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Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil February 16th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We have written earlier in this blog about “Effective Microorganisms®” or EM, a branded, commercial preparation. In both of those previous stories, people were using EMs in pig pens, to reduce the odor and to quickly turn the manure to a rich, black compost. 

This week I learned how you can culture your own microorganisms, using some simple equipment and a few inexpensive ingredients. Ing. Abrahán Mujica showed me and a small group at his agroecology course that you can start by collecting some leaf litter. We gathered the leaves and top soil from the base of two or three molle trees in the city of Cochabamba.

We put some 5 kilos of leaf litter and black soil on a plastic table. We added a kilo of raw sugar and a kilo of bran (rich in proteins), to feed the microorganisms, and just enough water to turn the mix to a paste. It should be just moist enough that it will release a couple of drops when you press it in your hand

As we mixed up the ingredients, a smell like bread yeast soon filled the room.

“Smell the yeast!” Abrahán said. “The yeast are the first microorganisms to respond to the sugar.”

“Not just yeast,” I said. “There must be 10,000 species of microbes in there.” Abrahán happily agreed.

We filled a third of a 20-liter bucket with this paste, and covered it with plastic bags, tied on with a rubber tie, to keep out the air. The mix will rot if it is exposed to the air, Abrahán stressed. Fermentation is without oxygen.

After a month, Abrahán will mix the fermented paste with water in a 200-liter barrel, seal it again for another month, and then drain off the water, which by then will be full of microorganisms.

He filters this solution through an ordinary cloth and bottles the liquid for sale. The label reads “The Life of the Soil”. It can be sprayed on the soil to make it healthier, or added to compost to speed up decomposition, or used as fertilizer on plant leaves. He said it is intended mainly for soil that has been killed by pesticides, to bring the soil back to life.

Abrahán’s home also doubles as a small shop, where he sells ácido piroleñoso (liquid smoke distilled during charcoal making—which is mixed with water and sprayed onto crops as natural insect and fungus control). He also makes potassium soap (which he makes by mixing potassium sulfate with cooking oil), sulfur-lime blend, Bordeaux mix, and other products for protecting plants without toxic chemicals.

Although Abrahán makes the products he sells, he is happy to teach others. On his agroecology course, he teaches others his trade secrets about how to make each product. There will always be lots of people who don’t want to mix these brews. And those who do make their own will also help to make the world a better place, by reducing the use of toxic pesticides, which Abrahán explains are a danger to farmers and consumers.

Related blog stories

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Effective micro-organisms

Smelling is believing

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Good microbes for plants and soil

Better seed for green gram

FOMENTANDO MICROORGANISMOS QUE MEJORAN EL SUELO

Por Jeff Bentley

16 de febrero del 2020

Hemos escrito antes en este blog sobre “Microorganismos Efectivos®” o EM, una marca comercial. Los dos blogs anteriores explican el uso de EMs en camas de cerdos para reducir el olor y ayudar a la descomposición del estiércol. 

Esta semana aprendí cómo uno puede multiplicar sus propios microorganismos, usando un equipo simple y unos pocos ingredientes baratos. El Ing. Abrahán Mujica me mostró a mí y a un pequeño grupo en su curso de agroecología. Recogimos tierra vegetal o sach’a wanu, como decimos en Bolivia, del pie de un molle, en plena ciudad.

En una mesa de plástico, pusimos como 5 kilos de sach’a wanu. Añadimos un kilo de chancaca (azúcar moreno) y un kilo de salvado (cascarilla de cereal rica en proteínas), para alimentar a los microorganismos, y sólo el agua suficiente para convertir la mezcla en una pasta, que al apretarla, debe soltar un par de gotas.

Mientras mezclábamos los ingredientes, un olor a levadura de pan llenó el ambiente.

“¡Sientan la levadura!” Abrahán dijo. “La levadura es el primer microorganismo que responde al azúcar y nutrientes”.

“No sólo la levadura”, dije. “Debe haber 10.000 especies de microbios ahí”. Abrahán estuvo plenamente de acuerdo.

