schools of smaller fish. The Tahitians recognized that the big fish followed the birds to find the small fish. Fishers scanned the horizon for birds, and could tell by the species flying over the water what type of fish to expect there.

Commercial fishing began with herring in the North Sea in the 1300s. Dutch and Flemish crews caught the fish from deep-water wooden ships called busses, which required a large crew and started the season every year on the night of St. John, 24 June. The fish were salted, packed into standard-sized barrels, branded with the seals of the merchants who sold them, and traded all over Europe until 1810. By then the herring were becoming scarce, and salted cod from the Atlantic had captured the market. While there is still fishing in the North Sea, before the 1800s the herring were so abundant they were compared to ants.

As waters were fished out, fishers sailed farther and farther from home. The English were fishing off the shores of Iceland in 1420 and off the banks of Newfoundland in 1600. By about 1880, new technologies such as steam trawlers extended the reach of commercial fishing to deep ocean water. But some modern techniques are devastating, such as the large nets that drag the bottom, destroying the places where the fish spawn.

Many countries have reacted to over-fishing by creating 200-mile exclusion zones and limiting catches. The Canadian government closed the cod fishery in 1992 when stocks hit 1% of their peak. Thanks to the ban, the cod have since partially recovered.

Although subsistence fishing is ancient, it has never destroyed the fishery it depended upon. Salmon and sturgeon once swam up the Danube River to spawn. Communities of fishers had survived for thousands of years at the Iron Gates (on the Danube between Serbia and Romania), until nineteenth century pollution, dam-building and over-fishing destroyed the stocks.

But waters far from home, as in the Antarctic, are uncontrolled and fished recklessly, as though there were no tomorrow. Commercial fishing is now in a slow decline, while artisanal and subsistence fishing are both on the rise. Fish farming is increasing rapidly. By 2012, for the first time in history, more fish were farmed than caught wild.

I saw a glimpse of artisanal, peasant fishing recently in Bangladesh, where many villages have fields interspersed with fish ponds. Farmers throw nets and use various other techniques, bringing home one small bag of fish at a time for the supper pot.

On one especially rainy day, the ponds were over-flowing, and some people were setting up long, gently tapering nets over the drainage ditches, to catch any fish that may have escaped from the ponds. No fish was going to be wasted.

Subsistence fishers are often smallholder farmers. Fishing and farming combine easily. If fishing fed civilization, as Fagan explains, it is the smallholders who will keep fishing alive into the future. The fish ponds in Bangladesh are highly commercial, run by knowledgeable farmers. With the increasing demand for proteins, fish species will continue to feed humanity only with a good balance between open sea fishing that respects quotas (based on science and policy) and fish farming that will require stringent food safety measures, such as guarding against the abuse of antibiotics.

Further reading

Fagan, Brian 2017 Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Have: Yale University Press. 346 pp.

Related blog stories

Cake for fish? hold the coconut, please

Fishing on a hill

Further viewing

Food for fish

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Preparing low-cost concentrate feed

Growing azolla for feed

Tomatoes good enough to eat November 5th, 2017 by

I was astounded years ago to learn that many farmers in Bangladesh had two completely different ways to grow vegetables. As my friend and colleague Harun-ar-Rashid told me, farmers sprayed pesticides as often as every other day on their commercial vegetables, yet grew a pesticide-free crop to eat with their families.

It’s not that I doubted Harun’s story. He’s a careful observer and an experienced Bangladeshi agricultural scientist, but I wanted to find out more about this odd contradiction. How could farmers simply do without pesticides on crops that usually required a lot of spraying? Harun’s explanation was that the farmers were worried about eating vegetables tainted with dangerous chemicals. But that assumed that there were viable alternatives to the intense use of pesticides.

Recently I got to see for myself how this double standard works. I was tagging along with some of my mature students, who were writing a video script on tomato late blight, the same vicious disease that also destroys potato crops. We were visiting family farmers who grew commercial vegetables in the village of Sordarpur, in the southwest of Bangladesh, near Jessore. The farmers had received a lot of training from extensionists and had thoughtfully blended the new information with their own experience.

On their commercial fields, as soon as the farmers see late blight symptoms on tomato, they begin spraying with fungicides. The growers monitor the tomato crop constantly and spray often, especially when foggy days are followed by sun, which is perfect weather for late blight.

Farmers go to their commercial fields every day to check their tomatoes and prune diseased leaves with scissors. Then they clean the scissors with disinfectant, to avoid spreading disease from plant to plant. Farmers can hire labor to do this in their commercial fields. They say that because of the fungicides, there are few diseased leaves in the commercial fields. The diseased leaves are collected in a bag or bucket to keep them from spreading disease to the healthy plants.

The farmers did confirm that they grow tomatoes differently in their small home gardens, where they grow around 10 plants and uproot the ones that get diseased instead of spraying them. The farmers said that about eight plants usually survive, enough to feed the family.

