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Principles matter July 18th, 2021 by

In this age of restricted travel, when webinars have taken the place of conferences, at first I missed face-to-face meetings a lot. But virtual events do allow one to get exposed to far more ideas than before. This is also the case when digital learning is introduced to farmers. Farmers are increasingly getting information online, like videos. But the videos have to be properly designed. Unlike following a cooking recipe on a Youtube video, in agriculture, recipes must be accompanied by basic principles, so that farmers can decide how to experiment with the new ideas.

I was reminded of this recently during a webinar on the Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India. One of the speakers was Vijay Kumar, one of the driving forces behind the programme, which aims to scale up agroecology to millions of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Vijay is a humble, highly-respected former civil servant. He is much in demand, so meeting him in person would be a challenge, but introduced by a mutual colleague, I was fortunate to have already met him several times on Zoom. Vijay appreciates that Access Agriculture stands for quality training videos that enable South-South learning. According to him, the collaboration with Access Agriculture offers opportunities to help scale community-based natural farming from India to Africa and beyond. It is fortunate to have strong allies who understand the challenges of scaling and that to be cost-effective, one cannot simply visit all the world’s farmers in person.

Still, many people think that farmers can only learn from fellow farmers who live nearby and speak the same language, and that training videos are only useful when they are made locally. The many experiences from local partners with Access Agriculture training videos show that farmers do learn from their peers across cultures, on different continents. Farmers are motivated when they see how fellow farmers in other parts of the world solve their own problems. Access Agriculture videos are effective across borders in part because they explain the scientific principles behind technologies, and not just show how to do things. Vijay is convinced that scientific knowledge and farmer knowledge need to go hand in hand to promote agroecology.

The second speaker at the natural farming conference was Walter Jehne, a renowned Australian soil microbiologist, who talked about the need to build up soil organic matter and micro-organisms as a way to revive soils and cool the planet. I was pleased that he also stressed the importance of principles. When one of the Indian participants asked Walter if he could provide the recipe, he smilingly and patiently explained: “We should focus on the underlying principles, as principles apply across the globe, irrespective of where you are. You need organic matter, you need to build up good soil micro-organisms and make use of natural growth promotors. If a recipe tells you to use cow dung, but you don’t have cows, what can you do? If for instance you have reindeer, their dung will work just as well. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it.”  In two of my earlier blogs (Trying it yourself and Reviving soils) I did exactly do that back home: use ingredients that were available to me: sheep dung, leaves of oak trees in the garden, wheat straw, and so on, but building on ideas from Indian farmers.

Farmers have creative minds and this creativity is fed by basic principles: while recipes surely help, a better understanding of underlying scientific principles are what matter most when it comes down to adaptation to local contexts. We, at Access Agriculture are thrilled to join Andhra Pradesh’s efforts to spread Community-Based Natural Farming across the globe.

Related webinars

365 Days Green Cover & Pre-Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) – Walter Jehne – Streamed on 6th July 12:30 pm

Restoring the water cycles to cool the climate

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring video platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Black fire ants July 11th, 2021 by

The surest way to tell if you have black fire ants in your garden is to accidentally stand on or near their nest. The ants will crawl through your clothes first and then start stinging you all at once. You may have to go inside and take off your trousers to find all of the ants in your pants. A second diagnostic test of black fire ants is to plant a vegetable seedbed, and wait for it to come up, but it never does. The ants have eaten all your seeds.

These ants love seeds and they will dig up every one you plant in their foraging area.

You can try dousing their nest with boiling water, insecticide or gasoline (and then lighting it). I’m just kidding, but it may not even work; these ants are pretty tough. Or you can take Rachel Carson’s suggestion, and fight pests with biology, not chemistry.

Years ago, while working with my student Eloy González on his entomology thesis at El Zamorano, Honduras, by total serendipity we learned that fire ants can be perfectly controlled with raw grains of rice.

Here’s how it works. Plant your vegetable seedbed any way you like. Then sprinkle a handful of raw rice over the surface. The black fire ants are omnivorous, but they prefer dense food packages like seeds or other insects. The ants also know a bargain when they see one. The ants will haul off your rice grains and ignore your smaller, harder-to reach soil-covered vegetable seeds.

Once your vegetables come up, the black fire ants will lose interest in them. However, the ants will continue to patrol your vegetable patch, looking for insect pests to drag back to their nest, to eat.

If you don’t want to use rice, try bread crumbs, bits of stale tortillas or other food scraps.

In our garden, we have had no insect pests, except for the Mediterranean fruit flies. Our patchwork of many species of trees and vegetables confuses most insect pests. And because we have never applied insecticides, we have many beneficial insects that kill most of the herbivorous ones before they can become pests. We manage our black fire ants with the rice trick, and by not standing on their nests. They repay us by helping to keep our vegetables pest-free.

