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When ants and microbes join hands June 23rd, 2019 by

When I recently attended the 1st International Conference on Agroecology – Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa, one of the research posters on display drew my attention. Effective microorganisms® are a commercial mix of beneficial bacteria, yeast and other living things. A team in Mozambique had found that the microorganisms not only controlled Oidium, a serious fungal disease in cashew, but also managed the devastating sap-sucking bug that deforms nuts and causes their premature fall. Or at least that is what the title said.

Professor Panfilo Tabora had been working for many years with cashew. Not knowing that I was an avid fan of the weaver ant, Oecophylla, a tree-dwelling predator, Panfilo gently explained to me that the microorganisms attracted the weaver ant to the cashew trees. “The ants were a bonus,” he said with a smile. I knew that weaver ants effectively control bugs, but now I was completely intrigued: how on earth would microorganisms attract ants?

“Earlier, farmers helped the weaver ants to colonize new trees by putting ropes between trees so the ants could colonise new trees and attack bugs and other pests,” Panfilo explained me. “But when farmers started spraying fungicides the ants disappeared.”

For several years, Panfilo and his colleagues began to teach villagers to make their own liquid molasses from dried and stored cashew apples as a source of sugar, minerals and amino acids to feed and multiply the microorganisms. So the farmers made molasses to feed the effective microorganisms, which controlled the Oidium. But even when the fermented solution was ready to spray on the trees it was still sweet. “When farmers spray their trees with the solution, the sweet liquid and amino acids attracts the ants.”

Although the poster did not tell the full story, there was still truth in saying that microorganisms controlled the fungal disease and the pest, in reality it was the fermented solution that attracted the ants, which controlled the bugs. Still, even such a roundabout pest control is worth having.  

I felt reassured to know that valuable ancient technologies of biological control, such as weaver ant husbandry, have a future when combined with modern agroecological technologies that restore rather than kill ecosystems.

“And we discovered a few more unintended benefits,” Professor Panfilo continued. “By spraying the tree canopies with microorganisms, farmers are no longer exposed to pesticides and can reduce the cost of pruning.” As pesticides are expensive and harmful, farmers need to move quickly from one tree to the next to spray the outside canopy of the trees, or else they will get covered with chemicals. But as these effective microorganisms are safe for people, farmers can actually spray the under-canopies from below. The tree canopies often touch one another, which also helps the ants to move between trees. Instead of pruning every year, Prof Panfilo’s team tells farmers to just prune once every other year, or even every three years so as to have more terminals for flowering and fruiting and to let the ants move from tree to tree. All of this adds up to more yield.

At that stage, I was so impressed that I had a hard time absorbing yet another unintended benefit of this organic technology. In Mozambique, as in many other countries, farmers use the fallen cashew apples to make cashew apple juice. “By spraying cashew trees with effective microorganisms, it acts as an anti-oxidant so the juice retains its clear colour for at least 2 months,” said Panfilo.

Quite a few of the presentations at the conference had nicely illustrated the benefits of organic agriculture to people and the environment, but Prof Panfilo and his team stood out because they illustrated how the introduction of even a single, modern eco-technology can have such a wide range of benefits.

Not all microorganisms are bad, as people in the industry, schools and media often wants us to make believe. Thanks to the work of practical researchers, we learn that this healthy mix of microscopic flora can cure mildew, attract ants that kill pests, provide a safe alternative to pesticides and stop cashew fruit juice from oxidizing for months.

Related blogs

Effective micro-organisms

The smell of ants

Ants in the kitchen

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Preparing cashew apple juice

Good fungus for healthy groundnuts June 9th, 2019 by

Diseases need to be cured; this is true for people, animals and plants. In plant protection, fungicides are probably more readily seen as acceptable than insecticides, which are well known to harm the ecosystem, bees, birds and people. But plants can be protected without chemicals, as people from the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India are showing in their gradually growing series of farmer training videos.

Their latest farmer training video on root and stem rot in groundnut nicely shows how beneficial fungi like Trichoderma can control root and stem rot diseases without the need for chemical fungicides. Indian farmer Govindammal shows the viewer how she carefully coats the groundnut seed with Trichoderma, using some water to make the powder stick to the seed. She mixes it on a jute bag without using her hands, to avoid breaking the seed.

Some farmers add Trichoderma directly to the soil by mixing it in the manure. For one hectare of land, they mix two kilograms of Trichoderma with 10 baskets of farmyard manure. They leave the mix for a day in the shade before applying it to the field. The good fungi will grow faster with the manure. By broadcasting this mix on their field before sowing, farmers will grow abundant, healthy groundnuts.

Biological pest control was long restricted to insects, so when doing a Google Scholar search on root and stem rot in groundnut, I was pleasantly surprised to see that many top articles are on biological control with beneficial fungi such as Trichoderma. Indian scientists have dominated this research and hence it comes as no surprise that in India Trichoderma has become widely available as a commercial product.

Apart from their own videos, MSSRF staff have also translated farmer-to-farmer training videos that were produced in Bangladesh and Africa. MSSRF makes the Tamil versions of the videos available to farmers through its rural plant clinics and farmer learning centres.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote that “Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.” This is true, but videos can speed up this process. Besides, quality training videos will not only change the behaviour of farmers, but also extension staff, and some researchers.