Llenamos un tercio de un tacho de plástico de 20 litros con esta pasta y lo tapamos con hojas de plástico, atadas con una liga de goma, para evitar que entre el aire. La mezcla se pudrirá si se expone al aire. Abrahán recalcó que la fermentación es sin oxígeno.

Después de un mes, Abrahán la mezclará con agua en un turril de 200 litros; lo sellará de nuevo por otro mes, y luego drenará el agua, que para entonces estará llena de microorganismos.

Él filtra esta solución a través de un paño ordinario y embotella el líquido para su venta. La etiqueta dice “La vida del suelo”. Puede ser fumigado en el suelo para devolverle vitalidad, o puesto en la abonera para acelerar la descomposición, o aplicado a las plantas como abono filiar. Dijo que está destinado principalmente a los suelos que se han muerto por los plaguicidas, para devolverles la vida.

La casa de Abrahán también funciona como una pequeña tienda, donde vende ácido piroleñoso (humo líquido destilado durante la fabricación de carbón vegetal, que se mezcla con agua y se fumiga sobre los cultivos para controlar los insectos y los hongos de forma natural). También hace jabón potásico (que elabora mezclando sulfato de potasio con aceite de cocina), caldo sulfocálcico, caldo bordelés y otros productos para proteger las plantas sin productos químicos tóxicos.

Aunque Abrahán fabrica los productos que vende, le gusta enseñar a los demás. En su curso de agroecología, enseña a otros sus secretos sobre cómo hacer cada producto. Siempre tendrá mercado, porque habrá mucha gente que no quiere hacer estas mezclas. Y aquellos que hacen la suya también ayudarán a hacer del mundo un lugar mejor, reduciendo el uso de agroquímicos mucho más tóxicos, que Abrahán está convencido son un peligro para los agricultores y consumidores.  

Previamente en nuestro blog

La agricultura con árboles

Effective micro-organisms

Smelling is believing

Videos relacionados

Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

Better seed for green gram

Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

Related blog stories

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Kiss of death in the cactus garden

Learn by eating

Read more

Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

Farming with trees January 19th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

On a rocky hillside an hour from the city of Cochabamba, agronomist Germán Vargas points out a molle tree. It’s growing from a crack in a sandstone boulder with little or no soil. Native trees are well adapted to such conditions and don’t need much to survive, Germán observes.

Molle can be cut for good firewood, but it also casts an inviting shade, with a thick carpet of fallen leaves. Trees grown on farms also have multiple uses. Some have deep roots that bring up nutrients from beneath the top soil. Even in places like Cochabamba, with a long dry season, many trees stay green all year round. The trees have found water to keep their leaves moist, despite the bone-dry subsoil. Germán explains that farming with trees, or agroforestry, mimics natural forests, where rich soils are created without irrigation or fertilizer.

Four years ago, Germán and two colleagues bought some land to put their ideas on agroforestry into practice. They now have 1500 apple trees in a 4-hectare orchard, on a former onion farm, where the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had depleted the soil of nutrients.

Germán and his friends bought some apple seedlings from a local nursery. They chose improved Brazilian apple varieties, such as Eva and Princesa, which do well in the highland tropics of South America, where it can get cool, but does not freeze.

Germán and his colleagues plant a few more trees every year. They start each new planting by digging a trench every two to three meters (depending on the slope), to let water infiltrate the soil. They throw the soil just uphill of the trench to create a barrier, slowing down the runoff of water and trapping sediment.

Germán is careful not to scrape the soil surface with hand tools; the top soil is so thin that rough handling could remove it all. They add a little compost to the soil, mimicking a natural forest, where fallen leaves and trees rot and release nutrients back into the soil. However, forests also have an understory, so potatoes, maize, lettuce, amaranth, rye and other plants are sown between the trees. After planting the vegetables, a straw mulch keeps down the weeds.

Other trees are planted among the apples, including natives like molle and exotic species, which are monitored to see if they can make a positive contribution. Germán brought seed of the chachafruto tree from Colombia, for example. The plant is adapting well. When the only date palm in Cochabamba, another non-native species, dropped a cluster of dates in a city park, Germán salvaged the seed and planted some on the farm. The non-fruit trees make useful leaf litter, adding nutrients and helping to keep the soil moist.

