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Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Khipu, a story tied in knots

Digital African agriculture

Friends you can trust

Pay and learn

Private screenings

Translate to innovate

A convincing gesture January 31st, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In last week’s blog (We think with our hands), I wrote that people use gestures intentionally to convey meaning, while many other hand movements are unconscious. Moving our hands helps us to grasp the right words. But human speech is also much more than words and hand gestures.

Tone and volume of voice (screaming, whispering), facial expression, head movements (like nodding) and body language (slouching vs standing ramrod straight) all help to reinforce meaning and to convey emotion. We also make humming and clicking noises, which are sounds, but not speech. This non-verbal communication is convincing because it’s natural. We can spot the difference; a phony smile is made with the lips only, while you use your whole face for a sincere one.

At Agro-Insight, when we make videos with farmers, we never tell them what to say. We ask them questions, and film their answers, which we transcribe and translate into other languages. For example, if the farmer is speaking Arabic, we will use her voice in the Arabic version of the video, but we will dub over her voice for the English, French and other versions.

In these learning videos, the farmers’ non-verbal communication is typical of unscripted, sincere speech. For example, in a video filmed in India, farmer Maran explained that he had a problem with the neighbors’ turtles coming into his fish pond to eat their feed. As he said that, he moved his hands as if to suggest movement from one place to another. After hiring professional turtle catchers to remove the unwanted guests, everything was fine, an idea he reinforced by patting both hands downwards in a comforting gesture. The film crew didn’t tell him to do that. Unless you watch the Tamil version of the video, you will hear a voice artist dubbing Mr. Maran’s words, but you can still tell that his gestures go with his narrative.

In the final cut of the video, we usually leave in some of farmers’ original voice, before starting the voiceover. This lets the audience hear some of the emotion. For instance, in our video on feeding dairy goats, Teresia Muthumbi explains that when she gives her goats banana stems with sweetpotato vines and a little grass, “They give a lot of milk.” She is speaking from experience: you can hear the sound of authority in her voice, even if you don’t understand Swahili.

In one video from Togo, farmer Filo Kodo tells how the maize harvest had increased a lot after rotating the corn with velvet bean (mucuna). One neighbor even asked her what magic she had used. “I told him it was with mucuna magic,” she said, and you can see the smile in her eyes as well as on her lips.

I’ve written before how smallholders in Malawi called people on the farmer learning videos their “friends”, even though they had never met (Friends you can trust). Farmers in Uganda referred to their “brothers and sisters” in West Africa, who they had only seen on the videos.

When people speak from the heart, their tone, gestures, expressions and body language convey conviction, even if the words themselves are translated into another language, and spoken by another person. Non-verbal communication adds a richness, a sincerity that is hard to fake. This is one reason why realistic farmer-to-farmer training videos are a far richer experience than fully animated videos.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs – Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Watch the videos mentioned in this blog

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Dairy goat feeding

Reviving soils with mucuna

GESTOS QUE CONVENCEN

Por Jeff Bentley, 31 de enero del 2021

En el blog de la semana pasada (Pensamos con las manos), escribí que las personas usan los gestos a propósito para transmitir un significado, mientras que muchos otros movimientos de las manos son inconscientes. Mover las manos nos ayuda a captar las palabras que buscamos. Pero la comunicación humana es también mucho más que palabras y gestos con las manos.

El tono y el volumen de la voz (gritos, susurros), la expresión facial, los movimientos de la cabeza (como para asentir) y el lenguaje corporal (ponerse cómodo o mantenerse erguido) ayudan a reforzar el significado y a transmitir emociones. También emitimos zumbidos y chasquidos, que son sonidos, pero no son palabras. Esta comunicación no verbal es convincente porque es natural. Podemos notar la diferencia; una sonrisa falsa se hace sólo con los labios, mientras una sincera es con toda la cara.

En Agro-Insight, cuando hacemos videos con agricultores, nunca les decimos lo que tienen que decir. Les hacemos preguntas y filmamos sus respuestas, que transcribimos y traducimos a otros idiomas. Por ejemplo, si la agricultora habla en árabe, usamos su voz de ella en la versión árabe del video, pero la doblamos para las versiones en inglés, francés y otras.