If you live outside of tropical Central or South America, you may never have to deal with black fire ants. But wherever you live, you can always look for ways to live with insects, with biology, not chemistry.

Further reading

Paul has his own story about Vietnamese farmers who educate weaver ants, to protect their orchards from insect pests.

Ants as friends.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Ants in the kitchen

Sugar sweet ants

The smell of ants

When ants and microbes join hands

Videos about insects that hunt and control insect pests, from Access Agriculture

The wasp that protects our crops

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Scientific names

The black fire ant, also called the tropical fire ant, is Solenopsis genimata. The red fire ant, the so-called “imported” one is Solenopsis invicta. The red fire ant is native to Argentina, and slipped into the USA, possibly as a stowaway on a ship, after 1933. in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson tells the story of how the US Department of Agriculture lost its chemical war against the red fire ant. That red ant is still thriving in North America. Unlike the black fire ant, which builds discrete, ground-level nests, the red one builds, a tall, conspicuous entrance to its burrow.

Coconut coir dust July 4th, 2021 by

Many years ago, I wrote one of my first articles, on “Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics” and published it in Humus News, a trilingual (Dutch, French, English) magazine from Comité Jean Pain, a Belgian non-profit association that has trained people from across the globe on compost making since 1978.

So recently, when one of our Indian video partners decided to make a training video on composting coir dust, I dug up my old article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still contained useful information.

Coconut coir dust or coir pith is the material that is left over after the fibres have been removed from the coconut husk. Coconut factories often have no idea what to do with this waste, so in many coastal areas in the humid tropics one can find heaps of this natural resource.

Whether economical or ecological motives are the driving force, in low external input agriculture systems in the tropics, farmers often use biowaste for soil conservation and sustainable land use.

While coir dust has negligible amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, making it a poor source of nutrients, it can store up to 8 times its dry weight in water. By applying a 15 cm thick layer of coir dust mulch around coconut seedlings in Sri Lanka, irrigation needs could be reduced by up to 55 %. In a pineapple coconut intercrop during the dry season, my coir paper reported that the top soil layer had a moisture content of 49 % under the mulch, compared to 10 % under a sandy ridge of the same height.

When coir dust mulch is applied to salt-sensitive plants care, has to be taken that the concentration of salt is not too high. The highest salt concentrations, though still low, are mainly observed in coir dust which is fresh and from coastal coconut trees. This salt concentration can be reduced by leaving the material in the rain, before applying the mulch in the field or nursery.

In a commercial tree nursery in Kenya, germination of cashew seeds is enhanced by applying a coir dust mulch. Besides, roots are not damaged after transplanting, thanks to the loose structure of the coir dust. Weeds in cashew plantations in India are suppressed by applying a layer of 7.5 cm of mulch in a 1.5 m radius around the trees. In Sri Lanka, this kind of mulch is mainly used in semi-perennial crops like pineapple and ginger. Coir dust mulch suppressed some of the world’s worst weeds, namely goatweed, purple nutsedge and the sensitive mimosa plant.

Besides suppressing weeds, coir dust mulch also helps to establish cover crops. Herbaceous legumes are often used as cover crop under coconut in Sri Lanka, but they are suppressed by weeds in dry weather. Applying coir dust tackles the weeds, but favors the leguminous cover crop during the dry season.

Coir dust consists mainly of lignin, a woody substance which is poorly biodegradable. About 90 % is organic matter and the C/N ratio is extremely high (> 130). The low pH of 4.5 – 5.5 offers an extra protection against biodegradation, as many micro-organisms do not survive once the pH drops below 4. Slow biodegradation of organic mulches has been recently more and more looked for, especially in the humid and sub-humid tropics, where fast mineralization of the organic matter and leaching of minterals are big problems. While coir dust can easily be applied as a mulch, the recently produced video suggests that it is better to compost the coir dust first when one wants to use it to improve the soil structure. The video shows how one can easily make one’s own organic decomposer that is rich in good microbes to break down the lignin.

Coir dust, being important to control weeds, improve soil physical conditions and increase water retention capacity, should be regarded as an important resource for soil conservation and sustainable land use in integrated cropping systems, and not as waste. The use of coir dust in the tropics, however, is not only hindered by a lack of knowledge, which the video aims to share, but is also seriously threatened as coir dust is increasingly exported to Europe where it is used as an horticulture substrate.

Further reading

Van Mele, P. 1997. Utilization of Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics. Humus News, 13(1), p. 3-4.

Related blogs

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related video

Coir pith – from waste to wealth

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Our valuable garbage June 27th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivia may have the world’s only singing garbage men. Three times a week, a garbage truck pulls up to our corner blaring the tune: Viva Cochabamba! That’s our signal that all the neighbors should take out the trash.

