Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thai Environment Day

ECHO Asia was invited to set up a demonstration at the Thai Environment Day exhibition in Chiang Mai.  So we packed up our portable container garden comprised of basins, buckets and even sacks, and hit the road.  

Containerized crops that were exhibited included okra, water spinach, vegetable fern, taro, tomato, chili peppers, Malabar spinach, eggplant, katuk and moringa.  A small terrarium full of vermicompost-making earthworms was thrown in as well.  Wah (Seed Bank Manager) and Kimberly (intern) spent Dec. 2-4 meeting thousands of students and adults and encouraging everyone to grow whatever they can wherever they can.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Northeast India: SRI to Zai Holes

I recently visited northeast India to follow up on an ongoing consultation effort for NEICORD, an NGO based in Shillong.  It was my third visit over the past two years.

It was good to see the fruits of labor related to the cooperation of NEICORD with a dozen communities in the Partharkhmah area just south of Guhawati.  With NEICORD involvement, since 2009, dozens of farmers have been experimenting with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and Sloping Agriculture Technology (SALT) in addition to another couple of hundred persons who have begun making small kitchen gardens.  Practically all of the persons interviewed expressed satisfaction with their endeavors with intentions to continue as well as promote such approaches among their families and neighbors.

video
I was also intrigued/impressed with a number of their own farming approaches.  One included stripping grains by hand from the stalks of rice in their hill fields (see video clip).  I understand this is done mainly on extremely steep land, eliminating the need to cut, bundle, stack and thresh the crop in such precarious locations.

video
Another interesting rice system technique encountered there is the use of cattle to tread upon harvested rice to thresh crop (see video).

Finally, I was surprised to find zai holes of a sort being used in the kitchen garden of a Garo family.  Zai holes are traditionally employed in West Africa crop production.  According to the ECHO classic, Amaranth to Zai Holes, West African crops, such as millet, are grown in holes around 20x20 cm wide and 10 cm deep.  The holes are filled with mulch or compost, such as manures or crop residues.

Similar to the West African zai holes, some of the Garo make similar holes filled with a mixture of soil and manure.  Prijilla, the gardener, observes that vegetable crops planted on raised beds seem to grow a bit faster.  However, if water is short, the raised beds dry out much more quickly.  Therefore, the zai holes help extend soil moisture for dry season gardens.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

ECHO Asia Biochar Trial

During the recent ECHO Asia Agriculture and Community Development Conference, Dr. Karl Frogner presented a plenary session that introduced the concept of biochar as well as an afternoon workshop during which the production of biochar was demonstrated.  Biochar is carbonized material, such as wood charcoal, that is ground up and mixed with materials rich in plant nutrients (such as animal manure) for at least of few months.  Such contact with the fertile, organic materials will allow absorption of nutrients as well as agriculturally beneficial microbes into the pores of the char.  Afterward, the char is incorporated into the topsoil of plant beds and fields.  Applied in such fashion, biochar reportedly benefits crop production by serving as a supplemental source of plant nutrients as well as a soil-based residence for beneficial microbes.  Biochar is also promoted as a means of sequestering carbon to help mitigate climate change.
Although the production and use of biochar is an ancient practice in some parts of the world, the science behind the approach is still new.  To better understand the potential of biochar for small farms in the region, ECHO Asia is preparing to work with UBI, Dr. Frogner's organization, to test the effects of biochar related to crop production at the ECHO Asia Seed Bank.

In October, Dr. Frogner worked with ECHO Asia staff and volunteers to develop a prototype biochar oven made from a 200-liter barrel.  Sliced segments of bamboo where charred in the oven during a test run of the equipment.  Despite a downpour during at the end of the burn, the char turned out very well.

