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Poisoning our friends October 20th, 2019 by

Except for entomologists, no one knows more about insects than farmers. Wherever researchers have bothered to talk to smallholders about insects, whether in Honduras, Nepal, or among the Dogon of Mali, or the KayapĂł of the Brazilian rainforest, we see that rural people know the names of hundreds of insects and spiders. This is especially true of critters that are conspicuous (such as the big ones that are active during the day) or those that make themselves important, e.g. by eating crops.  

However, a recent, quantitative global literature review by Kris Wyckhuys and colleagues confirms that farmers know little about beneficial insects, especially in industrialized countries. As we saw in this blog last week, it is fairly easy to notice toads and other relatively large animals eating insect pests. Many farmers know that birds, frogs and cats are natural enemies of pests. Yet Wyckhuys found that worldwide, farmers mention on average only 0.9 insects or spiders that help to control insect pests.

Farmers can have sophisticated knowledge of certain, individual insect species. For example, Paul Van Mele and colleagues have described Vietnamese farmers who used weaver ants to control pests in fruit orchards. Such cases are, however, disappointingly rare. Weaver ants are big, diurnal, and easy to spot in their treehouse nests sewn together from leaves. Farmers were also motivated to watch weaver ants because they prey on insects like fruit flies in high-value orchards.  Most other natural enemies of insect pests, “farmers’ friends” go unnoticed. Hardly any rural people know about other common natural enemies of pests, such as parasitic wasps, insect-eating fungi and nematodes.

Farmers tend to use more pesticides in cash crops, and know fewer natural enemies for these crops, than in food staples. The use of pesticides is growing worldwide, while the pest problems are as bad as ever. Farmers are born experimenters, but to find alternative to pesticides, they need to know more about the natural enemies of insect pests.

Wyckhuys suggests that some of the world’s half trillion-dollar subsidies for agriculture could be devoted to agro-ecological education. Farmers will never find alternatives to pesticides unless they understand that most insects are beneficial. As farmers use insecticides to kill pests, they unwittingly poison their friends, the insects that eat and kill those pests.

Further reading

Van Mele, P 2008 “The importance of ecological and socio-technological literacy in R&D priority setting: the case of a fruit innovation system in Guinea, West Africa.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 6: 183–94.

Wyckhuys, K.A.G., K.L. Heong, F. Sanchez-Bayo, F.J.J.A. Bianchi, J.G. Lundgren and J.W. Bentley 2019 “Ecological Illiteracy Can Deepen Farmers’ Pesticide Dependency.” Environmental Research Letters 14: 093004

Related videos

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

The wasp that protects our crops

Killing fall armyworms naturally

See also the many other farmer learning videos about Integrated Pest Management on www.accessagriculture.org.

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Toads for watermelon

Battling the armyworm

Biological pest control in the Galapagos forest

Toads for watermelon October 13th, 2019 by

The south coast of Jamaica is just right for growing watermelon, where I recently saw the fruit stacked under the shade trees in front of comfortable farm houses. Farmers can earn a tidy living from selling melons on the local market and to the hotels and resorts.

But the trick is to get enough water. In the dry season, a tanker truck will deliver 1000 gallons (almost 4,000 liters) for $50. Most of the farmers economize on water by using drip irrigation. For many years, farmers have saved on water by using mulch, made from the light-weight Guinea grass.

Professional crews cut and dry the grass, which is grown in small fields scattered among the patches of watermelon.  The grass crews lay out a neat carpet of mulch, which not only keeps the soil moist, but also suppresses weeds, and creates a soft, clean bed for the fruit to grow, so it develops an attractive, green rind all the way around the fruit. After harvest, the grass decomposes, enriching the soil with organic matter.

I learned about this while visiting Jamaican farmer Junior Dyer, with a group of colleagues. We asked when Junior watered his plants. He said at 9 or 10 AM. “I never water at night,” Junior explained, because if he does that frogs and toads come into the field to eat the insect pests, but then the amphibians stay for the night, digging holes into the moist soil and disturbing the roots. The frogs and toads still come and eat the insect pests when watering is done in the morning, but then they bed down on the edge of the field.

