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Gauchos for hire October 6th, 2019 by

Picture a gaucho astride a horse on a homemade saddle, galloping like a centaur across the limitless plains of Argentina. Above his broad brimmed hat, he twirls three balls (bolas) tethered together, to fling at the feet of a fleeing bull. The rawhide cords of the bolas wrap around the lower legs of the bull and bring it crashing to the ground.

The gauchos are often portrayed as a romantic even mythical figure, so it is easy to forget that they were workers in commercial agriculture, supplying the world’s markets with export beef, even in the early nineteenth century.

Argentine historian Ricardo Salvatore has written a book about the final, glory days of the gauchos (1829 to 1852), when Argentina was governed by Juan Manuel de Rosas. Now largely vilified in his home country as a dictator and populist, Rosas liberalized markets and freed them from the restrictions and high prices imposed under colonial rule. He awarded government contracts in public, on the steps of the police station, to those who submitted the lowest tender. Rosas insisted that the courts give equal legal treatment to rich and poor, black and white. He created a large army and filled it with rural men, but he also fed their widows and families with beef confiscated from enemy ranchers.

The Argentine civil wars dragged on for decades. Rosas and his party, the Federales, favored less government. They would eventually lose to the rebel Unitarios, who wanted a strong central administration. During the war many rural people, paisanos, migrated to the relative calm of the province of Buenos Aires. Along the way young men were arrested on charges of deserting the army. Fragments of their defense statements, transcribed by court clerks, make up most of the source material for Salvatore’s book.

The gauchos were, by Salvatore’s definition, illiterate. They also worked as ranch and farm hands, and led a simple life. They owned little more than some simple horse-riding tack and the clothes on their back: a shirt, jacket, poncho, home-made boots and a chiripá (a woven cloth worn around the waist, and tucked between the legs).

The vast pampas may have been unfenced but they were policed by small town judges (jueces de paz), and owned by ranchers, who employed the gauchos to raise cattle, and to grow a few crops. Products like dried beef, hides and tallow were carted to Buenos Aires and exported, mainly to Europe. Live cattle were herded to the city. On one single day, 27 February 1847, a whopping 19,073 animals were slaughtered. It’s not clear if this was a routine toll or just a bad day for cows. In those days the meat was salted and exported, before the invention of tinned food and refrigerated shipping.

During the long, violent wars of independence from Spain (about 1809 to 1825), all of the mainland Spanish-American countries, from Mexico to Argentina, emerged as self-governing republics. In Argentina, the struggle for independence had fostered an ideology of equality, which the gauchos held onto during the civil wars that broke out soon after independence was granted. Labor shortages also strengthened the gaucho’s position with their employers. Some would demand advance pay and then vanish. Others insisted on being paid daily, to earn more than the monthly salaries that ranch owners preferred. Employers also lured the gauchos into jobs with rations of beef, tobacco, and sugar. But money and rations weren’t enough to keep gauchos on the job. They insisted on being addressed respectfully. A foreman who barked out orders like a rude command could be challenged to a knife duel by a weather-worn gaucho.

In the mid 1800s, the Argentine ranch owners purposefully played down differences in social status. The ranchers wore the same clothes as their workers, ate almost nothing but meat, and lived in houses where the only furniture was a saddle hanging on the wall.

After the Argentine civil wars ended, Salvatore says that the gauchos faded from history. Deserters were no longer of interest to the small-town judges. And the distinction between Federal and Unitario was less important, so rural travelers stopped being arrested and questioned. Gauchos appear infrequently in the police records, now mostly described as “vagabonds.”

After the 1860s, the beef economy rapidly modernized, with the introduction of barbed-wire fences and railroads. Scottish, Irish and English migrants took over many of the gaucho’s jobs in the countryside. Italians worked in the city in commerce and in packing plants.

The gauchos migrated to the towns and to the frontiers and eventually intermarried with the newcomers. The gauchos were no longer a distinct social group by the end of the 19th century. Gone but not forgotten. Modern Argentina still has an egalitarian touch; even the waiters approach their customers tall and proud, addressing their customers like friends.  Perhaps the tough, friendly spirit of the gauchos lives on, at least a bit.

Further reading

Although Salvatore is Argentine, he wrote in English. Mateo García Haymes and Luisa Fernanda Lassaque’s Spanish translation is so cleverly done that it reads as though it had been written in Spanish.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2018 Paisanos Itinerantes: Orden Estatal y Experiencia Subalterna en Buenos Aires durante la Era de Rosas. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros.

Original version:

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2003 Wandering Paysanos: State Order and Subaltern Experience in Buenos Aires Province during the Rosas Era. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

Related blogs

Out of space

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Further viewing

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


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

Stored crops of the Inka August 11th, 2019 by

Much of what ancient people leave behind is related to farming, as I was reminded on a recent trip to Inka Llajta, the largest Inka site in Bolivia, in Pocona, Cochabamba.

Little is known for sure about Inka Llajta, except that it was built on the far, southeast border of the Inka Empire, which they called Tawantinsuyu. The Inka were often at war, expanding into the territory of their neighbors, so it’s possible that the 30-hectare settlement was built as a garrison. Inka Llajta is built on the bottom of a steep cliff, on a bluff above the river. The spot would have been fairly easy to defend, while a waterfall on the site provided essential water.

Fortunately, the site has recently been cleared of much of its vegetation and it is now easier to see. Although I have been to Inka Llajta several times, thanks to the recent brush removal I was now able to see that ringing the front of the site is a row of storage pits.

Until a generation ago, potatoes were planted mostly in the rainy season. Now there is more irrigation and potatoes can be planted somewhere in Bolivia year-round. But until twenty or thirty years ago, some potatoes were stored in underground pits, where the tubers could be kept for six months or more.