This bit of fun hides a serious problem. There’s nowhere to take all of that garbage. The landfill at Q’ara Q’ara, south of the city, is full, and is becoming a tower of sculpted refuse. Neighborhood organizations often block the road into the landfill (in protest of any number of grievances, not all of which are even related to the garbage). When that happens, trash piles up in mounds on Cochabamba’s streets.

There is not really another good site for a new landfill, since the valley is prime farmland, rapidly being paved over for streets and houses. Land is too expensive for the city to buy another big chunk to make another trash dump.

Some citizen’s groups are offering a solution. For example, Denis de la Barra has recently made a video, suggesting that people stop thinking of their organic refuse as garbage. Instead, Denis urges us to think of it as valuable raw material to make compost.

To make a motivational video, Denis wanted to interview people in Cochabamba and surrounding municipalities who had made compost for years and applied it to their gardens. He found some of these gardeners in the outer municipalities, but fewer in the city of Cochabamba, which has about a million people. Not everyone in town has space for a garden. Those who do, tend to have a manicured lawn and ornamental plants.

Ana and I have always made compost and several years ago we turned most of our front lawn into a vegetable garden, so Denis filmed part of his video at our house.

As Denis and colleagues explained later, on a radio panel discussion:

  • We all generate refuse, and local governments and citizens should take some responsibility for it.
  • Everything organic, from apple cores to lawn trimmings, can be recycled as valuable compost, and used as fertilizer, to grow healthy vegetables.
  • Citizens should share their experiences on composting and gardening.
  • Separate plastics from organic waste and only discard the non-organics, saving space in landfills.
  • We can all stop bringing home one-use plastic bags from the shops.

When people’s ideal garden is flowers around a smooth, green lawn (fertilized with chemicals), it may take a while to give compost and vegetables a chance. But this new video will get some people to start thinking about the connections between garbage, gardening and healthier food.

Related Agro-Insight blog story

Municipal compost: teaching city governments

Watch Denis’s video

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Produced by the Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ—Working Group on Climate Change and Justice), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel discussion

Denis discussed the video in a panel on Radio CEPRA, a community radio station in Cochabamba, hosted by Arnold Brouwer, featuring Tania Ricaldi, of the local public university (Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn), and Ana Gonzales, agronomist and home gardener.

Access Agriculture Videos on making compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw


Por Jeff Bentley 27 de junio del 2021

Puede que Bolivia tenga los únicos basureros cantantes del mundo. Tres veces por semana, un carro basurero llega a nuestra esquina haciendo sonar la canción: ¡Viva Cochabamba! Es nuestra señal para que todos los vecinos saquemos la basura.

Este momento divertido esconde un grave problema. No hay dĂłnde llevar toda esa basura. El botadero de Q’ara Q’ara, al sur de la ciudad, está lleno y se está convirtiendo en una torre de basura. Las organizaciones vecinales suelen bloquear la carretera de acceso al basurero (en protesta por cualquiera demanda no satisfecha, no siembre relacionada con la basura). Cuando eso ocurre, la basura se amontona en las calles de Cochabamba.

En realidad, no hay otro lugar adecuado para un nuevo botadero, ya que el valle es tierra agrícola de primera, que se está pavimentando rápidamente para construir calles y casas. El terreno es demasiado caro para que la ciudad compre otro pedazo grande para hacer otro basurero.

Algunos grupos de ciudadanos ofrecen una solución. Por ejemplo, Denis de la Barra ha realizado recientemente un video en el que sugiere que la gente deje de considerar sus residuos orgánicos como basura. En su lugar, Denis nos insta a pensar en ella como una valiosa materia prima para hacer compost.

Para hacer un video motivador, Denis quiso entrevistar a personas de Cochabamba y de los municipios cercanos que habían hecho compost ya hace varios años y que lo habían aplicado a sus huertos. Encontró a algunos de estos jardineros en los municipios exteriores, pero menos en la ciudad de Cochabamba, que tiene cerca de un millón de habitantes. No todos los habitantes de la ciudad tienen espacio para un huerto. Los que lo tienen, suelen tener pasto y plantas ornamentales.

Ana y yo siempre hemos hecho compost y hace varios años convertimos la mayor parte de nuestro césped en un huerto, por lo que Denis filmó parte de su video en nuestra casa.

Como explicaron Denis y sus colegas más tarde, en una mesa redonda de la radio:

– Todos generamos residuos, y los gobiernos locales y los ciudadanos deberĂ­an asumir alguna responsabilidad al respecto.

– Todo lo orgánico, desde las cáscaras de las manzanas hasta el pasto cortado, puede reciclarse como valioso compost, y usarse como abono, para cultivar verduras sanas.

– Los ciudadanos deberĂ­an compartir sus experiencias sobre compostaje y jardinerĂ­a.

