Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Scenes from a Malto Community in Sahiganj, Jharkhand, east India

During the final day of the agriculture workshop (March 19-22, 2012) sponsored by ECHO, EFICOR, World Relief Canada and the Canadian Food Grains Bank, participants engaged in a field trip to an ethnic Malto community about 1.5 hours drive from the town of Sahibganj.  Welcomed by a song and dance committee, each visitor was treated to an extremely hospitable foot washing.  Afterward, the workshop delegation was led around the community to see impressive work related to small kitchen gardens, community forestry, improved livestock production, expansion of rice paddy land and sustainable upland farming. During the tour, we were also fortunate enough to encounter a vivid green and black chameleon who preferred to be left alone.

In such a semi-arid location, the livelihood successes of the Sona Malot community are obviously hard won.  Our group of visitors were able to see the value of integrated farming that included traditional crops such as pigeon pea, pearl millet, mustard (oil crop) and cowpea as well as recent innovations such as the expansion of rice paddy land.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

East India Agriculture Workshop

An agriculture workshop sponsored by ECHO, EFICOR and World Relief Canada was held in Sahibganj, Jharkhand in eastern India during March 19-22, 2012.  The event was attended by 26 persons representing five relief and development organizations from India’s east and northeastern regions.

In addition to technical presentations provided by local agricultural officials related to agroforestry, secondary agriculture and aquaculture, ECHO Asia Impact Center Director, Rick Burnette and ECHO Asia Research Consultant, Dr. Ricky Bates (professor of Horticulture at Penn State University), offered sessions related to moringa, green manure/cover crops, sustainable upland farming, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and urban/backyard agriculture. EFICOR staff and local community-based partners also shared case studies related to their agriculture livelihood work in the project’s Sahibganj focus area.

Besides an introduction to seed exchange in which crop seeds from northeast India and ECHO Asia were distributed, a following networking session enabled representatives from each organization to share experiences related to agriculture and community development.  Each group gave examples of efforts that have succeeded or have proven difficult to carry out. 

On the final day, participants traveled to ethnic Malto communities outside of Sahibganj to learn about EFICOR’s food security partnership with local families to promote small kitchen gardens, community forestry, conservation farming and improved livestock production.  After returning to Sahibganj that evening, the workshop closed with the distribution of certificates and a brief worship service.

ECHO Asia would like to express its gratitude to EFICOR for hosting the workshop as well as to World Relief Canada and the Canadian Food Grains Bank for their support towards the event.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Seed Bank Technologies from the ECHO Asia Impact Center By: Abram J. Bicksler, Ph.D.

Having just returned from a quick trip up to the ECHO Asia Seed Bank in Mae Ai, I was impressed to see the latest technologies being employed by our low-input, grow-out, packaging, and distribution hub (aka- the Seed Bank). The first of the gadgetry was a new commercial grade vacuum sealer, used to vacuum-seal quantities of seeds that we then send out to our network partners. We have found that vacuum sealing dried seeds helps to reduce and stabilize ambient moisture, which is detrimental to stored seed viability. Vacuum-sealed seeds can maintain their longevity without the need for costly and space prohibitive refrigeration (although vacuum sealing with refrigeration can provide the best storage conditions). Also included at the seed bank was a backup sealer, of the type and grade you can get at many bakery supply stores. We will use this when the commercial vacuum sealer needs repairs.
Figure 1: New, commercial-grad vacuum sealer with examples of vacuum sealed seed packages

Figure 2: Vacuum sealed seed packages in new vacuum sealer
Figure 3: Backup vacuum sealer that can be purchased at many bakery supply stores

The second new piece of equipment was a seed moisture analyzer, with compliments from the HORT CRSP grant from last year. This piece of equipment allows us to rapidly and precisely measure seed moisture content in a matter of seconds. Before we owned this apparatus, we were dependent upon a lengthy seed moisture determination process using an oven and a scale. We have found that before vacuum sealing seeds, it is important to try to reduce the seed moisture to under 10% in order to increase longevity of the seeds. With this technology, we will now be able to accurately determine the moisture content during our drying process. The other great thing about this analyzer is that it uses electronic circuitry to measure moisture, and does not damage seeds used in the sample.