ECHO Asia will be reporting on the progress and results of the upcoming trial.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

2011 ECHO Asia Agriculture and Community Development Conference

The 2011 ECHO Asia Agriculture and Community Development Conference was held during October 4-7 at the Empress Hotel in Chiang Mai with 157 registered delegates from 10 Asia countries and beyond.  Nine plenary sessions included diverse topics such as farmer managed natural regeneration of forests (Tony Rinaudo), the potential of grain amaranth (Tom Post) and the access of protein for diets in the Papua Province of Indonesia (Dr. Di Mathews).  Afternoon workshops related to dozens of practical and technical development topics were also offered.
Conference delegates trekking through the permanent upand hill fields
of Pang Daeng Nai community where the Green Manure/Cover Crop and
Agroforestry Post-Conference tour was held.
One of the most popular components of the meeting were the post-conference tours that were held in 10 locations in and around Chiang Mai.  One of these was the Green Manure/Cover Crop and Agroforestry Tour among the upland hill fields of Pang Daeng Nai community in the Chiang Dao district.  Participants were able to see how local farmers have been using viny legumes to maintain the productivity of their permanent hill fields and appreciate the community's highly diversified and productive agroforest plots.   
During the Green Manure/Cover Crop and Agroforest Post Conference
Tour,  Tony Rinaudo offered a demonstration on how to manage wild,
coppiced seedlings for farmer-managed natural regeneration of forests.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Late Rainy Season Grains at the ECHO Asia Seed Bank

This has been the wettest year we've ever seen. Usually the rains begin to show signs of winding down by late September. However, rainfall continued to be almost daily up through most of October.

Fortunately, the grain crops being grown at the ECHO Asia Seed Bank are thriving in the moisture. Pictured are a healthy plot of Job's tear, stalks of grain sorghum that dwarf Seed Bank Manager Wah and interns, Kym and Marcia, as well as our first planting of what we think is foxtail millet. The millet seeds were obtained during a Hort CRSP-sponsored seed fair in the Chiang Dao district of northern Thailand in January.

Seeds from these crops should be ready for harvest by the end of the year.




Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kitchen Bokashi Series: Part 4 - Fermenting Food Scraps and Using the Finished Product

Layered fermenting food scraps
With inoculated carrier, the production of kitchen bokashi can begin.

Using a plastic bucket with an air-tight lid, begin by adding a layer of newspaper or cardboard on the bottom. This helps to soak up excess liquid. Then place a handful of fermented starter mix in the bottom of the bucket.

Begin layering unrotten food scraps inside the bucket and scatter a thin layer of fermented starter mix on top of the material. Thick layers of carrier are not necessary. But at the minimum, I would apply a scattering of carrier to at least every one-inch layer of food scraps. To increase anaerobic conditions, press down on the food scraps inside the bucket to eliminate air spaces.

Finished bokashi being
buried in the garden
Also as the buckets and lids that I use are not completely airtight, I employ plastic bags to help seal the lids. And to lessen contact with air even more, I also place of layer of plastic bags on top of the compacted materials and weigh it all down with a heavy wooden chopping block.

Continue layering in such fashion until the bucket is full.

To keep mess to a minimum, I also try to exclude liquid (such as gravy) from the bucket. However, some commercial kitchen bokashi buckets come equipped with spigots that allow liquid “bokashi tea” to be easily removed, diluted with water and used to nourish plants.

Once the bucket is full then set it aside and allow it to ferment with the lid tightly closed for at least two more weeks. Afterward, bury the bokashi in holes or trenches in the garden under at least 15 cm of soil. If you uncover the bokashi before it has finished composting it may have a strong, unpleasant smell.

Kitchen bokashi composted in the soil
After some weeks (depending on conditions), the fermented kitchen bokashi will convert into a composted, soil-like material. When the composting process is done then the former food waste should not have any bad odor.

The finished kitchen bokashi will add nutrients and microbes to the soil and contribute to improved soil structure. Worms, arthropods and other small creatures, indicators of soil health, will relish in the compost. Your crops will like it too.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Kitchen Bokashi Series: Part 3 - Making the Inoculated Carrier

Inoculated carrier, bran treated with EM, is used to inoculate food wastes with fermentation organisms (phototropic bacteria, lactic acid bacteria and yeast) that are essential for producing kitchen bokashi.