The farmers in Sordarpur graft their home garden tomatoes onto eggplant rootstock. Partly this gives the tomatoes a stronger stem, but the farmers also think that grafting protects the tomatoes from disease, although they are not sure why. (Grafting can provide disease-resistant rootstock for a disease like late blight which is transmitted in the soil and through the air).

Insect pests can also be a problem. In the home gardens, farmers control insect pests (such as aphids and fruit flies) by hanging up plastic pots painted yellow and coated with engine oil. The fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow and get stuck in the oil. The farmers are also starting to use sex pheromone traps, trying out this new practice mostly in the home gardens.

They make organic pesticides with mustard seed oil, which is used only or mainly in the home gardens. Store-bought chemical insecticides are used in the commercial fields.

Related blog

Read about the farmers in Abdulpur who sell seedlings to the folks in Sordarpur Specializing in seedlings.

For more on pheromone traps see The best knowledge is local and scientific.

Further reading

Lee, Jung-Myung 1994 “Cultivation of Grafted Vegetables I. Current Status, Grafting Methods, and Benefits.” Hortscience 29(4): 235-239.

Further viewing

Watch training videos on fruit flies and integrated pest management

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Abu Sharif Md. Mahbub-E-Kibria “Kibria” at the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, and to Nazrin Alam (Practical Action Bangladeshesh) and Rakesh Khadka (Practical Action Nepal), for letting me go with them to Sordarpur. Kibria was kind enough to make valuable comments on two earlier versions of this story.

The photo of the pheromone trap is courtesy of Md. Mizanur Rahaman, Practical Action Bangladesh.

Lazy farming September 3rd, 2017 by

In 1970, after studying Asian history and soil science at the University of California, 22-year-old Larry Korn boarded a ship bound for Japan. After travelling a bit he began working on farms, where he learned to speak Japanese and to love farming. A couple of years later, Mr. Korn heard about “natural farming” and a book, One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Mr. Korn travelled to Mr. Fukuoka’s small farm on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan, and spent the next two years working there and studying with Mr. Fukuoka.

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was trained as a plant pathologist. He was the son of a village landlord who lost most of his farm during land reform after World War II. After working as a government customs inspector for a few years, Mr. Fukuoka decided to try to live a more natural life, and he returned to what was left of his family farm, just an acre and a quarter (5000 square meters) of rice fields. He was later able to buy 13 acres (5.2 hectares) of orange orchard.

Mr. Fukuoka began to question traditional Japanese agriculture, as practiced from about 1600 up to the late 1940s. Was it really necessary to weed, plow, fertilize and flood rice fields? Mr. Fukuoka experimented to see which of these practices could be skipped and eventually concluded that he could eliminate them all.

Instead, in the fall before harvesting the rice Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rye seed in one rice field and barley seed into another field of standing rice. He always kept white clover growing in these fields, to fix nitrogen and suppress weeds. The rye and barley seeds would fall between the growing rice plants, among the clover and the weeds. When he harvested the rice, the rye and the barley plants would still be small, but would start to grow faster without the shade of the rice. After threshing the rice he would spread the straw back in the field as mulch, to keep the weeds down. The rye and barley would grow all winter, and a couple of weeks before harvesting them, Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rice in the rye and barley, and after harvesting the rye and barley, the young rice plants would start to grow more vigorously. He harvested all his grain by hand, with sickles, with the help of family and students.

After two years of working on the farm, Larry Korn helped translate One-Straw Revolution to English, and found a publisher in the USA (Rodale Press). In 1979 Larry Korn hosted Mr. Fukuoka on his first trip to the USA, where he became a kind of celebrity, later making trips to India and other countries as well.

Forty years later, in 2015, Larry Korn treated the public to a delightful book about his experiences with Mr. Fukuoka.

Mr. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” was largely his own invention. It was not traditional Japanese agriculture which, to paraphrase Larry Korn, was lots of compost and lots of work. In his charming, self-effacing way, Mr. Fukuoka said that he was trying to avoid some of that work. He said that his style of agriculture could be called “lazy farming.” Even so, harvesting a grain field with sickles is a huge amount of work, especially since by the 1970s they could have used machinery. Larry Korn says that there were about five students on the Fukuoka Farm at any one time, and they were all working pretty hard. That is a lot of labor, actually, on such a small farm. But his rice yields were not bad, 5.9 tons per hectare, which was the average rice yield for Japan in 1979, according to Ricepedia.org. He was also building up the soil, forming a thick layer of rich, black earth, alive with earthworms.

I have made compost for nearly thirty years. I love the way it converts orange rinds, egg shells and old newspapers into rich, natural fertilizer. But as I was reading about natural farming, I realized that making compost really is a lot of work. At our house we usually cheat, and hire a day laborer to dig out the compost pit. We still make compost from kitchen scraps, but now we have started leaving the cut weeds in the garden as mulch, instead of tossing them into the compost pit. As soon as we started mulching we noticed that there was less weeding to do. And that is the mark of a good book: it gives you new ideas to think about.

Further reading

Korn, Larry 2015 One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green. 224 pp.

Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

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