Junior also showed me some of his 13 beehives, which he moves around to pollinate his melons, cantaloupe and cucumbers. I asked Junior if he used insecticides to control major insect pests such as whiteflies, thrips and especially aphids, which transmit disease (like watermelon mosaic virus). He admitted, a bit reluctantly, that he did use insecticides. I asked how he managed that without killing his bees. Junior replied that he looks for insecticide labelled as bee-friendly. In truth, insecticides are never good for bees, but some are less toxic than others.

Junior’s extension agent, Jermaine Wilson, said that Junior belongs to a farmers’ group, but that the farmers had already observed on their own that toads and frogs are beneficial creatures. Farmers see them eating insects. Beneficial amphibians are an example of how valuable local knowledge often develops around a topic that is culturally important (like watermelon pests) and easy to observe (like toads eating bugs). I found it encouraging that Junior appreciated the frogs and toads, even though they tend to eat larger insects rather than the really small ones that are the main pests in Jamaican watermelon.

I admired the efficient system the Jamaicans have for producing watermelon, even though they still largely rely on insecticides, with little organic production. But the Jamaican farmers are moving in the right direction by encouraging frogs and toads, and beekeeping will certainly motivate them to further reduce insecticides. Watermelons are a fairly sustainable, commercial crop from family farms. The bees pollinate the melon flowers, and the fruit grows nestled in a bed of mulch, precision-watered with drip irrigation. It’s a nice blend of appropriate technology and local knowledge, with frogs and toads contributing along the way.

Acknowledgements

RADA (Rural Agricultural Development Authority) graciously hosted my visit to Saint Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, as part of the 10th Annual Meeting of GFRAS (Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services).

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Drip irrigation for tomato

Gauchos for hire October 6th, 2019 by

Picture a gaucho astride a horse on a homemade saddle, galloping like a centaur across the limitless plains of Argentina. Above his broad brimmed hat, he twirls three balls (bolas) tethered together, to fling at the feet of a fleeing bull. The rawhide cords of the bolas wrap around the lower legs of the bull and bring it crashing to the ground.

The gauchos are often portrayed as a romantic even mythical figure, so it is easy to forget that they were workers in commercial agriculture, supplying the world’s markets with export beef, even in the early nineteenth century.

Argentine historian Ricardo Salvatore has written a book about the final, glory days of the gauchos (1829 to 1852), when Argentina was governed by Juan Manuel de Rosas. Now largely vilified in his home country as a dictator and populist, Rosas liberalized markets and freed them from the restrictions and high prices imposed under colonial rule. He awarded government contracts in public, on the steps of the police station, to those who submitted the lowest tender. Rosas insisted that the courts give equal legal treatment to rich and poor, black and white. He created a large army and filled it with rural men, but he also fed their widows and families with beef confiscated from enemy ranchers.

The Argentine civil wars dragged on for decades. Rosas and his party, the Federales, favored less government. They would eventually lose to the rebel Unitarios, who wanted a strong central administration. During the war many rural people, paisanos, migrated to the relative calm of the province of Buenos Aires. Along the way young men were arrested on charges of deserting the army. Fragments of their defense statements, transcribed by court clerks, make up most of the source material for Salvatore’s book.

The gauchos were, by Salvatore’s definition, illiterate. They also worked as ranch and farm hands, and led a simple life. They owned little more than some simple horse-riding tack and the clothes on their back: a shirt, jacket, poncho, home-made boots and a chiripá (a woven cloth worn around the waist, and tucked between the legs).

The vast pampas may have been unfenced but they were policed by small town judges (jueces de paz), and owned by ranchers, who employed the gauchos to raise cattle, and to grow a few crops. Products like dried beef, hides and tallow were carted to Buenos Aires and exported, mainly to Europe. Live cattle were herded to the city. On one single day, 27 February 1847, a whopping 19,073 animals were slaughtered. It’s not clear if this was a routine toll or just a bad day for cows. In those days the meat was salted and exported, before the invention of tinned food and refrigerated shipping.