Left to right: container of EM 1,
2 2-liter plastic bottles containing
extended EM solution, jar of
molasses
 Ingredients for a small batch of bokashi carrier (5 kg):
  • 5 kg (11 lb.) of rice bran
  • 20 ml (1.35 tablespoons) EM•1®
  • 20 ml (1.35 tablespoons) molasses
  • 1 liter of water (1.05 quarts)
Procedure:
    
    Bran moistened with EM solution
    
  1. To activate and extend an adequate supply of EM microbes to produce 5 kg of inoculated carrier, dissolve 20 ml of molasses into 1 liter of water along with 20 ml of EM•1® (non-chlorinated is usually advised). Keep the culture solution for 5-7 days in a sealed plastic bottle away from direct sunlight. Quickly vent off excess gases once a day (if needed).
  2. 
  3. Mix the culture solution thoroughly with 5 kg of bran in a bucket, but avoid adding too much solution. To check the moisture content, squeeze some of the bran into a ball. If no liquid can be squeezed out and the bran still holds shape after being released, then the material contains an appropriate amount of moisture. It may not be necessary to add the entire liter of culture solution to moisture 5 kg of bran.
  4. 
  5. If using a strong plastic bag to ferment the carrier, press the moistened material down to displace any air pockets and then tie the bag tightly after squeezing out excess air. Leave the bag of inoculated carrier undisturbed for two weeks or longer.
  6. After near anaerobic storage for two weeks or longer, the carrier will have a fermented, malt-like smell. It may also have some white mold growing on it, which is fine. However, the presence of undesirable black or green mold probably means that the carrier was exposed to too much air or contaminants or that the inoculated brain was stored too moist. Therefore, do not use the starter mix if it has black or green mold growing on it.
  7. 
    Fermented bran drying in the sun
    
  8. Break the moist, fermented carrier apart with your hands and spread it out on a canvas in a sunny location to dry. Every half hour or so, use a rake to spread and respread the treated bran until the material is completely dry.
  9. Use a rolling pin to break apart any clods of bran, both large and small.
  10. 
    Bokashi carrier ready to use
    
  11. Store the fine, dry carrier in a sealed plastic bag and/or in an airtight container for long-term storage. Under dry, near anaerobic conditions, the inoculated carrier can be stored for at least several months.
The final blog will discuss how food scraps are collected, fermented and eventually incorporated into garden soils.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kitchen Bokashi Series: Part 2 - Food Waste to Garden Soil Amendment

Airtight container half full of bokashi
During the 2009 ECHO Asia Agriculture Conference in Chiang Mai, Keith Mikkelson, from the Aloha Natural Farm in the Philippines, shared about making and using bokashi from food waste. His presentation inspired conference delegate, Kenny Miller, to begin producing his own household bokashi. And Kenny’s positive bokashi experience influenced my family to do the same.

Kitchen bokashi is a useful soil amendment that is produced by fermenting food wastes. It offers households and institutions the following opportunities:
  • a manageable means of reducing the volume of waste by recycling food scraps
  • Healthy white mold forming
  • unending access to an excellent soil amendment that improves garden soil structure and fertility, benefiting helpful soil organisms as well.
To produce kitchen bokashi, food scraps are collected in airtight containers and inoculated with a carrier. Such a carrier is often comprised of a high carbon material, such as rice or wheat bran, that has been inoculated with fermentation microorganisms (e.g. natural lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and phototrophic bacteria). One source of such microorganisms is a commercial product called Effective Microorganisms (EM).

Each shallow layer of food scraps should have a liberal sprinkling of inoculated carrier on top with layering continuing until the container is full. Stored under near anaerobic conditions, microbes will expand throughout the kitchen scraps and ferment the materials.

If done correctly, there will be no spoilage or putrid smell, allowing fermented food wastes to be collected and stored over the long term; even for months until burial. Finally, weeks after incorporation into the garden, the bokashi will become soil-like, providing both organic matter and plant nutrients to the soil.