En estos videos de aprendizaje, la comunicación no verbal de los agricultores es la típica del habla sincera y sin guion. Por ejemplo, en un video grabado en la India, el agricultor Maran explicó que tenía un problema con las tortugas de los vecinos que entraban en su estanque de peces para comer su alimento. Mientras lo decía, movía las manos como si quisiera sugerir un movimiento de un lugar a otro. Después de contratar a cazadores profesionales para eliminaran a las tortugas, todo estaba bien, idea que reforzó dando palmaditas con ambas manos hacia abajo en un gesto de satisfacción. El equipo de filmación no le dijo que hiciera eso. A menos que se vea la versión en tamil del video, se oirá a un locutor doblando las palabras del Sr. Maran, pero aun así se nota que sus gestos realmente acompañan su narración.

En la edición final del vídeo, solemos dejar algo de la voz original de la gente, antes de empezar el doblaje. Esto permite al público escuchar parte de la emoción. Por ejemplo, en nuestro video sobre la alimentación de las cabras lecheras, Teresia Muthumbi explica que cuando da a sus cabras tallos de plátano con hojas de camote y un poco de pasto, “Dan mucha leche”. Habla por experiencia: se puede oír el sonido de la autoridad en su voz, aunque no se entienda el suajili.

En un video de Togo, la agricultora Filo Kodo cuenta cómo la cosecha de maíz ha aumentado mucho después de rotar el maíz con el frijol terciopelo (mucuna). Un vecino incluso le preguntó qué magia había usado. “Le dije que era con la magia de la mucuna”, dijo, y se puede ver la sonrisa en sus ojos además de en sus labios.

Ya he escrito antes cómo los campesinos de Malawi llamaban “amigos” a las personas que aparecían en los vídeos de aprendizaje, aunque no se conocieran (Amigos confiables). Los agricultores de Uganda se referían a sus “hermanos y hermanas” de África Occidental, a los que sólo habían visto en los videos.

Cuando la gente habla con el corazón, su tono, sus gestos, sus expresiones y su lenguaje corporal transmiten convicción, aunque las palabras mismas estén traducidas a otro idioma y sean pronunciadas por otra persona. La comunicación no verbal añade una riqueza, una sinceridad que es difícil de fingir. Esta es una de las razones por las que los videos realistas de agricultor-a-agricultor son una experiencia mucho más rica que los videos de pura animación.

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, y Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs – Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Vea los videos mencionados en este blog

Estanque vivero para criar alevines

Alimentando a cabras lecheras

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

A revolution for our soil

Reviving soils

The intricacies of mulching

Stop erosion

What counts in agroecology

The big mucuna

Farming with trees

Videos on soil health practices

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Good microbes for plants and soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Grass strips against soil erosion

Intercropping maize with pigeon peas

Intercropping pineapples

The wonder of earthworms

Reviving soils with mucuna

Reviving soils November 8th, 2020 by

Globally an estimated 20 to 60 million hectares of land in developing countries are acquired by foreign companies and investors. This so-called “land grabbing” has taken place for various reasons. The most obvious one is the hunger for maximising profit. The devastating effects on deforestation for the expansion of biofuels, sugar cane, palm oil and soya bean for animal feed are well known. A less visible reason is to secure food by those who have seen large areas of land in their home country become unsuitable for farming. This is particularly the case for India and China, where the Green Revolution model of industrial farming has been promoted for decades. Today, due to this industrial model of farming about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water. According to Dave Montgomery in his book Growing a Revolution, half of the soil carbon in the midwestern USA has been lost. At EU level, soil erosion affects over 12 million hectares of land – about 7.2% of the total agricultural land – and leads to €1.25 billion loss in crop productivity.

As people have seen the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished at will to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that help plants to take up the nutrients in organic matter, and soil minerals. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

While acquiring land in other countries as a strategy to secure domestic food supplies has created its own problems, it is hopeful to see that more sustainable initiatives triggered by civil society are gaining momentum, and receiving support from their governments. President Xi Jinping recently announced on television that China wants to stop destroying natural resources and instead become a global leader for green technologies. Through his speech he formalised the rising aspirations of Chinese civil society for healthy food.

For several years, the central government in India has strongly advocated “zero budget natural farming,” a form of regenerative agriculture that restores the health of soils without external inputs. By ending the reliance on purchased inputs and loans for farming, natural farming also aims to solve extreme indebtedness and suicides among Indian farmers. Many Indian states have adopted policies that support various forms of agroecology.

When one of our Indian partners produced a farmer training video on how soils can be revived with good microbes, a traditional practice that is now being widely promoted, I thought this would be helpful for our garden as well. When we moved into our house in north-eastern Belgium, some of the land had been under intensive cultivation for decades. The soil was hard and dead. Even though I had mixed some cow manure into the planting pits before planting my fruit trees 4 years ago, they have struggled during summers that seem to have become dryer and hotter year after year.