During the long, violent wars of independence from Spain (about 1809 to 1825), all of the mainland Spanish-American countries, from Mexico to Argentina, emerged as self-governing republics. In Argentina, the struggle for independence had fostered an ideology of equality, which the gauchos held onto during the civil wars that broke out soon after independence was granted. Labor shortages also strengthened the gaucho’s position with their employers. Some would demand advance pay and then vanish. Others insisted on being paid daily, to earn more than the monthly salaries that ranch owners preferred. Employers also lured the gauchos into jobs with rations of beef, tobacco, and sugar. But money and rations weren’t enough to keep gauchos on the job. They insisted on being addressed respectfully. A foreman who barked out orders like a rude command could be challenged to a knife duel by a weather-worn gaucho.

In the mid 1800s, the Argentine ranch owners purposefully played down differences in social status. The ranchers wore the same clothes as their workers, ate almost nothing but meat, and lived in houses where the only furniture was a saddle hanging on the wall.

After the Argentine civil wars ended, Salvatore says that the gauchos faded from history. Deserters were no longer of interest to the small-town judges. And the distinction between Federal and Unitario was less important, so rural travelers stopped being arrested and questioned. Gauchos appear infrequently in the police records, now mostly described as “vagabonds.”

After the 1860s, the beef economy rapidly modernized, with the introduction of barbed-wire fences and railroads. Scottish, Irish and English migrants took over many of the gaucho’s jobs in the countryside. Italians worked in the city in commerce and in packing plants.

The gauchos migrated to the towns and to the frontiers and eventually intermarried with the newcomers. The gauchos were no longer a distinct social group by the end of the 19th century. Gone but not forgotten. Modern Argentina still has an egalitarian touch; even the waiters approach their customers tall and proud, addressing their customers like friends.  Perhaps the tough, friendly spirit of the gauchos lives on, at least a bit.

Further reading

Although Salvatore is Argentine, he wrote in English. Mateo García Haymes and Luisa Fernanda Lassaque’s Spanish translation is so cleverly done that it reads as though it had been written in Spanish.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2018 Paisanos Itinerantes: Orden Estatal y Experiencia Subalterna en Buenos Aires durante la Era de Rosas. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros.

Original version:

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2003 Wandering Paysanos: State Order and Subaltern Experience in Buenos Aires Province during the Rosas Era. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

In my blog, Out of space, I talked about how the energy crisis may make chemical fertilizers unaffordable to farmers in the foreseeable future. Modern agriculture will need to become less dependent on expensive external inputs such as animal feed and fertilizer, and make better use of knowledge of the ecological processes that shape the interplay between soil, nutrients, microorganisms and plants. But whether farming will remain a viable business for European farmers in the next decade, will not only depend on new knowledge.

A recent radio broadcast on Radio 1 mentioned that in Belgium since 1980 two thirds of the farmers have abandoned this profession, with currently only some 30,000 farmers remaining in business. And many see a bleak future. With large corporations and supermarkets keeping the price of commodities at rock bottom, and at times even below the production cost, it comes as no surprise that few young people still see a future in farming. A neighbouring dairy farmer in Belgium told me once that the difference of 1 Euro cent per litre of milk he sells can make or break his year. In 2016, around 30% of French farmers had an income below €350 per month, less than one third of the minimum wage.

One French farmer (often a dairy farmer) commits suicide every two days, according to a survey conducted by the French national public health agency. The suicide rate among Swiss farmers is almost 40% higher than the average for men in rural areas. The reasons include financial worries and inheritance problems related to passing the farm on to their children. The EU farmers’ union said this alarming situation should be addressed immediately, emphasising that the farming community deserves better recognition.

How has it come so far? And is there still time to change the tide?