Kitchen bokashi being buried in the garden
Speaking of plant nutrients, based on lab analysis done at Mae Jo University on a batch of kitchen bokashi, this is how our bokashi’s N-P-K ratio compared to other natural fertilizers and animal manures (compiled from various sources):

  • kitchen bokashi 2.39 – 0.77 – 0.97
  • worm castings 1.1 - 0.8 – 0.5
  • blood meal 12 – 0 – 0
  • chicken manure 1.1 – 0.8 – 0.5
  • rabbit manure 2.4 – 1.4 – 0.6
The next blog will offer detailed instructions on making the inoculated bokashi carrier.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Kitchen Bokashi Series: Part 1 - Reducing Food Waste

Alarming news from the Food and Agriculture Organization
  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted, according to an FAO-commissioned study in early 2011.
  • Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year.
  • Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when "best-before" dates expired.
  • Rich-country consumers should be taught that throwing food away needlessly is unacceptable.
  • Good use for food that would otherwise be thrown away should be found.
Cutting food waste to feed the world (The FAO Media Center) http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/74192/icode/

This photo shows an example of food waste in our household not too long ago. Such wasted food included stale cereal and baked goods as well as spoiled leftovers. Since then, more awareness among family members and increased effort to keep certain types of food from spoiling, such as storing opened cereals in airtight containers, has significantly helped to lessen the volume of wasted food.

Waste from fruit and vegetables as well as coffee grounds have long been recycled by our earthworms into vermicompost. However, as we have yet to completely eliminate uneaten leftovers, a practical means of putting such a “resource” to good use evaded us until we discovered bokashi.

My next blog will introduce the concept of Kitchen Bokashi.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Rest of the Story...."Stepping Up Irrigation”

By Kimberly Duncan
ECHO Asia Intern

Not to be left out of the wet, ECHO partner, UHDP, has commissioned not one, but two pumps from our Burmese visitors as they also prepare for drier days. A rope and washer pump being built for them retains the full body of the bicycle being used to provide rotation which is pedaled rather than cranked by hand like the ECHO pump; hence, we’ve begun referring to it simply as the “bicycle pump.” Other than the leg power being used to make the wheels go round, however, the concept is exactly the same as the ECHO Asia pump described in our previous posting.

The second pump is a treadle pump. This one is made almost entirely of metal, with the exception of the PVC pipe used to support the operator; however, hundreds have been built around the developing world using bamboo, wood, or other materials. This one was purchased in Tachilek, Myanmar and though not entirely identical to the “pulley and rope” arrangement typical of many treadle pump designs that can found on the Internet, it runs on the same concept. We’ve borrowed Climate Lab’s explanation of the mechanics:

The treadle pump consists of two parts, the pump and the operating mechanism. The pump is generally made of metal and has two cylinders that are connected to a suction pipe at the base and an outlet spout at the surface. The operating mechanism is made up of metal, bamboo, or wood foot pedals that are attached to a superstructure that the operator can hold onto for support. As the operator of the pump shifts their weight on the foot pedals, plungers inside the cylinders reciprocate the motion and draw water alternately into each barrel. Non-return valves protect the inlet and also allow the plunger to move down through the water in the cylinder on the downward stroke without forcing it back down the suction pipe. The upward movement of the plunger lifts the water in the cylinder out the spout and simultaneously draws more water into the barrel of the suction pipe. The water is either lifted onto the field directly, into a pond or into an irrigation canal. (Palumbo)*

Both pumps can lift water from standing water or wells. In both cases the distance from the water source or depth to the water table will affect the amount of water that can be brought up and at what rate. (Most treadle pumps can draw from a maximum 7 meters depth.) In the case of a treadle pump, the size of the piston cylinders and the draw length of the pistons themselves will also determine volume. Cylinders on the UHDP pump are 101mm in diameter; stroke length about 250mm. The bicycle pump sourcing water from the pond is currently functioning at 12 liters per minute. I’m told that the treadle pump, when completed, should be able to pump 30 liters per minute from the same pond.

