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The magic lantern January 12th, 2020 by

While listening to a recent broadcast on Belgium’s Radio 1 about the magic lantern and the “lanternists” who entertained paying audiences, I realised that some developments we think off as highly innovative may also be seen as a modification of something that existed hundreds of years ago. 

The magic lantern projected images on hand-painted glass slides using a lens with a light source, like a candle flame or oil lamp. The magic lantern was a great success from the 17th to the 19th century, after which it was replaced by cinema and only used by missionaries who used the most up-to-date lanterns and lenses to sway large audiences of up to 700 people.

Most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with the magic lantern’s invention in 1659 because he replaced images etched on mirrors from earlier devices, such as one called Kircher’s lantern, with images painted on glass. This allowed the use of colour and double-layered slide projections to simulate movement, which made for spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

According to legend, the 17th century Jesuit priest, Kircher, came up with an inventive use of the lantern to convince his sceptical followers. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of death, which he projected in the evening on simple farmhouses. The next Sunday morning his church was packed with standing room only. As Kircher was aware that some of his predecessors had been charged with sorcery for using projected images, seen as “the workings of the devil”, Kircher was clever enough to demystify the show by explaining that it involved reflection and optics, not magic.

The magic lantern was not invented by any one individual, but very much came from several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens. Some magic lantern shows were quite sophisticated, using multiple lanterns or several lenses to improve magnification and clarity, or to dissolve one scene into another.

At first, the “lanternist,” as the projectionist was known, simply used a plain cotton or canvas sheet, or even just a wall, but the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – also spurred developments in screen technology. Cinema was born in the 1890s, and in the 1930s plastics started to replace cloth screens. Later, various coatings were used that gave the cinema its nickname, “the silver screen”.

The silver screen may have wiped out the magic lanterns, but other devices were used over the twentieth century for education and entertainment. Small projectors with 8 mm film were used in schools and for “home movies.” Academic talks were often illustrated with overhead projectors and slides, while the DVD player and the projector that could be attached to the laptop brought videos to much wider audiences. In the 2000s, the Digisoft smart projector was the latest device for sharing sights and sounds with audiences of up to 200 people.

The “lanternist” earned money from organising shows, travelling from place to place with the projector in a box carried on his back. The concept of these early mobile screening entrepreneurs has recently been re-introduced by Access Agriculture, an international organisation that supports ecological farming in developing countries through farmer training videos (see the full video library at: www.accessagriculture.org).

While centuries ago, lanternists were adults, Access Agriculture has established a network of young, ICT-savvy, entrepreneurs who make a business from screening training videos to rural communities. Lanternists travelled from village to village with a small collection of glass slides. Today’s young entrepreneurs are equipped with a Digisoft smart projector, a foldable solar panel and a library of more than 200 videos, each one in multiple languages. The whole kit is small enough to take on a motorcycle, but casts an image large and sharp enough for a whole village. Being able to screen videos on demand, these young people bring entertainment and education to remote areas where there is no electricity or internet.

Like the old lanternists, the youth with their smart projectors are using the best technology of their day, but sharing down-to-earth ideas that family farmers need for a changing world.

Watch a young entrepreneur show videos in rural Africa

On the road with the smart projector in Uganda

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Videos that speak to Andean farmers

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Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Remembering an American king December 22nd, 2019 by

My mom was born in Moab, Utah, an area of outstanding natural beauty, famed for its mountains and red sandstone canyons. Long before Moab became one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Mom took me to visit another attraction, one that is much less well known. She drove me just north of the town to see the “King of the World”, a large stone relief sculpture, carved into a sandstone boulder. I vividly remember the sculpture. The boulder sat at the base of the cliff, down a dirt road, not too far from the highway. Mom explained that the sculpture was a self-portrait of the sculptor, and his horse.

I’ve recently learned more about sculptor. His name was Aharron Andeew and he came to Moab in the 1930s, during the height of the Depression, a gloomy era in American history when jobs were scarce and rural poverty widespread. After his arrival, Andeew spent 15 months doing odd jobs while gardening and tending his small herd of goats. Andeew camped north of town on the ranch of a kind family, the Parriotts. This is where he carved his sculpture. It is so well done that he must have had formal training, but no one knows where. Andeew spoke with a foreign accent and my brother Scott remembers the old-timers calling him “the mad Russian.”

The stone carving bears the following inscription:

1935

M.C.F. Hhaesus

America

Aharron Andeew

King America

King World

I have no idea what M.C.F Hhaesus means, but the self-portrait shows a man with a curved beak of a nose, wearing a Cossack’s fur hat, with a map of the world carved into it. His coat has two buttons, one carved in the shape of North and South America, while the other one represents the Old World.

Andeew had some odd behaviors. On Sundays he used to march up and down the road near his camp, carrying a rifle, with a sword in a scabbard. He was dressed in a great coat, bearing brass medals he had made himself. Andeew never threatened anyone, but in 1936 the townspeople firmly suggested that he leave town. When he got to Provo, Utah, he introduced himself as the King of the World, and he landed in a psychiatric hospital, where this gentle eccentric later died.