While reading a book on the history of the Belgian farmers’ organisation, called the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League), I was struck by how deeply engrained our food crisis is and how much history has shaped our agricultural landscape and food crisis.

As the steam engine made it possible to transport food much faster and over longer distances, from 1880 onwards large amounts of cheap food from America, Canada, Russia, India and Australia flooded the European markets. This resulted in a sharp drop in food prices and many farmers were forced to stop or expand, others migrated to Canada, the USA, Argentina, and Brazil.

From the early 1890s Belgian farmers began organising into a cooperative to make group purchases of chemical fertilisers, seed, animal fodder, milking machines and other equipment. Milk adulteration was one dubious strategy some farmers used to make a living.

As early as 1902 the Boerenbond started providing administrative support to its members. Basically, consultants were recruited, subsidised by the Ministry of Agriculture, to keep an eye on the financial books of farmers, and of the quality of their milk. The Ministry also invested in mobile milking schools to teach farm women about dairy and milk processing. Along with milking competitions this boosted the attention to quality and hygiene.

The Boerenbond increasingly tried to bring various regional farmer organisations and milk cooperatives under its wing. In between the two World Wars they had representatives in Parliament, and they had their own oil mills, warehouses, laboratories and animal feed factory (made, for instance from waste chaff from the flax industry). The Boerenbond didn’t risk manufacturing their own chemical fertilizer, but bought shares in some of the large chemical companies. Group marketing, education, social security, credit and insurance were all managed in-house to support its members.

It all seemed so progressive, but by the 1930s, deepened by the stock market crash in 1929, the organisation was in a dire financial situation. After the crash of the potato and milk prices in 1936, the government realised that the Boerenbond was no longer capable of providing all these services, so the government set up its own credit and marketing institutions for milk, grain and horticultural crops.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Marshall Plan provided food aid and contributed to the reconstruction of Europe, under the condition that Western Europe subscribe to international free trade. While economic cooperation and integration gradually took shape, the economic advisors of the Boerenbond pleaded to keep a certain level of national autonomy for matters related to agriculture. But as food and milk production increased, the need for export markets grew and the Boerenbond became a strong advocate of European integration.

In 1958, a year after the European Economic Community was established, member countries developed an agricultural policy meant to guarantee a decent income for farmers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, productivity enhancement was considered a priority, but farmers found it hard to keep on investing in restructuring their farms to ever more specialised production units while over-production resulted in falling prices. In reality, farmers had to take larger loans and earned less and less. As in the USA, European farmers were buying more machinery, paying more for inputs, and falling deeper in debt.

In 1984, the European Community introduced production quotas to address the shocking situation of milk lakes and butter mountains. With very narrow profit margins set by a limited number of buyers, many farmers gave up.

For those who remained in business, the quotas lasted for about 30 years. By 2015 dairy farmers again could produce as much as they wanted.

The European Commission thought that this liberalisation would not bring back those lakes and mountains, because there was a growing market from developing countries, including China, and price monitoring had improved. In reality, in an attempt to prop up prices and curb the dairy crisis, Brussels has been buying up milk since 2015.

Stockpiled in warehouses, mainly in France, Germany and Belgium, the sacks of milk powder are a déjà vu of the milk lakes. Milk farmers and traders fear that these stockpiles are dragging down prices, as buyers expect the dried milk lakes to be sold off at any time.

Classical economics is based on the idea of many willing buyers and many willing sellers. In modern Europe there are many regulated farmers, buying agrochemicals, seed and animal feed from a few corporations and selling to just a few buyers. Farmers are forced to take prices for inputs set by large corporations, while prices of raw milk are fixed by supermarkets who have concentrated the power of the market. Whether they buy or sell, farmers are price takers, caught in the middle between monopolistic suppliers and a few powerful buyers. And farmers are paying a high price: input costs rose by 40% between 2000 and 2010.

