Thursday, May 30, 2013

Adoption of Niger Seed

In 2010, an ECHO Asia Notes article entitled The Recent Introduction of Niger Seed (Guizotia abyssinica) Production in Northern Thailand described how the production of Niger Seed, a drought-hardy oil crop, has spread farmer-to-farmer along the Thai-Myanmar border.  In the meantime, ECHO Asia has also released numerous sample packets and bulk orders of Niger among our regional partners.  

During a recent trip to Pang Daeng Nai village in Thailand's Chiang Mai Province, a community known for its agroforestry and green manure/cover cropping efforts, our friend Nam Saeng showed us his freshly expressed Niger seed oil from the crop he produced in 2012.  He reports that approximately two liters of Niger seed broadcast over roughly 1600 square meters of permanent hill field produced enough seed to fill six 20-liter cans.  This amount of seed yielded enough oil to meet his family's estimated needs over the next year.  He says that neighbors have noticed his results and expects others to begin planting Niger as well.

One of ECHO Asia's key roles is to highlight such underutilized crops for the benefit of smallholder farmers who often cultivate marginal land.  However, one need expressed by Nam Saeng is access to a low-cost mill to express oil for crops such as Niger seed (he had to travel some distance to have his seeds processed).  That leads to another key ECHO Asia role; locating and/or encouraging the development of appropriate technology for partnering development organizations to promote among their focus communities.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shade Structure Frustrations at the ECHO Asia Seed Bank

As a result of climate change, many regions are experiencing record heat which is negatively impacting crop production.  One response to mitigate the effects of high temperatures is to grow crops under light shade.  Most garden crops tolerate and even thrive with some shade as the impact of extreme high temperatures can be muted by blocking intense sunlight.  This also helps to conserve soil moisture.
At the ECHO Asia Seed Bank, a shade structure was recently erected in the Thailand plot (we also currently have production plots named for India, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar).  Covered with 50 percent shade cloth, the positive effects were soon obvious.  Upon entering the plot, there was a noticeable temperature difference of several degrees.  The hot season vegetables looked great with less heat stress, especially with reduced evaporation from the plant bed soils, which also translated into less watering.

But experts say that along with higher temperatures, climate change will bring more intense storms.  Once such event occurred in early May, bringing most of the new shade structure to the ground.  Needless to say, it was a huge disappointment.

But we are determined to learn from our mistakes and press forward with a new and improved shade structure.  Stronger reinforced posts will be used.  We will also install an overlapping vent into the roof structure to lessen possible lift from high winds.  And we may also stretch clear plastic sheets across the structure to protect the production plots from the effects of heavy rainfall during the rainy season.    

Monday, April 22, 2013

Resilient communities in the floodplain of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake

Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. During most of the year, the lake is fairly small with depths of about one meter deep and an area of 2,700 square km.  However, during the rainy season, overflow from the Mekong River causes the lake to swell to 15,000 square km with a depth up to nine meters (Wikipedia,

Thousands of families, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, live year round on houseboats, making their living from fishing.  Even more Khmer communities are located in the floodplain of the Tonle Sap. 

Most of the year, when the lake is low (roughly November through July), these floodplain communities are located on dry land.  However, homes are built up high on stilts that are several meters tall in preparation for the annual rise of the lake.

During a recent dry season visit to some of these Tonle Sap floodplain communities near Siem Reap, we learned that planks used for floors in these homes can be adjusted higher depending on the water levels.

During the dry season, the residents of the floodplain communities continue to catch fish from the lake to sell, generally preserving their catches through drying,smoking or fermentation.  But many also supplement their food and income by raising vegetable gardens in the organic matter rich soil around their homes.  Luffa gourd, with edible fruit and shoots, and eggplant the most commonly grown vegetables in these gardens.  And water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica) grows in practically all moist locations.

In addition to the dry season garden patches, most of the elevated households also had container gardens.  Small plantings of herbs and vegetable, as well as papayas, are grown in various types of containers, allowing for production even when the lake again surrounds the houses.  The frequency and extent of container gardening among these Tonle Sap households was greater than any other complex of communities that I have visited. 

We also observed that some families also have pigpens located beneath their houses.  They generally feed their pigs cooked water spinach, rice bran and food scraps.  Interestingly, it was explained to us that some of the pigpens were actually pig rafts, under which drums are attached for flotation when high waters eventually return.   

