Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Planeteers Strike Again!

The Planeteers, Chiang Mai International School's environmental club, returned to the ECHO Asia office on Friday, March 26 to help upgrade the container and perennial vegetable garden. Braving hot afternoon temperatures, the 10 young people and their adviser, Mr. ElJay Erickson, replanted approximately a dozen containers in which several species of shade-loving edible plants such as basil, pandanus leaf, fiddlehead fern, sawtooth coriander (Eryngium foetidum), taro (edible stems) and leaf pepper, as well as a few medicinal herbs are being grown on the front porch of the office.

Along the wall of the office, another group of students, under of the supervision of Mr. Chanchai, dug and mulched a raised bed in which perennial vegetables such as sweet leaf (Sauropus androgynus), cha-om (Acacia pennata) and leaf pepper (Piper sarmentosum) are growing in partial shade.

The demonstration looks 100% better thanks to the Planeteers. Thanks again for the hard work guys!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rapid Multiplication of Bananas

In northern Thailand there's lots of demand for banana stalks these days. In many parts of Asia banana stalk is a traditional feed for pigs. After slicing up the stalks, farmers usually boil them to increase digestibility. Fed alone, such plant material isn't very nutritious. So stalks are usually mixed with other more nutritious feeds such as rice bran, corn, papaya fruit, kitchen scraps and wild vegetables. Otherwise, they mainly serve to fill hungry animals.

In recent years, growing numbers of farmers have been adopting a proven practice of fermenting banana stalk with molasses and a little salt. Reducing the need for fuel to cook the stalks, the fermentation process boosts the presence of digestible bacteria in the silage, making stalks considerably more nutritious. And mixed with smaller amounts of nutritious local feed or supplemented with a little commercial pig feed, fermented banana stalks offer a cheap, nutritious component for small-scale pig production. This, in turn, helps to boost small farm income.

But with every innovation comes another challenge. With demand for banana stems growing, in some areas, stalk scarcity is becoming an issue. So can the production of these plant materials be boosted somehow?

Years ago, ECHO Development Notes ran a story on rapid multiplication of bananas (RMB). Basically, banana stems are mangled a bit to prompt the main corm (underground stem/root system) to produce more daughter corms and, ultimately, transplantable suckers. And a few years later, EDN reported on another rapid banana multiplication approach whereby banana corms are dug up, trimmed and scored just so to injure meristems before being placed in plant beds to stimulate the production of a lot more plantlets. So the idea is, one way or another, to stimulate the production of a lot more plantlets (suckers) which can be transplanted to establish more clumps of usable banana stalks.

Unable to find any references to RMB in our part of the world, I turned to Abram Bicksler. With a freshly minted PhD. in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Illinois, Abram currently serves as an instructor with the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute in Chiang Mai; a key ECHO Asia partner. Abram (shown here) is helping to design a trial by which various RMB approaches can be tested to see if any might actually boost the production of banana propagation material in a way that can be readily adopted by farmers.

Having recently run a "trial" RMB at the Upland Holistic Development Project Center, Abram is encouraged by initial results. He is now planning to implement a comprehensive field trial to evaluate promising methodologies which have emerged during the preliminary trial. Hopefully, this collaboration between ECHO, Abram (ISDSI) and UHDP will yield some very useful RMB techniques for regional pig farmers to employ.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Garden in the Sky

Rooftop gardening creates a good bit of buzz. But real working examples are somewhat difficult to find. The March 14 (2010) edition of the Bangkok Post carried a very informative article about successful rooftop gardening efforts at the eight-story Lak Si District office in Bangkok. The article, with photos, details how the garden has reached productivity following years of trial and error. District office personnel are reportedly using 400 square meters to produce about 70 different crops in rotation over the course of a year. Check out the article via the following link http://www.bangkokpost.com/life/family/34431/garden-in-the-sky (or click on the title above).

Biogas-powered electrical generator in Myanmar

Check out this link (click on the title above for link) for a brief video shot at the Myanmar Baptist Convention agricultural training center near Yangon in early March. Biogas brewed from wastes produced by a few hogs located just above this location is piped to an electric generator. Each day, there's enough biogas produced to power the 3 kw generator for 45 minutes in the morning and another 45 minutes in the evening. The generator, in turn, powers lights as well as an electric pump that extracts water from the center's well for storage in an elevated tank. The stored water flows by gravity to spigots throughout the farm.

Saw Hei Moo, who directs the project, estimates that the biogas system costs about $350 with the generator running around $300. Toss in perhaps another $100 for pipe, cylinders and other types of essential apparatus. For those living and working off the grid, Hei Moo affirms that this sustainable source of power is "worth the investment."

Also, we heard reports of much larger biogas-powered electrical systems powering rural communities in central Myanmar.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Farm for Children

On the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, I recently had opportunity to visit a children’s home operated by Samuel Thang. Impressively, Samuel and team are using 20 acres of adjoining land to produce enough rice to feed 47 children five months out of the year. Leftover rice straw provides enough fodder to fuel the home’s four cows, which in turn produce a year round supply of milk.

One other thing that the cows and 15 resident goats produce (with the help of a few pigs) is manure. This by-product fertilizes the home’s three-acre garden, making the operation almost completely self-sufficient in vegetables. Additionally, various types of fruit trees, including guava, banana, and papaya as well as pineapple, are scattered throughout the garden.

Samuel stresses that while the supplemental production of milk, rice, fruit, vegetables and a little meat lowers overall expenses by at least ¼, such an effort requires adequate land, water, labor and management.

The kids chip into the overall effort during daily chore times as well as Saturdays and holidays. Samuel reckons that exposure to appropriate farm activities is good for the children, offering them important life skills. Still, he reminds us that their involvement in such work is auxiliary since the main focus of the ministry is to provide the young people with a good education and a safe place to reside.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Friends Like Nam Saeng

I’ve known Nam Saeng for well over a decade. Farming several acres of hilly land in the Chiang Dao district of northern Thailand, he’s an agricultural jack-of-all-trades and a master of many including agroforestry, green manure cover cropping and backyard farming.

Nam Saeng isn’t one to keep trade secrets. He cheerfully accepts visits from farmers and development workers. And it’s obvious that he believes in the power of exchange. By sharing his practical farming knowledge with others, Nam Saeng ultimately gains more useful information; plus friends.

ECHO Asia is one of Nam Saeng’s friends. Many of our regional partners have made the trip to his mountain farm to learn from his work.

I’m encouraged by the fact that he isn’t one of a kind. All across Asia, whether in the uplands, the river deltas, along the coasts or even in the cities, there are others like him. In each place there are farmers who are overcoming various challenges to produce food and improve incomes, and also enthusiastically share what they know.

Nam Saeng may not be fully aware of the extent his helpfulness. But with over 1 billion chronically hungry people in the world (most of whom live in Asia), I believe that it is imperative for ECHO Asia, and our regional agricultural development partners, to nurture working relationships with such innovative small farmers who possess the zeal to share.