Tag Archives: organic agriculture

Ricardo’s Beans

Innovation. It was not covered in any of the training seminars, but it is a good way to describe the general mentality of the Belas Association- innovators. From my first day I can see that it exists in this group of farmers. As I tour the fields of Associacao 7 de Abril 1 I notice a smaller plot of beans.

I ask if it is also contracted to Vanduzi Company. Ricardo tells me those are his leftover beans. He is experimenting and trying to save seed because the only source of green bean seed comes from Vanduzi Company. Local seed suppliers do not carry it. I hate to ask, but I do- “Is this hybrid seed?” Ricardo looks confused. Perhaps it is my pronunciation of hybrid. One of the CARITAS staff members accompanying me for the day repeats the question. Someone else repeats it in Shona. “Yes it is.”  I inhale and exhale and decide to give a straight forward response. “You know that hybrid seed won’t reproduce true to form.” Silence. A nod. Does it mean he knew that or is waiting for more?

“If you plant the seed from this who knows what kind of bean you will get and, well, it is also planted right next to your dry beans which could also confuse things due to cross-pollination.” He seems to remember hearing this some place before, but masks his disappointment. I say, “Well you have a great experiment going. Perhaps you will develop a new breed of bean that will be perfect for the Belas District. It will be called Ricardo I.” He laughs and says “I might be able to make a lot of money from that.” Determination. Next time I will bring Ricardo at least ten varieties of green beans for his experiment. Maybe some yellow and purple ones as well.

The group turns out to be great actors. I shouldn’t have been surprised given that I immediately picked up on their willingness to innovate. Turns out they also improvise. I give a general scenario for a sale.

One person plays the buyer, the other the seller. The goal is for the seller to close the deal to their advantage. Even when the role play takes place in Shona I understand what is going on. Rafael tries to swindle me at my market stand. He talks to me in a loud rude way. I ask him “senor why are you to talking to me in that loud voice.” At the end of the scene he claims he has no money and actually tries to walk off with the bags full of vegetables. I get loud applause for chasing him down and taking back the vegetables.

We take turns and change the scenarios. A whole sale buyer from the city calls Simao on his cell phone to buy cabbage. A buyer shows up at Lucia’s farm demanding a good deal. I play a lost city person who shows up at Ricardo’s farm and wants to buy lots of vegetables. We switch back and forth between Shona and Portuguese depending on who is playing the roles.

Many times Rafael volunteers to be the buyer. We start calling him “the swindler”. I learn a lot from him. Much of what he improvises is likely reality. “You need to lower your price because I arrived here late in the day and now it will be difficult for me to get a ride back to the city. I will have to wait all night”, he tells one woman playing the seller. At first she caves in until we all begin to shout at her “tell him that’s not your problem if he made a bad plan!” I love this afternoon. We laugh. We talk. We discuss. And in the end we dance, improvising without music.

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Filed under Mozambique 2012, Uncategorized

Urban Agriculture Is Trendy?

Really? It is? Agriculture can’t be trendy. Urban agriculture is like a Pet Rock only around for a single Christmas season? As I see it trends are things that have no business existing like those super baggy extra low riding pants that just don’t seem to go away or like rare pork. I am not trendy. How can something I am passionate about be trendy?

My favorite summer fruits, all locally grown. Are they trendy?

My thoughts ticked like a news feed during a July 2011 trip to NYC where I met enthusiastic 15 year old girls from Brooklyn Tech completing their required volunteer service hours Added Value Community Farm in Red Hook, 20-something hipsters organizing crop mobs, and 30-something families with CSA shares. I ate at restaurants advertising and featuring local produce. In Edilble Brooklyn I read that Eat Local Brooklyn Week had taken place in June. I enjoyed harvesting and eating strawberries with my niece on my brothers’ rooftop garden and discussed the potential of vertical farming with the adults.

Onions for sale in Madison, Wisconsin

When I told New Yorkers in addition to visiting my brother I was there to investigate urban agriculture in Brooklyn the usual response was “Oh, that’s so trendy now”. Some said it as fact, others with distain, others as if I was passé for investigating an over done subject. Unfortunately, as often happens when I’m around kids, I caught a bad chest cold and my investigations slowed, but for the past year I’ve been mulling over the implications of urban agriculture as trendy- is it good or is it bad?

Added Value Community Farm, Red Hook Brooklyn and, yes, that is an Ikea store across the street.

Most trends fade away and some may even disappear overnight as followers are distracted by the next shiny thing. Trend followers are attracted by what is cool, hip and in the moment. A quick search on Google on “Is Urban Agriculture Trendy” brought up numerous recent results from the US and Canada referring to urban agriculture as trendy. This article in the San Francisco Chronicle from June 2011, Meet the Farmer Next Door, caused a stir and many comments disparaging urban agriculture, hippies and trends.