As the water table in the flood plain is quite high, access to water for irrigating small garden patches and watering pigs isn't much of a problem.  However, the dirty water is also used for other household purposes, such as washing dishes, laundry and drinking water.  Of course, waterborne disease is a major concern since, as our guide reported, many of the residents do not either boil or filter their water.  Fortunately, one home that we visited had a ceramic water filter that does an excellent job of filtering dirt, debris and bacteria from the water.

Although the Tonle Sap supports the aquatic livelihood of many thousands of Cambodian families, it is a challenging environment in which to live and work, requiring adaptability and resilience by the locals. 

But perhaps the greatest challenge for the Tonle Sap ecosystem and its human residents will be the effects of 42 dams that are proposed to be built along the Mekong and its tributaries that would inevitably affect the flow of water into this natural wonder.  In addition, the effects of climate change are expected to bring greater variation to the water levels of the Tonle Sap, as well as changed seasonal shifts in water level patterns.

Therefore the already resilient communities of the Tonle Sap may need even more adaptability and preparation for a very uncertain future.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Earth Day Reflections

As I travel around throughout much of tropical Asia, and beyond, I see exactly how poor natural resource stewardship and simple human greed are negatively impacting God's perfect creation through deforestation, soil erosion, loss of wetlands, overuse of water and climate change.  I see clearly how unsustainable practices are impacting everyone, especially the poorest persons living on the margins of society.  They're the ones  most vulnerable to drought, flooding, poor crop yields, diminishing fisheries, etc.  

As a professional change agent with a privileged vantage point that comes from travel and access to the media, I spend much of my time focusing on the sustainable use of resources by smallholder farmers.  I read about saving the world.  I teach about natural farming.  I share technical resources for sustainable agriculture.  I warn about climate change and even worry about my carbon footprint.  

However, nothing that I do even comes close to the daily collective effect of small farmers living on the margins.  Despite having limited access to land and other resources, many are practically self sufficient with regard to food, fuel and housing.  Their consumption of resources is small and they are not wasteful.  They find it necessary to live in tune with their natural surroundings despite weather patterns, government policies and economies that are in drastic change around them. 

Folks such as these are the original sources of much of the information, ideas and seeds that ECHO Asia shares with its network.  Some of them gladly host visits from ECHO Asia's clientele of development workers and farmers who desire practical knowledge about agroforestry, home gardens, natural farming and green manure cover crops.  They're what we call the real deal.  

So as we recognize Earth Day 2013, let's not forget those who practice Earth Day everyday, whether they realize it or not.  We owe it to them.          

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lessons learned from the Aloha house Aquaponics System in the Philippines

An aquaponics system uses water in which aquatic animals are raised (usually fish such as tilapia or catfish) by which the water is enriched with nutrients from their waste, and then used to to both irrigate and fertilize crops that are grown in the same system.  Roots of the crops, as well as other introduced media, help to filter the water, which in turn supports the aquatic animals.  

Aquaponic setups are generally closed systems, by which water and nutrients are recycled between the aquatic animals and crops, with water added only as needed.  However, other inputs are required, such as feed for the fish, as well as certain micro-nutrients (e.g. iron) that are often needed to keep the crops adequately nourished and to keep the pH of the water in balance.  Microorganisms are also required by the system so that the ammonium produced by the fish can be reduced to a form of nitrogen that the plant roots can readily absorb (i.e. nitrate).  This means that oxygen, pH, iron, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels need to be at acceptable levels to make the entire system non-toxic and productive.

Considering all, aquaponics systems are quite complicated and aren't as easy to set up and maintain as basic container gardens.  Not just anyone can install such a elaborate system and/or operate it so that vegetables and fish are continually in production.  Therefore, a certain degree of expertise and planning as well as the capacity to carry out long term management are required.  The cost of installing such systems can also be expensive.  However, aquaponics systems are quite appealing to many, and can be feasible, especially where production areas for vegetables are limited (as well as access to fresh water), and the demand for aquaponics products is high.  

The key product of most aquaponic systems is vegetables.  So in places where most vegetables are plentiful and cheap, aquaponic systems may have trouble paying for themselves.    

With the assistance of our own aquaponics guru, Scott Breaden, we have been slowly setting up a small demo aquaponics system at the ECHO Asia office in Chiang Mai.  After months of gradual installation of components, our system is still not even close to full production capacity.   But we are learning lots of valuable lessons in the process.