– Separar los plásticos de los residuos orgánicos y desechar sĂłlo los no orgánicos, para ahorrar espacio en los botaderos.

– Todos podemos dejar de llevar a casa bolsas de plástico de un solo uso de las tiendas.

Cuando el jardín ideal de la gente son las flores en torno a un césped liso y verde (abonado con productos químicos), puede ser difícil dar una oportunidad al compost y las verduras. Pero este nuevo video hará que algunas personas empiecen a pensar en las conexiones entre la basura, el huerto y los alimentos más saludables.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Compost municipal: una escuela para las alcaldĂ­as

Vea el video de Denis

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Producido por el Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ), Cochabamba. 2021.


Denis hablĂł sobre su video en un panel en Radio CEPRA, una radio comunitaria en Cochabamba, moderado por Arnold Brouwer, con Tania Ricaldi de la Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn y Ana Gonzales, ingeniero agrĂłnomo que tiene su huerto casero.

Videos de Access Agriculture sobre el hacer compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

Youth don’t hate agriculture June 20th, 2021 by

Rural youth are moving to the cities by the busload. Yet counter to the prevailing stereotype, many young people like village life and would be happy to go into farming, if it paid. This is one of the insights from a study of youth aspirations in East Africa that unfolds in three excellent country studies written by teams of social scientists, each working in their own country. Each study followed a parallel method, with dozens of interviews with individuals and groups in the local languages, making findings easy to compare across borders.

In Ethiopia many young people grow small plots of vegetables for sale, and would be glad to produce grains, legumes, eggs or dairy. Youth are often attracted to enterprises based on high-value produce that can be grown on the small plots of land that young people have.

Young people are also eager to get into post-harvest processing, transportation and marketing of farm produce, but they lack the contacts or the knowhow to get started. Ethiopian youth have little money to invest in farm businesses, so they often migrate to Saudi Arabia where well-paid manual work is available (or at least it was, before the pandemic).

In northern Uganda, researchers found that many youths wanted to get an education and a good job, but unwanted pregnancies and early marriage forced many to drop out of secondary school. If dreams of moving to the city and becoming a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher don’t work out, then agriculture is the fallback option for many young people. But, as in Ethiopia, young Ugandan farmers would like their work to pay more.

In Tanzania, many youths have been able to finish secondary school and some attend university. Even there, young people go to the city to escape poverty, not to get away from the village. Many youths are even returning, like one young man who quit his job as a shop assistant in town to go home and buy a plot of land to grow vegetables. Using the business skills he learned in town, he was also able to sell fish, and eventually invested in a successful, five acre (two hectare) cashew farm.

These three insightful studies from East Africa lament that extension services often ignore youth. But the studies also suggest to me that some of the brightest youth will still manage to find their way into agriculture. Every urban migrant becomes a new consumer, who has to buy food. As tropical cities mushroom, demand will grow for farm produce.

If youth want to stay in farming, they should be able to do so, but they will need investment capital, and training in topics like pest management and ways to make their produce more appealing for urban consumers. Improved infrastructure will not only make country life more attractive, but more productive. Better mobile phone connectivity will link smallholders with buyers and suppliers. Roads will help bring food to the cities. A constant electric supply will allow food to be processed, labeled and packaged in the countryside. New information services, including online videos, can also help give information that young farmers need to produce high-value produce.

Further reading

These three studies were all sponsored by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). You can find them here.

Boonabaana, Brenda, Peace Musiimenta, Margaret Najjingo Mangheni, and Jasper Bakeiha Ankunda 2020. Youth Realities, Aspirations, Transitions to Adulthood and Opportunity Structures in Uganda’s Dryland Areas. Report submitted to ICRISAT.

Endris, Getachew Shambel, and Jemal Yousuf Hassan 2020. Youth realities, aspirations, transitions to adulthood and opportunity structures in the drylands of Ethiopia. Report submitted to ICRISAT.

Mwaseba, Dismas L., Athman K. Ahmad and Kenneth M. Mapund 2020. Youth Realities, Aspirations and Transitions to Adulthood in Dryland Agriculture in Tanzania. Report submitted to ICRISAT.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Teaching the farmers of tomorrow with videos  

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

The next generation of farmers

Some videos of interest

Access Agriculture hosts videos to share information about profitable, ecologically-sound agriculture. Farmers of all ages can download videos on their smartphones in English and many other languages, for example:

For Ethiopia, check out these videos in Amharic, Oromo, Afar, and Arabic, Oromo,

For Tanzania, 122 videos in Swahili (Kiswahili), and others in Dholuo, and Tumbuka

For Uganda, Ateso, Kalenjin, Kiswahili, Luganda, Lugbara, Luo (Uganda), Runyakitara

To find videos in a language of your country, click here.

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