As mentioned before, a lot of work with treadle pumps is being done around the developing world. Huge success has been found in areas like Southeast Asia (particularly in Bangladesh) where water tends to be more readily accessible; however, the pumps have also worked well in parts of semi-arid Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has some extremely detailed and helpful publications describing them. For some fascinating bed-time reading, check out the following links:

FAO TREADLE PUMPS FOR IRRIGATION IN AFRICA
http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/x8293e/x8293e00.htm

FAO - HOW TREADLE PUMPS WORK (continuation of publication above
ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/005/x8293e/X8293E01.pdf

FAO TECA BAMBOO TREADLE PUMP INDIA
http://teca.fao.org/technology/bamboo-treadle-pump-india

FAO TOTAL LAND CARE - TREADLE PUMP IRRIGATION
http://www.totallandcare.org/Projects/FAOTreadlePump/tabid/93/Default.aspx

FAO REPOSITORY SITE WITH MULTIPLE PUBLICATIONS
http://www.fao.org/documents/jsp/empty.jsp?cx=018170620143701104933%3Azn2zurhzcta&cof=FORID%3A11&q=TREADLE&x=0&y=0&search_radio=docRep

THE ASHDEN AWARDS FOR SUSTAINABLE ENERGY
http://www.totallandcare.org/Projects/FAOTreadlePump/tabid/93/Default.aspx

COOPER-HEWITT - DESIGN FOR THE OTHER 90%
http://other90.cooperhewitt.org/design/bamboo-treadle-pump

*Palumbo, Jamie. "Treadle Pumps." Climate Lab(beta). Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike, 31 March 2010. Web. 11 Aug 2011. http://climatelab.org/Treadle_Pumps.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Introducing our New Low Tech and Effective Water Pump

By Kimberly Duncan
ECHO Asia Intern
Back when Janis -- our now departed intern of yore -- was setting up an irrigation for our moringa plots (http://sustainabilityquest.blogspot.com/2011/06/add-water.html), it was decided that better pressure for the existing irrigation network in our main production plots was also needed. Once the rainy season is over, we will need to get water out of our pond, up a hill, and back down into the plots; however, our motorized pump keeps breaking. What to do? Appropriate technology to the rescue!

As an aside, there is an ongoing debate about the actual appropriateness of what has been labeled “appropriate technology.” Protagonists define “appropriate technology” as “using what you have to make what you need,” (Doerr).* Antagonists complain that the term is just a euphemism to soothe the consciences of those who don’t want to provide modern technological advances to the poor. The debate can go deep, and, initially, you may be tempted to side with the antagonists, but from our end, with our modern, electrically-run pump constantly on the fritz, we are championing the protagonists. Read a little further and see if you find yourself changing camps.
It just so happened that while we were sorting out our water needs and having a few choice words with our lifeless pump, several gentlemen from the Karen Baptist Convention (KBC)** in Myanmar came to visit UHDP as part of the Convention’s research into sustainable agriculture and appropriate technologies. Among them Saw Eh Lay and Saw Ler Mou had recently received training at the hands of an Australian engineer who taught them how to build a “rope and washer pump.”*** It was an opportunity too good to pass up. We “roped” them into helping us find an “appropriate” solution to our water pumping needs.
The building of the “rope and washer pump” took just two men and three days. Using PVC plastic piping, rubber washers, nylon rope, an old bicycle, and a little cement to hold it in place, they created a hand-crank system that can pump 20 liters per minute from the pond up the hill and into our water storage tanks! These items were either already available on the farm or found in our local market. A person standing by the pump simply turns the crank, feeding the rope with washers spaced at regular intervals over the bicycle wheels down into the water and back up through the PVC. Forced along the rope by the washers, the water makes the trip from the pond to the tanks with only a little escaping at the apex of the system. In a matter of minutes a 100 gallon tank is filled! Dry season, here we come!

*Doerr, Elizabeth. "Introduction to Appropriate Technology." Internship Lecture Series. ECHO. Appropriate Technologies Demonstration Center, ECHO Farm, N. Fort Myers, FL. 2009. Lecture.

** The Karen Baptist Convention or KBC was established in Myanmar in 1913. It currently includes 20 associations which seek to provide Christian education and publications, care and counseling, communications and social services, and technology and development, with an overall emphasis in leadership training. Along with rope and washer pumps, Saw Eh Lay and Saw Ler Mou (pictured above) are also trying out rice husk gasifier stoves in hopes of introducing them to rural areas in Myanmar without access to electricity and to help reduce deforestation.