However, I recently came across a very impressive and productive aquaponics system at Aloha House, an orphanage with a farm in Palawan, Philippines.  There are actually two major aquaponics systems at Aloha House.  A large, outdoor system has been set up on a sloping plot of land that is made up of several long, cement, watertight crop-production tanks through which the water flows by gravity from the top tank to the bottom fish tanks before being clarified and pumped back up to the top.  In addition to tilapia, this system currently produces tomatoes, salvinia (Salvinia molesta - an invasive aquatic fern used at Aloha House to feed livestock and fish), rice and various vegetables such as watercress.  Ducks are also incorporated, having regulated access to certain parts of the system so that they can feed on salvinia and snails and be happy.

A second roof-top system at Aloha House enables the level of the water pumped up from the tilapia tanks to rise and fall in a series of shallow, plastic-lined trays, allowing leafy vegetable crops (such as lettuce) planted in cups and situated in the trays to remain adequately watered, aerated and supplied with nutrients.  Strategically placed biological filters that use rocks, soil and plants (such as nasturtium), as well as synthetic filters, help to reduce sediments and keep the water flowing.  Water used for both systems at Aloha House is approximately 75 percent rainfed, with rain water efficiently harvested from roofs for use in the aquaponics system.  

Keith Mikkelson, founder of Aloha House, stresses that his system took years of trial and error and considerable capital before becoming productive enough to produce both food and income for the orphanage.  Although he has a lot of interested visitors, considering the cost, expertise, time and management required to make aquaponic systems practical, Keith admittedly talks most interested parties out of setting up their own.

For more information about the Aloha House aquaponics systems, contact Keith Mikkelson at

Friday, March 29, 2013

Researching Small Farm Resource Centers

Since January of this year, ECHO Asia Impact Center staff, with major involvement from Dr. Ricky Bates (Penn State University), has been carrying out research for a case study entitled, The Small Farm Resource Center’s Current and Future Roles in Extension and Advisory Services in Southeast Asia.” Administered by MEAS (Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services) through the University of Illinois with major support from USAID, the study aims to document, evaluate and empower existing small farm resource centers as a useful research-extension tool in South and Southeast Asia operating outside the formal government/academic extension model.
Defined by ECHO’s first director, Dr. Martin Price, a Small Farm Resource Center (SFRC) is a research-extension tool that coordinates trials at a central site, as well on the fields of individual farmers, with the purpose of evaluating, within the community, ideas that have been proven elsewhere. The SFRC concept is that any new ideas, techniques, crops, or new varieties of a local crop may first be evaluated at the SFRC and promising ideas extended to local farmers with little risk. This adaptive research is done directly by the non-governmental agency (typically missions organizations and other small institutions) and local farmers and extended to the community.   
Related to this study, the overall objective for MEAS is to “define and disseminate good practice strategies and approaches to establishing efficient, effective and financially sustainable rural extension and advisory service systems in selected countries.”  With the support of MEAS, ECHO Asia staff and Dr. Bates have visited seven SFRCs across Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines) and interviewed their community-based beneficiaries to attempt to determine whether the SFRC concept remains a viable means of conducting research and extension for smallholder farmers.
With the SFRC case study currently concluding, ECHO Asia and MEAS look forward to publishing the findings and sharing the results at the upcoming ECHO Asia Agriculture and Community Development Conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand in early October 2013 as well as at the ECHO Agriculture Conference in Ft. Myers, Florida in December 2013.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

ECHO Asia and Aloha House Food Production and Agriculture Workshop

During March 5-7, ECHO Asia and Aloha House ( co-hosted the Philippines Agriculture Livelihood Workshop at the Aloha House Farm on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa, Palawan in the Philippines.  With 30 participants from across the Philippines, as well as one attendee who traveled from Laos, the group was exposed to numerous topics and hands-on activities including:
  • The principles of soil fertility
  • Green manure/cover crops
  • Small-scale livestock production: goats, hogs, chicken and fish
  • Foliar fertilizers
  • The production and use of bokashi for fertilizer and animal feed 
  • Perennial vegetables
  • Agroforestry
  • Intensive nursery production
  • An introduction to seed saving
A key ECHO Asia workshop activity, an introductory seed exchange event,  took place in which seed from many types of crops were shared between participants.

ECHO Asia is extremely grateful to Keith and Narcy Mikkelson and the Aloha House team for co-hosting this event.