The apples were remarkably free of mildew, mites, fruit flies and other common pests, but even if they were to appear, Germán avoids using pesticides. The team managing the orchard makes a spray with cow manure, raw sugar, bone meal, sulfur, ash and lime. Reasoning that all stone has mineral nutrients, they add a little “rock flour,” made by grinding a soft, local, sedimentary stone (shale). A culture of beneficial microorganisms is added to ferment the mix in sealed drums. The agroforesters culture the microorganisms themselves, but they get the starting culture in the local forest, bringing in a few handfuls of fallen leaves that have started to decompose. The sulfur and the lime come from the farm supply store. This sulfur blend is sprayed about 5 times a year on the trees, and it seems to be working, since the apples have almost no pests, except for birds, and the annual plants are thriving.

This innovative agroforestry system needs regular attention and it is obviously a lot of work, especially at first, because it is established by hand, without machinery. Some of the radishes have gone to seed, and in a few beds the weeds are lush and healthy, waiting to be cut down for the next vegetable crop.

Farmers can learn from forests to make better use of water, conserve the soil and manage pest and disease naturally, thanks to the diversity of plants. Farming with trees can yield a good harvest of fruits and vegetables, while building and sustaining soils.

Related blog stories

Apple futures

What counts in agroecology

Gardening against all odds

Enlightened agroecology

Watch some related videos

SLM02 Fanya juu terraces shows how to make infiltration trenches, that form terraces.

SLM03 Grevillea agroforestry

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Scientific names

The molle tree is Schinus molle

The chachafruto tree (widespread in South America) is Erythrina edulis

Note

Sulfur deficiency is a problem in apples. The symptoms are similar to nitrogen deficiency, including pale leaves. Sulfur deficiency can be corrected by sprays (Westwood 1993: 200-201).

Westwood, Melvin Neil 1993 Temperate-Zone Pomology: Physiology and Culture. Third edition. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Germán Vargas, Marcelina Alarcón and Freddy Vargas, the agroforesters. Germán is the executive administrator of the NGO Agroecología y Fe.

LA AGRICULTURA CON ÁRBOLES

En una ladera rocosa a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba, el ingeniero agrónomo Germán Vargas señala un molle. Crece en una grieta de una roca arenisca, con poca o ninguna tierra. Los árboles nativos están bien adaptados a estas condiciones y no necesitan mucho para sobrevivir, observa Germán.

El molle hace buena leña, pero también da una rica sombra, con una gruesa alfombra de hojas caídas. Los árboles en el agro también tienen múltiples usos. Algunos tienen raíces profundas que traen los nutrientes de debajo del suelo. Incluso en lugares como Cochabamba, con una larga época seca, muchos árboles se mantienen verdes durante todo el año. Los árboles han encontrado agua para mantener sus hojas húmedas, a pesar del subsuelo seco. Germán explica que la agricultura con árboles, o la agroforestería, imita a los bosques naturales, donde se crean suelos ricos sin irrigación ni fertilizantes.

Hace cuatro años, Germán y dos colegas compraron un terreno para poner en práctica sus ideas sobre agroforestería. Ahora tienen 1500 manzanos en un huerto de 4 hectáreas, en una antigua granja de cebollas, donde el uso intensivo de fertilizantes químicos y pesticidas había agotado los nutrientes del suelo.

Germán y sus compañeros compraron algunos plantines de manzana en un vivero local. Escogieron variedades mejoradas de manzanos brasileños, como Eva y Princesa, que se desarrollan bien en los trópicos de las alturas de América del Sur, donde puede hacer frío, pero no se congela.

Germán y sus colegas plantan unos pocos árboles más cada año. Comienzan cada nueva plantación cavando una zanja cada dos o tres metros (dependiendo de la pendiente), para dejar que el agua se infiltre en el suelo. Lanzan la tierra justo cuesta arriba de la zanja para crear una barrera, frenando el escurrimiento de agua y atrapando el sedimento.