I pointed out the row of pits to our guide, doña Berta, who is from one of the local communities. The pits were not on the tour. They had no sign to label and explain them. Humble agricultural features are easy to ignore.

“These were phinas,” I suggested, using the Quechua word I had learned for potato storage pits.

Doña Berta said that in Pocona, such pits are called “k’ayus,” but she immediately recognized them. “We used to make pits, put straw on the bottom, fill them with potatoes and cover them with earth,” she said, confirming that the pits were for potato storage. She added that the pits can also hold other roots and tubers, such as oca.

Inka Llajta is a grand site. It has one building that was 70 meters long, one of the largest roofed structures in the ancient Americas. But Tawantinsuyu lived by farming, and if we look close enough, we can still see where they kept their potato harvest, just a few steps from the fortified buildings, overlooking the valley below. 

When I first visited Inka Llajta 20 years ago it appeared much the way that the Inka had left it. Since then, the site has acquired a parking lot, a visitor’s center, and now you have to hire a guide (like the good-natured Berta, or one of her 16 colleagues, all from the local area). Inka Llajta is now full of signs offering information, including speculation about the site’s past.

One large block of rooms is labelled as an administrative area, while another was supposedly a “specialist’s area” where astronomers, agricultural specialists and builders gathered to organize their calendar based on the weather and the stars. The signs refer to another building as an aqllawasi, where girls of Tawantinsuyu were trained in weaving and brewing chicha, an alcoholic maize drink. In fact, these rooms could have been used for anything, and everything.

A natural boulder in the center of the large plaza is described as an “altar”, based on tales told by the hacienda workers to Erland Nordenskiöld, the Swedish ethnographer, in 1913.

A small tower near the edge of Inka Llajta has a view up the river, where a sentinel might have looked out for approaching enemies. But a sign says the tower was an astronomic observatory that the Inka used to gaze at the stars and decide when to plant. No explanation tells why being two meters closer to the heavens provides a better view for a stargazer.

As we have seen in earlier blogs, contemporary Andean peoples do look at the stars, but they also observe foxes, lizards, wild plants, cactus, clouds, mountains and use many other indicators to predict the year’s weather. A tower would have been of limited use.

Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies to interpret the past. The function of a structure or an artifact may be understood by comparing it to a similar item used by recent people. For example, it is reasonable to interpret the pits at Inka Llajta as places to store tubers, because rural people living near the site still kept potatoes and oca in similar holes until recently.

When archaeological sites are interpreted for the public, speculation can do more harm than good, fixing ideas in peoples’ minds that are hard to shift when new evidence emerges. As surely as an army marches on its stomach, in past civilizations agriculture made the world go around. Ancient peoples no doubt worshipped their gods and pondered the stars, but they also went about the mundane business of feeding themselves, and at archaeological sites you can still get a glimpse of how they produced and stored their food, if you keep your eyes open.

Further reading

Jesús Lara popularized Inka Llajta in newspaper stories after his 1927 visit. Lara’s description of the site is admirably free of speculation; he debunks the idea that the boulder on the site was an altar. His book can still be read with profit.

Lara, Jesús 1988 Inkallajta—Inkaraqay. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. 109 pp.

Previous blog stories

Forgetting Inca technology

Let nature guide you

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Scientific name

Oca is a native Andean tuber crop, Oxalis tuberosa

Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

Related videos

Over 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

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From uniformity to diversity

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Planting a wrong image July 7th, 2019 by

A picture says more than a thousand words. And pictures stick better in the mind. On a recent visit to the organic farm shop Eikelenhof, run by our friends Johan and Vera, I was reminded how easy it is for wrong images to become received knowledge.

Vera was talking to Peter, a plastic artist from the neighbourhood and one of the regular customers at the farm shop. The past few days we had had quite some severe storms and Peter was telling how the gusty winds had taken their toll with broken branches and uprooted trees as a result. Uprooted trees and heavy soil erosion are some of the few occasions when people get to see a glimpse of how the roots of mature trees look like. When they continued discussing about tree roots, both said that the roots are a mirror of the tree canopy. At that stage I intervened and started explaining how this image survived for centuries, but that this was absolutely wrong. Vera and Peter are both clever successful people, but like many of us, it is hard for them to shake off an image that has been impressed in their minds.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was making history with his research on how species had evolved over millions of years. The scientific revolution and the age of exploration ignited a growing interest in exotic plants and the economic potential they might have, leading to the boom of botanical gardens across Europe. These events also triggered a general interest in nature overall, and especially in England this passion for gardens has lived on until today.

When a 19th century graphic artist diverted from the botanical drawing style, which was based on accurate observations, he drew from imagination a stylistic tree with the roots being as a mirror of the canopy. He had no idea how it would impact on future generations. Helped by the technical breakthrough of offset printing and emerging media houses, this image made its way across Europe and firmy established in the minds of ordinary folks. Until today, hundreds of variations continue to be developed and spread, further feeding this misperception.

But my friends at the farm shop in Belgium are not the only people who accept the received wisdom that a tree’s roots mirror its branches. Even Thai farmers have taken the idea on board. When visiting a mango project in Thailand some 20 years ago, I recall visiting orchards where farmers had dug a trench just below the edge of the tree canopy to irrigate and put some organic fertilizer. It was explained to me that this was the zone where all the feeder roots of the trees could be found. Until today, tree roots are poorly studied, partly because they are hard to observe.

Fortunately, many of the 19th century illustrators painted accurate pictures of the natural world, which led to a greater understanding of natural history. Whether we illustrate with water colors or with video, it is important to get the picture right.

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