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Let nature guide you March 17th, 2019 by

Farmers need to take decisions every day. Smallholders living in remote areas often have no one to turn to to ask advice. Nobody tells them which crop to grow or when is a good time to plant. In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about the Yapuchiris, experienced organic farmers on the Bolivian altiplano who started recording their observations on weather, natural indicators and their crops on a daily basis. Some have done so for over 10 years.

In this harsh environment predicting the weather correctly can make the difference between harvesting a crop or harvesting nothing at all.

As always, when producing farmer training videos, we are fortunate to interact with farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, one of the Yapuchiris, Don Bernabé, explains that if frost hits your quinoa, you can lose your crop from one day to the next, all past efforts being in vain. He guides us in the brush land and shows us a local bush called tara t’ula in the Aymara language. “This plant doesn’t like the cold very much, so if you find many of these plants, it is a good place to build your farm house, your corral to keep your llamas and grow your crop.”

But even if your farm is wel located, frost can strike. So don Bernabé has many other natural indicators to inform him about what actions to take. “If the lizard makes a fresh house it will rain tomorrow, but if it starts to close its burrow, it will freeze that night. I then collect t’ula plants and burn them in my quinoa field from 3 to 5 am so that the frost will not settle on my crop,” he continues.

Apart from observing plants and animals, don Bernabé also reads the clouds and wind. Amazingly, winds in June and July already tell him how the next rainy season that starts in January will be. Arrived at a large sand dune, he points to the pattern of vertical ridges blown into the side of the dune. “If the lines are some 10 centimeters apart, the rains will come close to each other and we will have a good harvest. But if they are further apart, the rains will also be sparser and our crop will suffer.”

Don Bernabé has written a book about these natural weather indicators. As he shows us around the landscape, he proudly carries his book with colour photographs that clearly explain all the natural indicators he knows. Reading nature is a skill that requires spending a lot of time outdoors, observing natural phenomena.

The next few days we met some other extraordinary Yapuchiris, each sharing their knowledge with us in front of the camera. It is exciting to be part of this and at the same time an eye opener as to how much industrial agriculture in the West has become disconnected from nature.

With climate change, the need to build on local knowledge will grow in importance.

I cannot think of a better way to end this blog then by quoting don Bernabé once more: “Well these plants and animals are more intelligent than the human being. They know how to live in this land and they know it perfectly. For that reason, it is necessary not to lose this knowledge and that the young people should keep practicing this ancestral knowledge that is so rich.”

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform, in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara:

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

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Betting on the weather

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Acknowledgement The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Betting on the weather March 10th, 2019 by

Recently, we have had the chance to interact intensively with farmers and agronomists in the Bolivian Altiplano to develop two videos on weather forecasting. The first video focused more on natural indicators, such as plants, animals, wind and clouds. The second video highlighted a weather app. While we encourage in both videos to merge traditional knowledge with daily observations and modern science, a certain level of risk remains.

At an altitude of 4,250 meters, in the village of Ch’ojñapata (which means “green mountain” in the Aymara language), we meet don Juan Mamani with some of his fellow farmers. On the walk to his house in the Green Mountains, field after field of young potato plants showed black, wilted leaves. Despite their rich, traditional knowledge, receiving weekly forecasts on their phone and being connected with other fellow farmers through WhatsApp, the farmers of Ch’ojñapata village saw their potato crop destroyed by frost.

Weather forecasts can be a blessing for farmers and help them to decide when to prepare the land, when to plant, irrigate and harvest their crop. But while rain is relatively easy to predict, frost is less so, especially in a changing climate, as don Juan explains:

“Sometimes the weather is cloudy with good clouds, but during the night they suddenly disappear. It gets cold and starts to freeze, there is no way to be aware of it. I do not understand the climate, the climate is heating up, it confuses us, so for that I say that one should try to understand the climate and we have to adjust to it.”

But I was still concerned, standing on the edge of this ruined potato field. Don Juan is an expert farmer, with the benefit of modern and ancestral knowledge, who had known that there was likely to be a freeze early in the season, which he could have avoided by planting later.

