Archive for Agroecology

Blogging on MIT site

I’m currently pursuing an MBA at MIT with a focus in sustainability and agriculture.  For Mama Shayna’s latest musings, please check out: http://mitsloanblog.typepad.com/shayna/

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Change.org Face of Fair Trade

MamaShayna’s Musings is often a mish-mash of information, inspiration, and introspection.  Though my motivation for MamaShayna hopefully peaks through from time to time, it is particularly well-represented today on the change.org Fair Trade blog, where I’ve been added to the ‘Faces of Fair Trade’ series.  You can read the interview by clicking here.

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Could local food make West Texas sexier?

Although West Texas isn’t as sexy a subject to blog about as sunny, tropical northeastern Brazil (echeeem, see lack of comments on my two most recent posts, readers!), I’m finding more similarities in the regions, this time related to the local economy and agriculture. Yesterday’s New York Times reports the worst drought that 75% of Texas has experienced in over a century; “Farmers say the soil is too dry for seeds to germinate and are considering not planting. ” I’m currently blogging from this largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world, with a semi-arid climate in which cotton is suited to grow.  Curiously, I’ve  just moved to West Texas from the largest contiguous semi-arid region in the world, also a strong cotton growing region, in Brazil’s northeastern sertão.

So, two questions arise.  Why in the heck does that matter?   And, would the availability of local fruits & vegetables in make West Texas a sexier blogging topic for you readers? (everyone seemed to like the tropical fruit photos from Brazil).

In relation to the rain, while I haven’t talked to local farmers in West Texas, I did conduct in-depth interviews with farmers Brazil’s sertão as a part of my Fulbright research project on local market access and agroecology.  During my interviews, local Brazilian farmer Dona Elinite told me that, “The challenge of being a family farmer is that it’s like you’re playing the lottery.  Because if the winter was good, you’ll have good production [crop yield].  If the winter was reasonable your production as well will be reasonable, it won’t be at 100% production.  And the great challenge to us is the question of the rain,” (Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, 3 Nov 09).

Referring to the lack of rainfall in Texas this year:

“We make the joke we can’t even grow weeds this winter,” Mr. Abrameit said.

As a result, farmers have found themselves playing a guessing game. Does one plant corn now and hope for rain, or wait for rain, hoping it comes in time to plant sorghum? Or wait still later and plant cotton, which can be grown until later in the summer? Some admit privately that they will plant knowing the crop will fail in hopes of collecting insurance. Others say they may not plant at all.

Source: New York Times, “Texas Ranchers and Farmers Struggle in Drought,” 11 Feb 09.

Compounding the crisis for US and Brazilian farmers alike, falling crop and beef prices are effecting the financial viability of the already difficult farm sector.  A surprising 94% of US farmers are still considered small-scale (gross sales of $250,000 or less).  Just 7% of those farmers make the US average household income.  Falling prices and drought no doubt mean further hardships for farmers in the US farming sector.

In contrast, Brazilians still get 70% of their food supply from their own small farmers, meaning those families who farm on plots of 10 acres or less . In the supermarkets of Recife you’ll be hard pressed to find kiwis from New Zealand and french green beans from Kenya.  By and large, Brazilians still buy local, and there are plenty of passion fruits, mangos, guavas, and pineapples from the region to suit their appetites. Additionally, a very small but growing number of farmers in Brazil’s sertão are moving away from mono-crops (growing just soy, sugarcane, cotton, corn or beans, for example) towards holistic, diversified farming systems via agroecology, organic, perma-farming, etc. Dona Elinite, who talked about the Brazilian farming ‘lottery’ above,  is  one such example.

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Dona Elinite admires her diverse crop production on a small piece of land in Brazil’s Semi-Arid Region.  Her agrecological farm is lush & green and boasted 33 varieties of produce when I visited in November — a starck contrast to the dry, yellowing plots of her neighbors, who primarily harvest just corn & beans.