*** Designs and diagrams for a variety of “rope and washer” pumps” can be found on the Internet. Click http://echonet.org/repositories#152:d:ATWebBook.2007.pdf to view a demonstration pump on the ECHO Farm in N. Fort Myers, FL. Click http://echonet.org/repositories#146:d:PVC%20Hand%20Pumps.08.pdf for smaller “PVC Hand Pumps”.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

James 2000

Various pests, especially snails during the rainy season, make vegetable gardening a challenge. However, as we would like the ECHO Asia office demonstration garden to be as productive as possible year round, we decided to make protective row covers for our garden beds. ECHO Asia intern, James "Tarantula Boy" Manson (http://sustainabilityquest.blogspot.com/2010/09/spiders-over-snakes.html) was drafted for the job. Using 1/2 inch PVC pipe and row cover fabric, James constructed five row covers. We're so impressed with James' design that we dubbed it the "James 2000."

Measuring 1.45 meters long, 0.8 m wide and 0.9 m tall to be an exact fit for the beds, the total cost of materials for each unit was 397 Thai baht (US $13.26). Not terribly cheap. However, local materials, such as bamboo for the frame, could be easily used to lower costs.

Our James 2000s are study, lightweight and easy to move. However, they must be anchored to keep strong winds from blowing them over.

In case readers are interested in making their own versions of the James 2000, it is important to allow the mesh to make enough contact with the soil surface in order to be "sealed" with pieces of wood or brick to prevent pests from crawling under the frame. If heavy enough, such items will help keep the row covers from blowing over.

You can see that at least one snail was thwarted from entering a garden bed. Well made row covers can exclude a wide range of pests that are too large to pass through the mesh. On the other hand, pre-existing, resident pests will be confined by the covers. Row covers can also help prevent pollinators from entering; which is either good (if we're trying to prevent cross-pollination) or bad (if our crops need cross-pollination).

James' row covers are well made and we expect them to last at least a few years with minimal maintenance.

New Crop Evaluation

During the USAID-funded Hort CRSP Exploratory Survey that took place in two village clusters in northern Thailand, and another in southwest Cambodia, earlier this year, we came across quite a few interesting crop varieties (mainly vegetables) grown by farm families. The ECHO Asia Seed Bank team selected several of these varieties, such as this black seed, short-pod velvet bean, to evaluate. Our criteria was to focus on crops/varieties that are desirable, rare and/or have reported outstanding traits, such as high productivity and good flavor. Many of these finds have already been planted out in the seed bank plots with data and observations currently being recorded.

Hopefully, this effort will yield more regionally appropriate crops for the ECHO Asia Seed Bank to distribute among our network.

 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Corn We Couldn't Eat

Less than three months after moving into the new ECHO Asia office in late March our demonstration garden is growing like gangbusters.

A rainy "dry season" helped the perennials get established quickly. Fortunately, we've been able to stay ahead of the weeds. And annuals, such as okra, vegetable amaranth and sweet corn are already producing. Produce is being shared with the neighbors. But with an urgent need for seed, Wah (our seed bank manager) called dibs on the sweet corn.

We had other plans.

Add Water

Jamis Koknevics, born in Latvia, raised in Belgium and educated in the UK, spent the last several months interning with ECHO Asia. Soon after arriving, we assigned him to upgrade the seed bank's water supply. With access to UHDP's reservoir, we needed an efficient means of pumping water from the pond to two large plots where several dozen moringa trees (PKM-1)are being established for seed production. Janis researched the best means of delivering the water to these trees.

The result is a grid of PE tubing with appropriately spaced spray nozzles. The new irrigation system will also enable dry season production of other seed bank crops grown between the trees. We're very grateful for Janis' involvement at the ECHO Asia Seed Bank and wish him the best as he prepares to further his education.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Big Seed Delivery to Laos

This week the ECHO Asia Seed Bank sent its largest seed order yet. Not being a commercial seed supplier, usually ECHO's orders are limited to free, small sample packs of seeds sent out to development workers serving in poor counties. Recipients can evaluate the seed in their locations and, if possible, multiply seed for the benefit of their clientele; usually small-scale farmers and gardeners.

However, ECHO Asia carries select types of seed in bulk quantities; mostly green manure cover crops. As long as supplies last, ECHO network partners in Asia can purchase (to cover costs) between one hundred grams to a few kilos of such seed.