I watched the good microbes video from the Access Agriculture video platform and downloaded the factsheet. All I needed was fresh cow dung, cow urine, molasses and chickpea flour. But we don’t have cows, only a few sheep, and to have cow dung loaded with good microbes one would have to approach an organic farmer. So, I decided to collect fresh dung from our sheep and give it a try.

Jeff wrote in an earlier blog that farmers and farmer trainers in Bolivia mix dung with their hands without any reservations. Likewise, I have often witnessed during my interactions with farmers in South Asia how respectful they treat dung, as if it were gold. Hence, I started to mix the ingredients. The days before setting up my experiment I had collected my own urine, and because I didn’t have molasses to feed the good microbes I settleed for what we had in the house, brown sugar.

Farmers in India also mix leaves of the neem tree into the solution to help control insect pests and diseases. I replaced neem with a strong-smelling medicinal plant that we have in our garden, called “boerenwormkruid”. After having added all in 10 litres of water, I placed the drum in the shade, as good microbes don’t like direct sunlight.

For 10 days, I let the mixture ferment to increase the number of good microbes, stirring it twice a day to release the gases that could inhibit fermentation. The sweet-sour smell was a good indication that fermentation was successful. The result was a home-made variation of commercially available effective microorganisms, and an Indian recipe adapted to Belgian conditions. I kept the filtered solution in recycled plastic milk bottles. Every 2-3 weeks I mixed one of the bottles into 100 litres of water to then pour the solution around my 30 something fruit trees with a watering can, each tree receiving just enough to moisten the mulch around their base.

Seeing is believing. And doing it yourself adds conviction. In just 6 months the soil around our fruit trees has become black, soft and crumbly, keeping rainwater much better. I am confident that the humus and rich soil life will help the trees cope much better with the changing climate.

While we have destroyed much of our farm land for decades, the solutions to revive our soils are available. Green technologies spread faster when there is political goodwill and when farmers have the opportunity to learn from their peers, across borders. That is what Access Agriculture tries to achieve through its rich video library.

Scientific name

Boerenwormkruid is Tanacetum vulgare. The English common name is tansy.

Credit

The top photo from soil erosion in Ethiopia is by Pascal Boeckx.

Related videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Good microbes for plants and soil

Human urine as fertilizer

Some 200 farmer training videos on ecological farming in 85 languages can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  www.accessagriculture.org

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Friendly germs

A revolution for our soil

Out of space

From uniformity to diversity

Further reading

GRAIN — GRAIN releases data set with over 400 global land grabs”. www.grain.org.

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

Panos Panagos et al. 2018. Cost of agricultural productivity loss due to soil erosion in the European Union: From direct cost evaluation approaches to the use of macroeconomic models. Land Degradation & Development, 29(3), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ldr.2879.

A video is worth 1000 words August 9th, 2020 by

A farmer learning video often does have the proverbial thousand words, but can technical information be shared through images alone? A recent study set out to see how much rice farmers in southern Benin would learn from a video if they couldn’t understand the words.

PhD candidate Lauréano Bede and colleagues created an experiment using a video about urea fertilizer. Over-use of this nitrogen fertilizer wastes farmers’ money, pollutes waterways, and contributes to greenhouse gases. The video shows how to cut urea use by two-thirds, by making large, “super-granules” of fertilizer and pressing them into the wet soil, where the rice plant can absorb it, instead of scattering the urea all over the surface.

In the study, six groups of farmers watched the super-granule video. In three villages, they watched the video in their own language, Adja. One of the villages saw the video once, another watched it twice, and another saw it three times. In comparison, another set of three villages also watched the video once, twice, or three times, but they had the disadvantage of seeing it in a language they didn’t understand: English.

As expected, villagers who only saw the video once learned more if they understood the soundtrack. But the difference narrowed after several screenings. Farmers who saw the video three times, without understanding the words, learned more than farmers who saw a single screening in their native Adja language. The more people watch a video, the more they learn, especially as community members discuss it among themselves, and share their observations, even if the language is foreign.

In this particular case, the super-granule video was expertly filmed to convey information to reduce the use of chemical fertilizer. Sloppy videos may not get their point across as well. A ten-minute video has about a thousand words. If the content and images are well-chosen, the video may be able to carry its messages, even without the words.

Related blogs

Deeper nitrogen, more rice, a cooler planet

Take a stab

Further reading

Lauréano Bede, Florent Okry & Simplice D. Vodouhe 2020 Video mediated rural learning: effects of images and languages on farmers’ learning in Benin Republic. Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2020.1788508

Watch the video Watch or download Urea deep placement in Adja, English or one of 29 other languages.

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