The struggle in Brazil is to keep its food supply healthy and local, supporting rural farming families & culture and Brazilian consumers, as well.  The United States lost a lot of ground over the past century due to a farm policy via the Farm Bill which is skewed towards corporate interests and very large farms who can afford to play the DC lobby game.  (For a great overview of these issues, check out Oxfam’s agriculture campaign)

But I wonder what life in West Texas might be like for local residents and farmers alike if we could all visit the local Amigos or United supermarket and find locally grown crops with multiple varieties of food, proudly labeled ‘West Texas.’  Local farmers would find themselves with a year-round market in this temperate climate, and by altering their farming techniques, may be able to insert some new life into the rural economy here.

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Driving across West Texas, the view is vast and treeless and the land dry dry dry.

It’s working in Indiana; according to the produce industry journal Fresh Plaza, over the last five years, as the demand for local, organic food has grown, small farms have grown by a whole 80%!

Just some early morning farming musings. I look forward to your comments on the farm economy of sexy West Texas.  Or sexier Brazil. Yeeeehaw.

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and the cup is half full! half down, half to go.

I’m taking off from Afogados to Umarizal today (map here).  I’m happily exhausted from 10 days of research, interviews, and traipsing through back country dirt roads and out to the incredible farms of local families.  So far I’ve been able to interview 8 farming families and visit their homes and land, as well as interview the Local Secretary of Agriculture as he shopped at the local agroecological fair, 8 other consumers at the same fair, and an NGO representative that works with the families.  Not to mention all of the informal learning bia observation, conversations during car rides, and dinners shared with colleagues here.

Most recently I visited the area of the 29 year old Ivan. He’s been involved with agroecology for just 8 years, and has completely transformed his family’s small plot of land (under 10 acres) from a desert-like condition, without even water to drink, to this tropical beauty:

Banana and mango trees, a greenhouse with medicinal plants, and a garden full of cherry tomato’s, cilantro, green onions, lettuce, and over 3 dozen more varieties of healthy, pesticide-free foods for his family to eat.  These are some of the little beneficiaries of the family’s new form of production via agroecology (posing in Ivan’s flower garden):

Outside of the scientific aspects of the research, the work has been so fulfilling due to the daily interaction with farming families.  They are so proud of their work, and excited to share what they know with the visiting ‘americana’ (me).  The twinkle in their eye as they demonstrate their variety of fruits and vegetables, as we visit the newborn calf of a milking cow, as they share a guava or mango from their garden… it gives a feeling of hope in the midst of what many categorize this region of Brazil- as developmentally challenged.  I actually think it’s developmentally rich and full or potential, given the situations of these families and the other 50+ members of their local association that I didn’t have the opportunity to interview.

And now I’m off to capture the second part of this data in Umarizal, 5 hours north of Afogados… I’ll do these 16+ interviews in just 6 days.  Wish me luck!

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Life of a cashew fruit – in three parts.

I’ve spent these past three days checking out the diversity of the agroecological farms of families young & old, plots between 0.4 and 7 hectares (7-17 acres) in size, and am so inspired by these integrated farming systems.  With so many thoughts overflowing in my keppie (or head, as my grandma gussie would say) that I actually need to give the brain a rest tonight.  The farms sights are beauteous & surprising, so here are a few of my favorites.

Here, the life of a cashew fruit, in three parts:

 

Voila! Almost ready for harvest. The fruit is used in juice or to make sweets (it’s delish), and the nut is opened, dried in the sun, buried in a dirt hole, and then roasted by lighting a fire on top.

Some other farm sightings:

 

A graviola fruit, full of big black seeds and white, tart tasting flesh.

A local iguana, whose being protected from becoming local dinner from João, the farmer who feeds him veggies & fruits.

And a towering mini-papaya tree.

Sweet dreams of tropical fruits and exotic, wonderful discoveries!