Few recall the people who ran Andeew out of town, but his presence is still felt through his unique piece of art. Art is often seen as a sublime form of communication, better than mere talk at revealing feelings and emotions. But art can also make a message last longer than simple verbal communication. Ancient peoples who lived off the land often left us art that depicts themselves and their animals, from cave paintings in Lascaux, to realistic stone carvings of cattle in Egypt and India, and the pre-Colombian big-horn sheep carved into boulders all around Moab itself.  Today, a stone sculpture in Moab reminds us that an immigrant sculptor, gardener and goat herder named Aharron Andeew was here 85 years ago, and that he had a grand imagination.

Visit the King

The King sculpture is no longer on the old Parriott Ranch. In 2009, the new land owner, Jennifer Speers, decided that she did not want the stone, but that it should be preserved. Speers donated the 30-ton rock to Grand County (the county that includes Moab). The sculpture was moved to the lawn of the Seniors Center, near the Allen Memorial Hospital, in Moab, Utah.

Further reading

Barker, Vicki 2010 Relocating Rock Art, A Moving Experience https://www.moabhappenings.com/Archives/historic1003RelocationRockArt_AMovingExperience.htm

Dudek, Robert 1986 The King of the World. http://www.riverguides.org/SDG/SDG1-4.pdf

Stiles, Jim 2015 Albert Christensen & Aharron Andeew: Eccentric Sculptors…& Kindred Spirits? https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/04/01/albert-christensen-aharron-andeew-eccentric-sculptors-kindred-spirits-by-jim-stiles/

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Bringing back the native trees December 1st, 2019 by

As cities grow and more people leave the countryside, parks and gardens will be some of the few remaining places where people will come into contact with trees. City parks are highly managed, cultivated spaces and the choice of species says a lot about the people who create and manage the parks.

The little park in my neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Parque Virrey Toledo, is a case in point. It’s an unpretentious area with a children’s playground, a running path, courts for basketball and football (soccer), and a statue of a colonial bully, streaked with pigeon feces. There are always people in the park, playing, chatting and strolling. Virrey Toledo may be unexceptional, but it is full of trees, enough to make the park seem like a small forest.

Ana recently gave me a little tour of the park and its trees. I was surprised to learn that almost all of them are exotic. There are stately Italian cypresses, flame trees from Madagascar with fleshy, red flowers. North America contributed the big poplar trees (alamos) with rugged bark and large, flat leaves. A rubber fig from India is named for its thick leaves. A set of Australian “pine” trees tower over the football field. Chinaberries, originally from the foothills of the Himalayas, are losing their leaves and bark as they slowly die from a phytoplasma disease.

Ana explained that 50 to 60 years ago, when these trees were being planted, the fashion was to model city parks after Victorian botanical gardens, which were also full of exotic trees, gleaned from around the world by British plant hunters, eager to show off the showy species from around the new empire.

“Aren’t there any native trees at all in the park?” I wondered. Ana pointed out two trees of jarka, with their delicate, golden flowers, which were once one of the dominant trees in the valley. “But these jarkas probably weren’t planted,” Ana explained. One of them was too close to one of the concrete paths that cross the park. “It probably seeded itself,” Ana said.

None of the trees in our little park are labelled. For most people, these are just shade trees. Most of the neighbors have little idea that the park is full of exotic trees, with hardly any from Bolivia or neighboring countries.

But things are changing. Ana has been working with a volunteer group and the municipality to plant native trees in the park. In 2017 she selected some 20 tree seedlings from the municipal nursery, and hired a helper to dig the holes. Volunteers came to plant the trees and to make a little fence around each tree, to protect them from dogs, careless lawnmowers and playful youngsters.

At two-years-old, these native trees are doing quite well. They include locals like the tajibo with its canopy of flowers, the tall Cochabamba ceibo, and the tipa, from watershed of the RĂ­o de la Plata.

Culture is reflected not just in art and architecture, but in urban parks and green spaces. Early to mid-twentieth century Bolivia had little appreciation for native languages, native crops and foods, and ignored native trees for planting in towns and in the countryside. In all fairness, less was then known about how to plant native trees. But as interest in native trees have grown, Bolivian foresters have been learning how to plant them. People in the Andes are starting to appreciate their own heritage a bit more, and native trees are back in favor. When the children now playing on the swings are adults, native trees will welcome them to this park.

Scientific names

Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens

Flame tree, Delonix regia

Poplar, Populus sp.

Rubber fig, Ficus elastica

Australian pine tree, Casuarina equisetifolia

Chinaberry, Melia azedarach

Jarka, Acacia visco

Tajibo, Handroanthus impetiginosus

Cochabamba ceibo, Erythrina falcata

Tipa, Tipuana tipa

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

Why people drink cow’s milk

Roundup: ready to move on?

Fighting farmers

What counts in agroecology

From uniformity to diversity

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

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