Germán tiene cuidado de no raspar la superficie del suelo con herramientas; el suelo negro de la superficie es tan delgado que sin tener cuidado sería posible quitarlo todo. Añaden un poco de abono al suelo, imitando un bosque natural, donde las hojas y los árboles caídos se pudren y liberan nutrientes de nuevo al suelo. Sin embargo, los bosques también tienen un sotobosque, por lo que las papas, el maíz, la lechuga, el amaranto, el centeno y otras plantas se siembran entre los árboles. Después de plantar las verduras, un mantillo de paja mantiene las malas hierbas.

Entre las manzanas se plantan otros árboles, incluyendo especies nativas como el molle y especies exóticas, que son monitoreadas para ver si pueden hacer una contribución positiva. Germán trajo semillas del árbol de chachafruto de Colombia, por ejemplo. La planta se está adaptando bien. Cuando la única palmera datilera de Cochabamba, otra especie no nativa, dejó caer un racimo de dátiles en un parque de la ciudad, Germán recuperó algunas semillas y las plantó en la finca. Los árboles no frutales botan hojas, añadiendo nutrientes y ayudando a mantener el suelo húmedo.

Las manzanas estaban notablemente libres de mildiu, ácaros, moscas de la fruta y otras plagas comunes, pero incluso si aparecieran, Germán evita el uso de pesticidas. El equipo que maneja el huerto fumiga con un biol hecho de estiércol de vaca, chancaca, huesos molidos, azufre, cenizas y cal. Razonando que toda piedra tiene nutrientes minerales, le agregan un poco de “harina de roca”, hecha al moler una piedra sedimentaria suave, local (lutita). Para fermentar la mezcla, agregan un cultivo de microorganismos buenos a los tambores sellados. Los agroforestales cultivan sus propios microorganismos, pero obtienen la cultura inicial en el bosque local, trayendo unos pocos puñados de hojas caídas que han comenzado a descomponerse. Compran el azufre y la cal en la tienda agropecuaria. Fumigan el biol con azufre unas 5 veces al año en los árboles, y parece que funciona, ya que las manzanas casi no tienen plagas, excepto los pájaros, y las plantas anuales están prosperando.

Este innovador sistema agroforestal necesita atención regular y obviamente es mucho trabajo, especialmente al principio, porque se establece a mano, sin maquinaria. Algunos de los rábanos han empezado a echar semilla, y en algunas camas las hierbas silvestres son exuberantes y saludables, esperando ser cortadas para el siguiente cultivo de hortalizas.

Los agricultores pueden aprender de los bosques a hacer un mejor uso del agua, conservar el suelo y manejar las plagas y enfermedades de forma natural, gracias a la diversidad de plantas. La agricultura con árboles puede producir una buena cosecha de frutas y verduras, a la vez que construye y mantiene los suelos.

Otros blogs sobre el tema

Manzanos del futuro

Lo que cuenta en la agroecología

Un mejor futuro con jardines

La luz de la agroecología

Videos relacionados

SLM02 Terrazas fanya juu muestra cómo hacer zanjas de infiltración, que forman terrazas.

SLM03 Agroforestería con grevillea

SLM08 Agroforestería del bosque ralo

Nombres científicos

El molle es Schinus molle

El chachafruto (árbol bien distribuido en Sudamérica) es Erythrina edulis

Nota

La deficiencia de azufre es un problema común en los manzanos. Los síntomas son parecidos a los de la deficiencia de nitrógeno, incluso las hojas pálidas. La deficiencia de azufre puede ser corregida con fumigaciones (Westwood 1993: 200-201).

Westwood, Melvin Neil 1993 Temperate-Zone Pomology: Physiology and Culture. Third edition. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Germán Vargas, Marcelina Alarcón y Freddy Vargas, por su ejemplo con la agroforestería. Germán es el administrador ejecutivo de la ONG Agroecología y Fe.

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego Carlón, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred León Plasencia of IDMA.

Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

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