Edwin Yucra, an agronomist who has studied weather for years on the Altiplano, explained what happened. First farmers forecast which part of the summer will be best for planting potatoes, then they plant potatoes early, middle or late in the season, depending on their prediction. But they always hedge their bets, never putting all of their potatoes in one basket. If farmers predict that the last part of the season will be best (as in the southern summer of 2018-19), they still plant a few potatoes in the early season. The farmers also use the forecast to decide where to plant, planting in wetter areas during predicted dry years, for example, or on the warmer slopes if they anticipate a freeze.

Farming is a gamble in many ways. Every time farmers plant they are betting on the weather. While modern forecasting technologies help smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve the odds, crop insurance (and fair food prices) may be required to make farming attractive to new generations of commercial small-scale farmers.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

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High Andean Climate Change

To see the future

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

Slow recovery March 3rd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

When a landscape has been stripped and ravished, like the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, recovery can take decades. In a previous story we met Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio and colleagues who were figuring out how to rear the wild native species of plants. But reforestation also takes social innovation.

Milton Villca is an agronomist from Chita, a village 45 kilometers from the town of Uyuni. Now he has returned to Chita to teach his relatives and former neighbors how to grow native plants as windbreaks to keep the fierce winds from carrying off the soil and burying the young quinoa plants.

The local farmers are starting to see the need to conserve the soil. It has taken a while. People are scattered thinly over the landscape, so when they first started plowing up the brushland to grow quinoa, in the 1970s, they thought of the land as a freebie, like air, so abundant that it had no value. They didn’t see that in the long run they would lose their fertile soil.

That is changing. Milton explains that two of the local farmers’ associations (APROA, AFNAQUI) are encouraging farmers to grow organic quinoa, and one requirement is to conserve the soil with live barriers of plants.

Just learning to establish live barriers like this can take years. First, people have to see the need. Community member Nilda Paucar explains that until 20 years ago, the wind came reliably after 4 October and for the rest of the year the wind was gentle enough to winnow the harvested quinoa grain, not like now, when the wind can blow up a dust cloud at any time of year, burying crops.

After seeing the need for windbreaks, people have to learn how to grow the native plants that form the live barriers. That is where a little local knowledge and some agronomic help can be a good thing. Paul and Marcella and I went with Milton and the community of Chita as they collected the tiny seed of khiruta, a wild shrub. Local people knock the seed off the plant into tubs. Then they sift and winnow the thousands of tiny seeds from the chafe.

As we watch, the people go right to work. This is a relatively new task for them, but they have mastered it.

The seed still has to be germinated in a nursery, which Milton manages in the nearby village of Chacala, with a local farmer, Teodocia Vásquez. Local farmer and llama herder, Ever Villca (Milton’s brother), explains that planting live barriers is only possible if people have support from an organization, for rearing the native plants in nurseries and delivering them to the community.

The experience with native plants has caught farmers’ imagination. Local resident Crecencio Laime has tried experimenting with wild plant seed, spreading it by hand on the ground and watering it, but germination was poor. “We have to keep trying,” he said, “We won’t always have the support of Milton or of an institution.”

Later, Modesta Villca (Milton’s aunt) told us that her husband has left five-meter wide, unplowed strips of native vegetation every 25 meters or so in his fields. We went to see these natural live barriers and they were beautiful, green hedgerows where wild vicuñas could browse and birds could nest. The family’s quinoa is also doing well, protected from the wind by these natural windbreaks.

As we watch (and film), the community plants seedlings of wild plants to make another live barrier. We see again that they know exactly what they are doing. Two people put the little shrubs in two parallel lines, while two men dig planting holes and two women gently lower the plants into the soil, removing the little black plastic bags from the nursery and thoughtfully collecting them so as not to leave any trash.

In the future it will be important to show the value of leaving natural windbreaks, and to appreciate the native flora. Making live barriers will still need to be made easier, but experiences like this are how farmers and researchers learn together to solve a problem. Their good attitudes and close-knit community will also go a long way. Next, the people of Chita are thinking of banding together to start their own nursery to grow native plants, so save their soil from the wind.

Watch the video

This video on live barriers has just been released. You can watch it or download it from free in English, or Spanish.

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Acknowledgement

Agronomist Milton Villca works for the Proinpa Foundation. His work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foudation.

