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The diesel wheat mills May 5th, 2019 by

The people of Yuraj Molino (“white mill”) live surrounded by wheat fields, in a large valley near the small town of Pocona, Bolivia. As the name suggests, there have been flour mills in Yuraj Molino for some time. But by the late 1970s, customers were complaining of how long it took to grind the wheat; they got tired of waiting all day for their flour. And then millers began to notice that with the warmer, dryer climate, the streams no longer carried as much stream water, to power the mills. Some of the mills closed. Ana and I visited the ruins of a miller’s house, the yard full of weeds, with the mill still there and a calendar for 1984 still on the wall.

Other mills survived. Local miller Juan Torrico showed us his old mill house, with the canal that once brought water from the mountains. In 2001, Juan’s brother Sergio designed a new mill at the mill house. He bought two large, new stones from a master craftsman near Epizana, Cochabamba, who still carves the massive limestone wheels. Sergio bought a diesel engine, and a used truck axel. The brothers built a new mill house and mounted the stones in it, fixed the axel upright below them, and then used a steel rod to connect the axel to the diesel engine, which Sergio put in the next room. This way they kept the diesel smoke and the engine noise out of the mill room. They don’t want the smoke to spoil the delicate flavor of the flour, which people love.

Five or six other mills in the valley are also sited where old water mills used to be, near running water. But most of them are also now powered by diesel motors.

One by one the old water mills around Pocona adapted to diesel, and one or two are still using water power. The change to diesel was gradual and there was never a break in service, never a time when the farmers had no mills to go to. The mills themselves also stayed in the same places. Although the mills were originally sited to be near water, they were also near the wheat fields, and the millers owned the land where their mills were, and they had community ties to the area. So, the diesel mills stayed right where the water mills had been.

There is no research institution providing expertise on how to motorize Bolivian water mills. At some point, the millers themselves had to blend their traditional knowledge with a lot of new information about motors and old truck parts. As always, people in rural areas are constantly creating and making sophisticated adaptations to changing conditions.

The Sajama Lines April 28th, 2019 by

A mystery unfolds around Mount Sajama, the highest point in Bolivia (6542 meters), a gorgeous snowcapped volcano. Even the base of the mountain is really high: 4200 meters, making the surrounding area too cold for farming, even though it is in tropical latitudes. And in ancient times, only farmers made grand monumental art. Yet the landscape around Mount Sajama is crisscrossed by some 10,000 km of perfectly straight lines, made by ancient people.

The lines are so poorly known that few people in Bolivia have heard of them. Many of the lines are in the Sajama National Park, although they are ignored in park literature. Yet the lines are clearly visible from the air, as I noticed last year when flying over them. They look a bit like giant, interlocking asterisks.

So, on a recent trip to Sajama, Ana and I were able to see that the lines up close. Up close, they look like roads, about 3 meters wide, stripped of all vegetation. Many lines run to hilltops. Some run far up the slopes of the highest mountains, but still end a long way from the icy peaks. Even today those peaks are impossible to climb, except by highly skilled (and slightly crazy) mountaineers.

From the Nazca Lines to the Pyramids of Giza, ancient monuments were made by agrarian societies. The labor came from off-season farmers.  Unskilled workers, specialists and priests were all fed with harvests wrested from farmers. But the area around Sajama is cold for most of the year. In April we woke up to a frost so thick that it covered the backs of the llamas with ice, like a blanket. Not even the hardy, native quinoa will grow here. Not even barley, which grows in the high, cold Alps. So local people continue to pasture large herds of llamas, like their ancestors before them. Hamlets are few, and far between.

Where did the labor come from to build these lines? Did workers migrate in seasonally, carrying their food with them?

On the ground, the lines look like nothing more than a band of sandy soil, where the native brush has been removed. It would have been an unimaginable amount of work to dig out all the deep-rooted needle grass and t’ola plants without steel tools. Millions of people-hours of labor. And, why have the plants not grown back in the last 500 years or so? The volcanic soil around the lines seems to have been only lightly disturbed. Are native plants really so slow to regenerate in this forbidding environment?

The lines are as straight as if made with a theodolite, even when crossing rivers or moving across slopes. Many of the lines come together at the small colonial churches. No doubt the sixteenth century chapels were built on the sites that the native people already held sacred, as jealous priests sought to co-opt the spiritual places of the Andean peoples.

The University of Pennsylvania conducted research on the lines a decade ago, but I’ve been unable to find one of their publications. Why this grand desert site is so under-researched is perhaps as great a wonder as the lines themselves.

Asking about cows April 21st, 2019 by

Officials often tell me that farmers can’t learn from smallholders on other continents. This tells us more about the limited imagination of officialdom than it does about farmers’ creativity, as I saw recently in a small town near Cochabamba, Bolivia.

I went with an extensionist colleague to show some videos to a group of women who were organized to sell milk. Their leader, doña Miguelina, met us with a big smile at the door of her home, and ushered us into a large room with tables, chairs and a refrigerated milk tank, where the women could bring their milk twice a day, for the dairy to collect.

A dozen women in broad-brimmed hats soon gathered, and we watched two videos from Nigeria. One explained how dairy producers should never blend water or anything else with their milk. Doña Miguelina had a question. “One time the dairy sent our milk back, saying that it was watery, but we hadn’t added any water to the milk.”

The extensionist gently explained that milk fat content is low if people only feed their cows water and bran. Cows need grass and grain to make rich milk. That was a good answer, and an example of expert “facilitation,” where added content can help to round out information from a video.

Next, we watched a video on keeping milk free of antibiotics. Afterwards the group had a question. “If antibiotics get into a cow’s milk, don’t the medicines also contaminate the cow’s meat?”

Yes, indeed. If a cow dies while being treated for an infection, her meat will contain antibiotics. That poses a dilemma for people if the cow dies during treatment, because they want to make use of the meat. These small-scale dairy farmers had correctly taken one idea from the video (don’t drink milk from a cow that has been recently treated with antibiotics), and extended it further (you shouldn’t eat the meat, either).

By the second video we had been joined by two agronomists from the municipal government. One asked “What breed of cow is that in the video?”

“A local breed.”

“And what is their milk yield?”

In college we used to call this game “stump the prof”, where we would ask questions we thought the professor couldn’t answer. On the other hand, the farmers were not playing games. They had gone right to the point of the video with their thoughtful questions. The farmers asked about the core topics of the videos.

I’ve never heard Latin American farmers complain, or even comment on the appearance of African farmers in the videos hosted on Access Agriculture. Even on different continents, smallholders have similar concerns, and they can identify with each other.

Related blog

Kicking the antibiotic habit

The videos we watched on dairy

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

And we also watched: Hand milking of dairy cows

Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

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