One of the featured farmers, Esperanza Pallana, from Pluck and Feather Farm in Oakland seemed as puzzled as I and wrote on her blog with “it is hard to be trendy with growing and raising your food because it requires so much labor to keep it going”. This perfectly explains my gut churning reaction to the claim “urban agriculture is trendy”. Without vision, commitment and perseverance your farm will fail. Any farmer will tell you this. Any person who grew up on a farm knows this as well. Trends and the people who follow them come and go. Farms and farmers do not.

Added Value Farm in Brooklyn sits on a concrete slab, which was covered with enough top soil for growing vegetables.

But it wasn’t just my gut reacting. From what I witnessed urban agriculture in Brooklyn has grown rapidly in order to meet the trend generated demand and has perhaps suffered for it. Produce at a co-op, a farm and in a CSA box just did not meet my quality standards. The systems and quantity of produce being harvested at an urban farm also did not meet my expectations. Unfortunately it seems that people have jumped on the bandwagon so fast that their farming skills have not yet caught up and reached the level that we have here in Wisconsin.

Beautiful beets from Harmony Valley Farm at the Dane County Farmers’ Market- Madison Wisconsin

On the other hand how can urban agriculture be trendy when it is not really a new idea? Do all trends need to be new ideas? Immigrant populations in cities have always kept gardens. Growing up in Chicago in the 70’s my family had a community garden plot. In World War II families, both urban and rural, had Victory Gardens. In 2005 I visited massive urban gardens in Warsaw.

Family community garden plots in Warsaw often include a summer kitchen- practical, not trendy.

Such a surprise to find this oasis in the middle of a very large city- Warsaw, Poland.

Some say it is merely the term “urban agriculture’ that is new. Yet I think the term ‘urban agriculture’ is used to promote a paradigm shift. Can we change the way we eat? Can we increase our knowledge of where our food comes from? Can we reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in food production? Can we create new jobs in cities? Can we eliminate food deserts? I would hate it if urban agriculture were simply a trend and my city-born niece’s only exposure to agriculture was her roof top garden. My niece is fortunate to have parents who value organic produce and raise a few vegetables on their roof. I, too, was lucky to have parents raised with Victory Gardens and an interest in food. Not everyone is so lucky. Once while farming in New Hampshire a childhood friend from Chicago and his New York city-raised wife came to visit. The wife, with an MBA from Columbia University, had no idea how to identify the vegetables growing in the field. Her joy in picking her first carrot is something I’ll never forget.  I’ll also never forget her husbands face as she asked “where is the carrot?” when I was pointing out a row of carrots and then exclaimed “so they grow underground?” We all learned something that day.

My niece enjoying her carrot harvest at Added Value Community Farm- Brooklyn, New York

So it is clear to me that one good thing about trends is that provide a wide range of exposure. Michelle Obama created a White House Kitchen Garden. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver attempted to push local healthy foods into schools on his reality tv show Food Revolution, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. Although the show was cancelled Jamie Oliver continues his work through his foundation, Jamie’s Food Revolution. Here in Madison community gardens are thriving, with Troy Gardens even operating a CSA farm onsite. Growing Power and Will Allen have helped to start Badger Rock Middle School, Mad City Chickens have changed laws so that people can raise back yard chickens, and this year I bought a CSA honey share from Mad Urban Bees.

Part of my July 2012 honey share from Mad Urban Bees- Madison, Wisconsin

With so much going on how can trends not play a major role in opening people’s eyes and minds to new ideas, products, and places. Sometimes trends initiate positive change? If urban agriculture had been trendy in NYC when my friend was growing up she most certainly would have known how carrots grew. The more people know about agriculture the more they will appreciate and value good food and the work farmers do. The more good food people eat the healthier they will be and the lower our cost of health care. So a year after being hit upside the head with the idea that urban agriculture is “just a trend” I’ve convinced myself that it is okay to be trendy and that there are too many committed people working to move urban agriculture forward in order for it to not to continue to grow and thrive.

High school students learning about farming at Added Value Community Farm in Brooklyn, New York

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Filed under Uncategorized, United States


Madison, Wisconsin

I prefer raspberries, but there’s something exciting about strawberries. Perhaps because here in the north it is the first fruit of the season. Perhaps because there is nothing like strawberry ice cream. Perhaps because it signals summer has truly arrived and raspberries are just around the corner. Perhaps because, like flower bouquets, no one ever complains about the price of strawberries. What ever the case every year I get little-kid excited when strawberries come into season. And after a cool if not downright cold spring in Wisconsin the strawberries have finally arrived. Although I’ve been harvesting about two quarts a week from my community garden plot and sampling strawberries from Harmony Valley Farm at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, where I work once a week, local pick your owns and most farmers’ market vendors have gotten off to a very late start.