Related blog stories

Awakening the seeds

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RECUPERACIĂ“N LENTA

por Jeff Bentley, 3 de marzo del 2019

Cuando la vegetación natural ha sido despojada y destruida, como el sur del Altiplano boliviano, la regeneración puede tomar décadas. En una historia anterior conocimos al Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio y sus colegas que están descubriendo cómo multiplicar plantas silvestres nativas. Pero la reforestación también requiere innovación social.

Milton Villca es un agrónomo de Chita, un pueblo a 45 kilómetros de la ciudad de Uyuni. Ahora ha regresado a Chita para enseñar a sus parientes y antiguos vecinos cómo cultivar plantas nativas como rompevientos o barreras vivas para evitar que los fuertes vientos se lleven la tierra y entierren a las jóvenes quinuas.

Los agricultores locales están empezando a ver la necesidad de conservar el suelo. Ha sido un aprendizaje costoso en tiempo. La gente vive dispersa sobre el paisaje, así que cuando comenzaron a arar la tierra para cultivar quinua, en la década de 1970, pensaron que la tierra era gratis, como el aire, tan abundante que no tenía valor. No vieron venir las consecuencias a largo plazo, especialmente la pérdida de suelo fértil.

Eso está cambiando. Milton explica que dos de las asociaciones de agricultores locales (APROA, AFNAQUI) están alentando a los agricultores a cultivar quinua orgánica, y un requisito es conservar el suelo con barreras vivas de plantas.

Aprender a establecer barreras vivas puede llevar años. Primero, la gente tiene que ver la necesidad. Nilda Paucar, miembro de la comunidad, explica que hasta hace 20 años, el viento venía siempre después del 4 de octubre y que durante el resto del año el viento era suave como para aventar el grano de quinua cosechado, no como ahora, cuando el viento puede soplar con una nube de polvo en cualquier época del año, enterrando los cultivos.

Después de ver la necesidad de las barreras vivas, la gente tiene que aprender a cultivar las plantas nativas que las forman. Ahí es donde un poco de conocimiento local y ayuda agronómica sirve mucho. Paul, Marcella y yo fuimos con Milton y la comunidad de Chita mientras recogían la pequeña semilla de khiruta, un arbusto nativo, silvestre. Los lugareños ponen la semilla de la planta en bañadores. Avientan y limpian los miles de diminutas semillas.

Mientras observamos, la gente se pone manos a la obra. Esta es una actividad nueva para ellos, pero lo saben hacer muy bien.

La semilla es germinada en un vivero, que Milton maneja en la cercana aldea de Chacala, con una agricultora local, Teodocia Vásquez. Ever Villca (hermano de Milton), agricultor local y pastor de llamas, explica que plantar barreras vivas sólo es posible si la gente tiene el apoyo de una organización, para cultivar las plantas nativas en viveros y entregar las plantas a la comunidad.

La experiencia con plantas nativas ha captado la imaginaciĂłn de los agricultores. Crecencio Laime, un agricultor de la zona, ha intentado experimentar con semillas de plantas silvestres, esparciĂ©ndolas a mano en el suelo y regándolas, pero la germinaciĂłn fue pobre. “Tenemos que seguir intentándolo”, dijo, “No siempre tendremos el apoyo de Milton o de una instituciĂłn”.

Más tarde, Modesta Villca (tía de Milton) nos dijo que su marido ha dejado franjas de vegetación nativa sin ararlas de cinco metros de ancho a más o menos cada 25 metros en sus parcelas. Fuimos a ver estas barreras naturales vivas y eran hermosos arbustos verdes donde las vicuñas salvajes podían comer y los pájaros podían anidar. La quinua está protegida del viento por estos rompevientos naturales.

Mientras vemos (y filmamos), la comunidad planta plantines de arbustos nativos para hacer otra barrera viva. Vemos de nuevo que saben exactamente lo que están haciendo. Dos personas colocan los pequeños arbustos en dos líneas paralelas, mientras que dos hombres cavan agujeros para plantar y dos mujeres bajan suavemente las plantas en el suelo, sacando las pequeñas bolsas de plástico negro del vivero y recolectándolas cuidadosamente para no dejar basura.