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Sem agua: A water-less afternoon

I guess passing a water-less afternoon in Brazil’s semi-arid region during its ‘summer’ season isn’t so strange, considering that the region has just two seasons: ‘sem agua,’ or the water-less summer which lasts from June to January, and ‘agua,’ the water-full winter, lasting from January to June.  Seeing as it’s October, the unique caatinga brush vegetation of the region has lost all of its leaves in an attempt to conserve water, and the countryside looks like one long softly lolling cushion of beige cbrush-grass.

My colleague Sandra is out of town and was kind enough to lend me her apartment for the weekend ; it’s a cozy, tidy, and simple apartment in central Afogados, complete with the requisite hammock and ‘veranda,’ which I was looking forward to relaxing in this afternoon.  I had woken up at 4.30am this morning to head to the weekly agroecological fair in São José do Egito, and after a long day of interviewing shoppers at the fair in the strong morning sun, I was immensely looking forward to a refreshing shower, a long, cold drink of water, and a long afternoon nap upon my return.  Luckily Sandra left some bottles of water in the fridge, so I was satiated upon arriving home; however I didn’t have the same luck with the shower or the nap.

Not only was the shower faucet dry, but the bathroom sink trickled to a drip, the toilet wouldn’t flush after-the-fact, and the kitchen sink ran for a few minutes until that, too, was out of water.  I checked the building to see if there was a water meter, or a pipe that had been shut off, but all of that hardware is with the landlord downstairs and they were, of course, gone for the day.  I called Mario, the manager of the family agriculture program at Diaconia in Afogados, and he ran over, swiftly climbed up onto the roof, and reported that the ‘baude,’ or water reserve on top of the building, was dry, too.  He then climbed down into the landlord’s first floor outdoor hallway and read the water meter, which said all was okay. We also discovered one outdoor faucet with clean treated water and I was able to fill up two 16 kilogram buckets so that I could at least take a bucket bath and wash my dishes later that day.

So the water-less apartment and missing landlord predicament cause me to change my evening options- I could eat out, since there was no water in the kitchen, or cook in the kitchen of our office here.  I could take a bucket bath, or shower at the office, too.  I needed to go buy more bottled water for brushing my teeth.  And given the effort for all of this, my afternoon nap was out of the picture.  I’d gone without running water for a month at a time in rural areas of Mexico and Brazil, but this was the last thing I was expecting this afternoon!

I then started realizing just how much water I go through in a day, much of it unnecessarily.  I leave the water running as I wash the dishes, instead of latherning them all up and then rinsing ’em all off.  I do the same when I brush my teeth, and althogh I’m pretty quick in the shower, I sometimes linger a little longer when neccesary (especially these days when I get treated to a hot shower, something we don’t have at home here!)

With the nap out of the picture and a bunch of water-full decisions to make, I avoided it all and went for a walk around the neighborhood square. After an hour of living life in the soundtrack of an ipod shuffle, I returned home to a steady, strong trickling sound; the baude on the roof was being filled again treated water that was being pumped up to the roof of the house from the city water supply.  I was able to use all 32 kilograms of water for my bucket shower (as water pressure still hasn’t returned to the shower), but I didn’t have to conserve that water for washing dishes or anything else tonight.

After a cold bucket bath and a good, appreciative teeth brush, I’m off to my belated nap, which is now turning into an early bed-time.  With a fresh perspective on the challenges of water in the Brazilian sertão – and only after my relatively privileged afternoon with 32 kgs of water as a personal back-up supply – I definitely have some new research questions for next week.  But more importantly, I’ve deepened my respect for challenges of family farming here, and am simply amazed at the wide variety of products that these family farmers are able to produce, given the dry, ‘sem-agua’ conditions of Brazil’s semi-arid region.

These delicious goodies were bought at today’s agroecological fair in São José do Egito.  Complete with locally harvested eggs (ovos de capoeira), sweet oranges, cherry tomatoes in a variety of colors, mini-papayas, pear-guava, carrots, home-made cheese, and greens, we’re set for the week!  And this was all harvested over the past week despite the region’s limited water supply — but the very innovative small-farm irrigation systems — in the ‘sem agua’ season of Brazil’s northeast.