On Sunday June 26, about two weeks later than usual, two friends and I drove  JenEhr Family Farm in Sun Prairie, which runs the only organic strawberry pick-your-own in southern Wisconsin. In 2011 Strawberries were #3 on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of most contaminated fruits and vegetables. The EWG Shopper’s Guide is published to help consumers who are concerned about pesticide exposure choose which fruits and vegetables to purchase organically. The Environmental Working Group also publishes a Clean 15 list. Children especially are at high risk to pesticide exposure when consuming fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list. On Sunday JenEhr Family Farm was packed with families with children under the age of seven.

Our instructions included the command “to eat as much as possible while you pick”. Our initial assigned a row yielded less than a quart each and we wondered if we should have gotten an earlier start. However the day was absolutely gorgeous, not too hot, sunny and breezy and we chatted with other pickers and a family we knew from Madison while we waited to be assigned new rows. The new rows were fabulous and we bent or squatted and picked. I, of course, despite being the most experienced squatter, nevertheless ended up with strawberry strains on my knees.

Now the madness begins. What to do with all the strawberries?

I used to make strawberry jam, strawberry bread or muffins, strawberry shortcake, dried strawberries and strawberry fruit leather when I lived in New Hampshire. These days I keep things simple. Eat as much fresh as possible and freeze as much as can fit in my Euro-sized fridge. Last week I made homemade vanilla ice cream and served it with strawberries to my neighbors across the street.

This week I invited friends over for strawberry batidas, an alcoholic drink made with cachaça, in an attempt to use as many very ripe strawberries as quickly as possible. Out of necessity this summer I’ve begun a return to a barter-based economy and I’m hoping my neighbor across the street will fix my bike in exchange for a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

While preparing to write this blog post I learned that strawberries are botanically not considered berries. They are actually an accessory fruit or false fruit. Figs and mulberries also fall into this category.

Wikipedia helped me to sort this technicality out by stating “…that the fleshy part is derived not from the plant’s ovaries but from the “receptacle” that holds the ovaries. Each apparent ‘seed’ (achene) on the outside of the fruit is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside it. In both culinary and botanical terms, the entire structure is called a ‘fruit’”.

I checked my dirt-stained copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and they do not mention it. Since that book, trial and error and interning on an organic farm were my main sources of information about strawberries I guess that’s how I only came to learn of it from the internet. My botanical education continues. Or maybe I knew this instinctively all along and perhaps this is the reason strawberries are so exciting- they aren’t really berries.

Wisco-Brazilian Strawberry Batida (bah-chee-da)

Makes two large servings

1 pint very ripe (i.e. need to be used now) strawberries, stems removed



Crushed Ice

                                                                                                                                                                                                   Place the strawberries in a blender with a couple of tablespoons of water and blend until smooth. If the mixture is too thick for your taste add more water. For a true Wisco-Brazilian Batida for each drink place 2 ounces cachaça, 4-5 ounces strawberry puree, 2 tablespoons of sugar in a glass pint jar 2/3 full of crushed ice. Cover and shake to blend. If desired add more crushed ice. Drink directly from the pint jar on your front or back porch with friends. Talk until sunset.

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Filed under Recipes, United States

So Little Time, So Much to Learn

Bailundo October 26 and 28, 2010

I’ve decided to take it slow and only conduct four training sessions with the Ekelelo or Hope Association. Besides the fact that it is the beginning of the planting season and everyone is busy, there is only so much new information that can be absorbed. I’m hoping that by focusing on less more is remembered and thus used and passed on to others.

working hard with only one hand

I’ll probably never find out if my strategy has worked, but at least I will get to check during the second practical training if the Ekelelo Association has completed their homework and finished the compost pit system and filled the first hole.

I’m also going to do my best to make sure they know their vegetable familes and understand the concept of crop rotation especially for the important Solanaceae Family that includes some of their major crops: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers.

Mulching eggplant

As in Mozambique I’ve heard some complaints about how they don’t have enough money to buy chemical fertilizer and there is no possible way they can grow good vegetables without it. Since they have no money to buy these chemicals anyway it seems like the perfect opportunity to introduce organic growing methods. Some are skeptical but most appear to be enthused. Some already know about compost and manure, but I’ve been unable to determine why they aren’t using these techniques if they know about them.

I’m hoping that by giving them options that only require hard work and organization rather than cash they will adopt them.

the president of the association also works hard

Although the complaints and the “we can’t do that” comments are far less than in Mozambique I know they are there and I’ve tried my best to keep things positive. I’m wishing I had spent some time to locate and scan old photographs of my farm in New Hampshire so I could show them how I spread manure by hand over one hectare using only a wheelbarrow . I can tell them this again and again, but I am sure some have doubts. A picture would be remembered.