This particular combined order, over 60 kg total, was sent by bus from Chiang Mai to a city near the Lao border. Six agricultural development agencies will be testing these seeds on their farms and focus communities. Hopefully much more seed will be propagated from this large order.

Orange Sweet Potatoes

Our family ate a lot of sweet potatoes when I was a kid. Along with Irish potatoes, Ipomoea batatas was a main garden staple. Truth is, I kind got sick of them and never grew any after I left home.

However, through the years, I've rediscovered a new fondness for the root crop, especially the orange varieties. The sweet potato is poor man's food, and Asia grows its share. However, many are white flesh varieties which I find a bit bland.

Over the past year, the humble sweet potato has gotten some very favorable press. Last Thanksgiving, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, Nicolas Kristof, wrote a glowing piece about the role of orange sweet potatoes specially bred to help fight hunger in Africa (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/opinion/25kristof.html). Orange sweet potatoes are packed with beta carotene, a natural source of vitamin A, much needed by the human body.

Fortunately, orange sweet potatoes are easy to grow in our part of tropical Asia.

In early December 2010, I bought sack of orange tuberous sweet potato roots from a local market (not easy to find) and planted them in one of our garden beds. We ended up with a ton of slips. I then transplanted some of these slips into four short rows around New Year and waited until mid-April to begin digging. I was delighted to find well-formed, tasty roots.

Friends and neighbors got their share. In fact, we only had enough left over for one meal. Ellen sliced the tubers, added seasoning and baked them until they began to brown. Delicious.

Now, the locally-adapted orange sweet potato variety is growing in the demonstration garden at the ECHO Asia office. Interested persons who drop by the office can picked up a few slips to take home with them.

A Festive Germination Test

Recently I entered the nursery at the ECHO Asia seed Bank for a quick look. I was surprised by the burst of color in one of the plant beds in which seeds recently acquired from communities in northern Thailand and Cambodia were being tested for germination and vigor. Vinny, the intern in charge of the test, explained that the multi-colored plastic spoons used to mark each seed were not only cheap and reusable but "way more cool" than boring white spoons. The seed bank staff also said that the previous array of white spoon markers looked a bit too much like headstones in a tiny cemetery, which they seemed to think was kind of depressing. So for a more cheerful looking seed vigor trial, multi-colored plastic spoons are definitely the way to go. Also note the phototropic effect going on with the bean seedlings.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The CSA

Earlier this year our friends, Jeff and Sarah Rutherford with Fair Earth Farm (http://www.fairearthfarm.com/) helped organize a small group of young certified organic farmers with the Mae Tha Cooperative (http://www.thailand-travelonline.com/thailand-destinations/northern-thailand-information/sustainable-agriculture-happiness-of-living/620/) in establishing the first community supported agriculture initiative in northern Thailand (and one of few in the whole country). Currently 26 families, most of whom are affiliated with the Chiang Mai International School (http://www.cmis.ac.th/), are subscribing to the CSA.

Every Wednesday morning, the young Mae Tha farmers bring large foam boxes full of fresh, seasonal organic vegetables; all for 200 baht (less than $7.00 US). This is a bargain for quality produce. And, in fact, the amount of veggies provided is more than our family can consume alone in one week. Much of the bounty is shared with neighbors.

One interesting dimension of belonging to a Thai CSA initiative is that some of the vegetables, such as cha-om (ชะอม or Acacia pennata), are very Thai. Therefore, the means of preparing these veggies in a Western fashion is not always apparent or possible. Ellen's kitchen skills are impressive and she has discovered new ways to prepare local types of eggplant, vegetable amaranth, daikon radish and sweet potato. Additionally, the Rutherfords have formed an on-line forum so that the CSA members can discuss the identity of less known produce and compare recipes. However, Ellen doesn't consider herself a master Thai food chef. Fortunately, Bua Loi, our helper of 16 years, is a great cook who knows exactly what to do with such produce.

Some of the ECHO's development projects in the region are concerned with ways to help farmers better market vegetables. For those located near urban areas where there are likely to be persons willing to pay a bit more for safe produce, CSAs might offer an alternative marketing approach.