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Inserting the culture back into agriculture

To complement yesterday’s post on creating a solidarity economy and corresponding responsible consumer culture here in Recife, I really enjoyed the reflections from fellow Fulbrighter Gustavo on his blog, Dinner-Bell.

It’s amazing and in some ways puzzling to me to watch how food markets are developing in the U.S. It seems like more and more energy is being put into reconstructing the diversity, quality, and geography of traditional food systems and that there is more and more interest in consuming local produce and learning (or relearning) to consume in post-industrial (pre-industrial?) ways… I’ve often thought that, in addition to ecological ways of producing food–i.e. farming methods that mimic ecological processes so that food production is environmentally sound and sustainable–there are also ecological ways of consuming food that mirror or parallel the process of growing food. After all, food is made up of living things, which are limited by their nature and their relationship to the seasons, the soil, the weather, and their relationship to other living things. I think one of the reasons that I love cooking and that am so fascinated by the world’s different cuisines is because of all of the almost ecological knowledge encoded into traditional cooking.

As I become more familar with agroecological farming systems in this part of Brazil, ie those that take into account natural, diverse ecological growing systems along with the people that sustain them (that’s a shoddy, quick definition), I too have been thinking about the way that farmers are re-capturning ‘pre-industrial’ knowledge of farming systems, the farming systems of their ancestors, and correspondingly developing their own local sales outlets via farmers markets and direct farm-to-consumer sales, in a new iteration of traditional trade systems.  It’s like they’re forming ‘novo-traditional’ market outlets- that’s not an academic term, but my own way of trying to coin what I am seeing.  It’s particularly fascinating in an era of rapid supply chain consolidation, where large chains own just about everything (supermarkets, sales outlets, transportation mechanisms, and sometimes even the farms themselves.  Chiquita is a prime example.)  Gustavo captures this:

From Monsanto’s patenting of plant genetic material and the legal system’s support for the privatization of life to Walmart’s tremendous share in the supermarket industry, private companies have never had so much power to impose their values and profit motive on the way we eat and the way we produce our food. This has led to an illusion of diversity and a reality of stark agricultural and gastronomic monotony.

The northeastern region of Brazil could be poised to defy these global market trends… given the proximity to the land, social technologies which make an adequate water supply avaliable all year round, farmer-led seed diversity banks, close relationships (sometimes even family ties) between farmer and consumers in small and medium sized cities.  And, as Gustavo mentions in his blog, “knowledge and this infrastructure exists (however precariously) in developing countries…” Challenges are of course financing, access to knowledge & technology, will power, climate change & effects on soil, water, production cycles.  But despite the challenges, farmers in Afogados and Umarizal seem committed to trying it out, to making agroecology and direct local sales a viable way to support their families’ livelihoods.

Jumping from concepts of ecology/agroecology to a larger vision of our earth as a living, breathing system… just yesterday a German friend living in Brazil passed along a link to the work of Joanna Macy.  Macy is a self-described eco-philosopher living in northern California, who has pioneered “The Work that Reconnects.” On the homepage of Macy’s sight, she says that The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world—we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.

So I guess this is my moment to share with you the continuation of thoughts that have been running through different currents of my life. Food, nature, farming, spirituality, my roots: Grandma Gussie’s dill pickles and Jewish food heritage and Grandpa Joe’s young life on a Gernam farm, exploring yoga, learning to breath.  With the hectic and endless life of an organizer over the past 5 years I had no time to really stop.  To think & reflect on what this all means.  How trade, poverty, the earth, and our relationships to one another are really interconnected, my role within it, where I am most ‘strategically’ placed to support the ‘great awakening’ and work towards some semblance of sanity in this world.  I’m still not sure.

For your own exploration.  Joanna Macy’s site //  Gustavo’s food and food politics blog // More on agroecology here and here.

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