The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) will shortly vote on new amendments including the support to protein crops to reduce dependence on imports (read “GMO soya”), and a mandatory introduction of leguminous crops in the rotation in Good Agricultural Environmental Practices.

While EU policies can contribute to protecting our farmers and our environment, consumers also have a crucial role to play. As consumers we have no idea how the continuous search for cheapest products is putting farmers in a stranglehold. While Fairtrade schemes are a nice thought, in reality all food sold anywhere should be fair for the people who produce it, including our own dairy farmers.

For more than a century, strong farmer organisations such as the Boerenbond have tried to protect farmers’ interests by promoting a model of industrial agriculture. How the Boerenbond will deal with farmers’ hard realities, the complexities of a changing climate, environmental degradation and economic pressure of corporations and supermarkets will determine its future relevance.  

Improved consumer awareness to buy local produce at a fair price, enhanced access to affordable animal feed and policies conducive to environmentally sound family farming will decide whether farmers will be able to survive or be replaced by new smart agriculture that can do without farmers, using machineries and investment funds.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp

Ulmer, Karin. 2019. The Common Agricultural Policy of Europe: making farmers in the Global South hungry. In: Who is Paying the Bill. Report published by SDG Watch Europe, pp. 21-30. https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/documents/2019/08/whos-paying-the-bill.pdf/

IPES-Food. 2019. Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU.
www.ipes-food.org/pages/CommonFoodPolicy  

Related blogs

Out of space

Why people drink cow’s milk

Roundup: ready to move on?

Fighting farmers

What counts in agroecology

From uniformity to diversity

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers in developing countries.


Hydroponic fodder ; Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows; Herbal medicines against mastitis ; Making rennet ; Making fresh cheese ; Making yoghurt at home

Spanish mulch September 22nd, 2019 by

Linguists will tell you that each language arranges the world differently. No two languages classify objects, activities or emotions in the same way. This is especially true of the words used in farming.

I was reminded of this recently when translating a video script from English to Spanish. The video, from northern India, forced me to grapple with “mulch”, an English word that is also widely used in Spanish, in real life and on the Internet.  Yet the world’s authority on the Spanish language, the Real Academia Española, does not include “mulch” in its magnificent dictionary, the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española.

It is odd that “mulch” is a new word in Spanish, when it is an old word in English. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mulch as a “Partly rotted plant material, etc.; (Horticulture) loose material consisting of straw, decaying leaves, shredded cuttings and bark etc., spread on soil or around or over a plant to provide insulation, protect from desiccation and deter weeds.” “Mulch” comes from a Middle English word, “molsh” or “mulsh” and has been in the language at least since 1440, and possibly much earlier.

I had my doubt about using “mulch” in Spanish. Various on-line dictionaries suggest “mantillo”, literally “little blanket” instead. But a web search of mantillo usually shows commercial bags of chipped bark used for landscaping and suppressing weeds. Not quite the same as the straw, leaves and husks that farmers have on hand.

I wrote to three agronomists I respect, native Spanish speakers who work closely with farmers. They confirmed that “mulch” was the word to use in Spanish. But one offered a little twist: if the video from northern India was being translated into Quechua, we could say “sach’a wanu.” Now there is a term to savor. “Wanu” means dropping, and is the source of the English word “guano,” meaning bird dung. In Quechua, “wallp’a wanu” is chicken dung, “llama wanu” is llama dung, and “sach’a wanu” is forest mulch, or the fallen leaves of trees.

I was back where I started. So, I decided to use “mulch” in the script, although at the first mention I did offer the alternative “mantillo.”

While languages describe the world in different ways, they also level those differences as they aggressively borrow words from each other, for example “silo”, “lasso”, and “stevedore.” These are all recent loanwords from Spanish to English. New words take time to be defined in dictionaries, which cautiously avoid including fad words that may fade away before really entering the language. But one day “mulch” will be included in the Diccionario de la Real Academia, joining “whisky,” “sandwich,” and other recent English loan words that have enriched the Spanish language.

Watch the video

Mulch for a better soil and crop

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