Hopefully in future, we will see more research and extension in support of organic agriculture and more organic technologies will become available to farmers. As we have seen with other technologies such as drip irrigation (read: To drip or not to drip), farmer training videos can create a real demand for green technologies and trigger rural entrepreneurs to invest in them.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in English, French or Tamil

Managing mealybugs in vegetables

Managing tomato leaf curl virus

Managing bacterial leaf blight in rice

Managing aphids in beans and vegetables

Root and stem rot in groundnut (will be published in coming week)

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

A healthier way to eat groundnuts

Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Lap’iya means “dahlia” in Quechua. It’s an apt name for a village of commercial flower growers, tucked into a steep canyon in the Andes, high above the city of Cochabamba. Ana and I visited Lap’iya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don’t require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met BenjamĂ­n Vargas, a farmer, and his friend SerafĂ­n Vidal, an extension agent who are developing an agroforestry system based on apples. They are perhaps the first ones in the area to mix apples with forestry trees. They hope this combination will hold the soil on the steep slope while also providing a reliable income. Apples do well in this part of Bolivia, with a wide range of varieties that are smaller than the imported ones, but tasty. They also sell for less.

BenjamĂ­n and SerafĂ­n have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. BenjamĂ­n and SerafĂ­n wait until the apples are a few years old before planting other trees in between them, such as khishwara and pine. They prune these trees so they grow straight and tall, with fewer lower branches to cast shade on the apples.

In another small orchard, Benjamín has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. “Be careful not to step on my other plants,” he tells us. It’s only then that I spot the peas and cabbages, and the seedlings of forest trees, all growing between the apples.

Benjamín and Serafín go on to explain that they make and spray four different natural products on the apples. One they call a biofertilizer, another is biol (a fermented cow dung slurry), a third is a product that is rich in micro-organisms, and finally they use a sulfur-lime brew. The men say that all of these are fertilizers, although I think of the sulfur-lime spray as more of a homemade pesticide). Benjamín said that his kids run in and out of the trees, picking vegetables to eat, and he doesn’t want to spray anything unhealthy on the trees.

These innovators say that their idea was to control pests by keeping the trees well fertilized. The men say that they are not out to fight insect pests: “This is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.”

Benjamín and Serafín said that they learn from each other; they did seem more like partners than like teacher-student. They are intercropping apples with vegetables and with forest trees to sell produce and to help conserve the soil. It will take years to see if their innovations work. Trees take a long time to grow, but I’d like to come back in a few years to see if the apples found a market, if the pests stayed at bay, and if the soil stayed firm on the mountainside.

(more…)

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.

The intricacies of mulching September 9th, 2018 by

Everybody working in agriculture knows something about mulching, which can lead us to think that we know all about it. But mulching is a surprisingly complex topic, as I recently realised while following a video from start to finish. For example, different crops may require different types of mulch, and some mulches are better avoided under certain conditions. As with other farming techniques, to make a video on mulch, manuals are often inadequate; one needs to rely on the experience of farmers.

We started preparing for the video on mulch during a workshop in Pune, India, in February 2017, where Jeff and I had trained a number of local partners to write fact sheets and video scripts for farmers (read an account on this workshop in: Nourishing a fertile imagination). One of the scripts was on mulch. When I revisit the first draft of that script it is striking how generic our early ideas were.

Among other things, the script mentioned: “Mulch allows more earthworms and other living things to grow by providing shade. The earthworms make the soil fertile and dig small tunnels that allow the water to go more easily into the soil.” That is all well and good, but that first script was a little light on how to go about mulching, although it had an idea of using dry straw.

More than a year (and 10 versions of the script) later, cameraman Atul Pagar from Pune, India, finished his video “Mulch for a better soil and crop”. For the past two years, Atul has been steadily producing quality farmer-to-farmer training videos, such as on the use of herbal medicine in animal health. Each of the videos is a testimony of the richness of local knowledge and practices.

For instance, the final version of the video mentions that fruits and vegetables like cauliflower, watermelon and others that grow close to the ground are best mulched with dry straw and sugarcane trash or other crop residue in between every row.

Commonly available wheat husks are not suitable for such crops, as Ravindra Thokal, one of the farmers featuring in the video, explains. “After harvest, we used to burn the crop residue. Now we do not burn it, but I use it as mulch in my cauliflowers. I do not mulch with wheat husks because they are easily washed away by rain. And when blown away by the wind, the husks can settle on the cauliflowers, which may damage them.”

In less than 12 minutes, the nicely crafted video also explains what to consider when mulching fruit trees, how to fertilise your mulched crop with liquid organic fertiliser, how to control rats that may hide in mulch, and what the pitfalls are of using plastic mulch. None of these ideas were in the first draft of the video script. The script had been improved over the intervening months by discussing the ideas with farmers and other experts. Although I had read quite a bit about mulching, a lot of the information in the video was new to me.

Farming is intricate. To produce good training videos for farmers requires people who have a keen eye, an open mind and the patience to learn from farmers. Atul has all of these. You can find his videos on the Access Agriculture video platform.

Related blogs

We have written many blog stories on soil fertility management, such as:

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

What do earthworms want?

Nurturing ideas, and seed

Chemical attitude adjustment

The bokashi factory

Smelling is believing

The big mucuna

Crop with an attitude

Related videos

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

The wonder of earthworms

Reviving soils with mucuna

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