En el futuro se valorará el dejar barreras vivas naturales. Y a apreciar la flora nativa. Tendrá que ser más fácil plantas barreras vivas, pero gracias a experiencias como ésta, los agricultores y los investigadores aprenden juntos a resolver un problema. Su buena disposición y su comunidad unida también serán de gran ayuda. Después, la gente de Chita está pensando en unirse para comenzar su propio vivero para cultivar plantas nativas, para salvar su suelo del viento.

Ver el video

Para ver más sobre el contexto de este blog, puede ver el video recién publicado en inglés y en español

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Agradecimientos

El Ing. Milton Villca trabaja para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Su trabajo es financiado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn de Cultivos de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

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Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua

Community seed producers February 24th, 2019 by

Smallholder farmers are clearly part of the private sector, along with agrodealers, traders, food processors and other actors on the value chain. Projects often encourage farmers to improve their livelhihoods by moving into other private sector roles, like seed production. But one project can easily undermine what another one is trying to create, as we recently learned in Tanzania.

For centuries farmers have developed their own plant varieties, kept their own seed and exchanged it with their neighbours. This has also been the case for cassava which is propagated by stem cuttings. Unlike cereal, legume and vegetable seed that can be stored for months if properly dried, cassava is a vegetatively propagated crop. Cassava is planted with stem cuttings that need to be as fresh as possible, or the cuttings may die. Cassava stems are also bulky. For half a hectare a farmer needs 25 bundles, each with 30 stakes of about a meter long. As with other vegetatively propagated crops, the short shelf life and bulkiness of cassava seed make it almost impossible to sell in shops, but farmer seed enterpreneurs who are close their clients could sell cassava stems.

In 2017, a regional cassava project invited Alli Abdalla Lugome from Mhaga village in Tanzania to become a community seed producer. Alli received training in good agronomic practices, bought certified cassava cuttings from the Kibaha research institute and had his field inspected by a TOSCI (Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute) official who accredited him as a producer of “quality declared seed”. Alli now officially and legally sells cassava seed to his fellow farmers.

It is difficult to develop a market for something like cassava stems that farmers can easily produce themselves. Cassava stems also have no alternative use; they are abundant and can only be used as seed. So when a cassava garden is harvested, most farmers will happily give the leftover stems to neighbours in need of seed. But farmers will buy seed to get a new cassava variety. The improved variety that Alli multplies is resistant to the cassava brown streak disease that is caused by a virus and spread by whiteflies and by cassava cuttings. Cassava across Tanzania and many other African countries has been seriously affected by this disease. There is an urgent need to get seed of new varieties into farmers’ hands and Alli is well-placed to sell such seed to his neighbours.

But while one project was helping Alli to get into the cassava seed business, other projects were killing his market by giving free cassava seed to members of the farmer group to which Alli belongs. As I saw during my time at AfricaRice, you cannot establish farmer seed producers while at the same time handing out seed for free to the farming community. 

When development organisations are under pressure from donors to create impact at scale quickly, they can be successful in their project, but the speed and scale of success may at the same time undermine an emerging private sector of community-based seed enterprises. Running a cassava seed business is a challenge, but it would certainly help farmers like Alli if organisations would come to his village and buy his seed to distribute to other smallholders, instead of undercutting Alli by giving away free seed to his neighbours.

What is clear from this case is that two or more projects can work at cross-purposes with the same crop, in the same village as though the other project did not exist. Unfortunately, such “coordination breakdowns” are all too common in seed projects for vegetatively produced crops like cassava. But such mishaps can be avoided with better planning and communication.

Further reading

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Bentley, Jeffery W., Jorge Andrade-Piedra, Paul Demo, Beloved Dzomeku, Kim Jacobsen, Enoch Kikulwe, Peter Kromann, P. Lava Kumar, Margaret McEwan, Netsayi Mudege, Kwame Ogero, Richardson Okechukwu, Ricardo Orrego, Bernardo Ospina, Louise Sperling, Stephen Walsh & Graham Thiele 2018 Understanding Root, Tuber, and Banana Seed Systems and Coordination Breakdown: A Multi-Stakeholder Framework. Journal of Crop Improvement.

Related video

The video Quality cassava planting material is available in English, French and Kiswahili on the Access Agriculture video platform. Soon, this video will also be available in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Pigeon English.

Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Related blogs

The truth of local language

Travels around the sun

I thought you said “N’togonasso”

Beating a nasty weed

Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

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