So far we’ve had one classroom session and one hands-on training covering topics such as using manure as fertilizer, compost, green manure, mulching, crop rotation, and succession planting.

We’ve pretended to be different vegetable plants and sorted ourselves into families.

We’ve discussed how to estimate distances and measured our hands and feet and found where one meter is on our body so that there are no excuses for why the crop spacing is irregular or completely inaccurate.

Estimating depth

Tomorrow I will present specific crop information on four of the crops they are currently growing- tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and kale and attempt to introduce new ideas such as small scale machinery options such as rototillers as opposed to tractors, including animals such as chicken or goats in a field rotation (for example pastured poultry),

creating fencing with a nitrogen fixing tree such as Leucaena, and show them pictures of a bamboo bicycle cart they could build as a first step to solve their market transportation issues. As they are only 3.5 kilometers from a main paved road and only 9 kilometers in total to the Bailundo market they should easily be able to get their produce to the customer. Last week we did not have electricity during the classroom session. For tomorrow’s session it will be crucial as I have many pictures to show which I am simply not talented enough to draw. At this point all I can do is keep my fingers crossed for electricity and hope that the things I show them give them new hope and energy.

Collecting compost material


Filed under Angola 2010

Coming Full Circle, Nametil and Iuluti, Mogovolas District

September 14-15

I’ve been laughing to myself a lot lately about how my life is turning in circles. Yesterday I was taken to visit an ADPP Horticultural School just outside of Nametil where the government guest house is located. As soon as I arrived I was transported back in time; the well organized school buildings, the cleanliness, students in uniform, the pleasant receptionist, the explanation of how the school and vegetable sales work were all so classic ADPP.

I could have gone there without knowing what it was and easily guessed this is an ADPP place. The school has only existed for two years and already has 122 students with plans to expand to 180 next year. The have a total of 473 hectares with only a few hectares currently under vegetable cultivation. At some point in the future they plan to use much of the acreage for a cashew plantation. I was surprised to find that an ADPP project had a lack of irrigation, but I’m sure this won’t last for long. After our tour I began to ask our guide a few more questions and I let him know that I worked for ADPP in Matola Rio in 1990. This led to questions about “do you know…” and sure enough I may have located a great friend and colleague from those days. He apparently is only two to three hours from Nampula and running an ADPP Banana Plantation. A message has been sent to him. I’m hoping we can meet before the end of my trip.

On Wednesday after several delays we finally made it outside town today to begin our farmer visits. After a bumpy forty-two kilometer drive we arrived in Iuluti and began searching for the local agricultural agent. After some discussion we discovered that one of the agricultural associations that we wanted to visit was 23 kilometers further along the road. A long discussion ensued and then it was determined we did not have enough gas to get there. Instead we went to visit with a man who was farming alone and lived in the center of Iuluti.

Mario Joseph

His fields were small, but very nearly weed free and he grew a variety of crop close to a small river which still had water in it. His cabbage was absolutely beautiful and free of holes.

I had to ask “do you use any chemicals on your crops?” A bottled was pulled out of its hiding place in the corn.

I began to recall just why my life took the path it did. In 1990 many times I observed pesticides being used and I would ask “what are you doing” because I was interested in learning about agriculture.  From these discussions I learned that quite often people did not know proper application procedures and often could not even read the directions. This was either because the directions were in English or the person applying the pesticide was illiterate in Portuguese. This experience led me directly to interning on an organic vegetable farm upon returning to the United States. I sometimes joke that we were farms slaves but I did learn a lot and was able to use that knowledge to begin my own organic vegetable farm. Twenty years later here I am standing looking at and taking a photos of the pesticide instructions that in some ways led me here in the first place. Although the farmer follows the instructions quite well the pesticide he is using is supposed to be used for cotton, not edible produce.

The next farmer we visited was the president of an Agricultural Association called, Okalihery de Mucue, or Helping Each Other. This farmer’s passion reminded me why I strive so hard to do what I do. Anastacio had only been growing vegetables for two years and moved around the country a bit previously living in Beira and Quelimane. When he moved to this area he contacted the local agricultural extension agent for advice and has been working closely with him ever since. He spoke rapidly and was full of enthusiasm when describing his operation and his plans for the future. Before we could even introduce ourselves he began to show us his wonderful and simple irrigation system.

He plans to move his irrigation system to a lower point in his fields and expand his production area next season. His success has become known and as a result he has received a loan from the local government of 50,000 MT which he plans to use to buy better seeds, a pump, chemicals, and hire some workers to clear more land and expand his irrigation system.

He wants to learn about crop rotation in a mixed vegetable system and about insect and disease identification. I wish I could go back and thank Anastacio for his enthusiasm as he restored some of my enthusiasm. I hope another Farmer to Farmer Volunteer is able to thank him for me.

Anatacio cutting Mandioc which I later ate for dinner


Filed under Mozambique 2010