Figure 4: Seed moisture analyzer with respective parts

Figure 5: Close up of seed moisture analyzer; seed sample goes into the chamber on top, and within seconds, a digital moisture reading is produced

Figure 6: Oven and scale used in original seed moisture measurements; before weight of a given volume of seeds is measured, placed in the oven for a prescribed period of time (burning off all water), and re-measured to calculate the amount of water that was originally in the seeds

The third new piece of “equipment” has actually been around for a while, but we have only begun to use it recently. This is our earthbag seed storage structure in back of the seed bank. It offers a counter-point to our air conditioned seed storage room inside the seed bank, and would be appropriate for village-level seed storing. We took our inspiration from the root cellars of yesteryear, which because of their depth in the ground, maintained a constant cool temperature year round. From previous research, we know that vacuum sealing with refrigeration can extend seeds’ longevity, but both are prohibitively costly and difficult for many rural communities. The earthbag structure uses rice sacks of packed soil material to form an insulated and freestanding structure, which can then be used to store seeds at a cooler temperature. Ideally, vacuum-sealed bags of seeds would be stored in it, but we are also exploring the use of a reverse-engineered bicycle tire pump to create a partial vacuum within mason jars. The jars, along with the earthbag structure, could allow us to very cheaply reduce seed moisture and temperature.

Figure 7: The earthbag structure in back of the ECHO Asia Seed ank showing thatched roof, earthbag walls, and door

Figure 8: Vacuum sealed bags, vacuum-sealed mason jar, and data logger inside of the earthbag structure. 

The fourth new piece of equipment is the data logger, which we use to accurately measure ambient temperature and relative humidity to see if our other technologies are doing their jobs! These loggers have been placed outside, in the seed storage room, in vacuum-sealed seed packets, in the earthbag house (and anywhere else they can fit), and can record up to 40,000 measurements, allowing us to monitor our seed storage facilities and new technologies.

It is our hope that this suite of new technologies will propel the ECHO Asia Impact Center’s ability to better save and share seeds while conducting relative research and empowering local communities to do the same with very low-input.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


The ECHO Asia Seed Bank has had a successful year evaluating two chickpea (Cicer arietinumvarieties that were recently obtained from Myanmar.  Chickpea, also known as garbanzo in Spanish and chana in Hindi is an edible legume.  

Dr. Tim Motis, Agricultural Technical and Research Director at ECHO, wrote an article about the crop, Chickpea seeds from ICARDA, in ECHO Development Notes 108 (July 2010) that can be accessed via this link

According to the article, chickpea production requires an annual rainfall of 26-39 in. (650-1000 mm), typical of semi-arid regions.  Chickpea prefers temperatures from 64-79°F (18-26°C), although more established plants can tolerate higher temperatures. The soil temperature should be above 59°F (15°C) for proper seed germination. Though drought resistant, chickpea is intolerant of heavy rainfall. Seed setting is optimal at a relative humidity of 20-40%.  When planting chickpea, seed in rows 25-30 cm apart or broadcast the seeds at a rate of 25-35 kg seed/ha.

The varieties planted at the ECHO Asia Seed Bank were seeded in early November at the beginning of the cool dry season.  The crop was occasionally watered to keep the top soil suitably moist.  No major pests or disease was observed over the 2011-2012 growing season.

Dr. Motis' article explains that green pods and young shoots of chickpea can be consumed as a vegetable, whereas sprouted seeds can be eaten as a vegetable or added to salads. More commonly, the dry seeds are used to make flour or dahl.  The article includes a useful link to an on-line ICARDA publication that contains chickpea recipes;

The seeds are high in protein (20%) and are a good source of potassium.  Chickpea seeds can also be milled for use as animal feed.  Additionally, livestock can eat the green or dried leaves and stems. As an animal feed, chickpeas have been shown to have similar nutrition as soya cake.

The article also mentions that varieties of chickpea differ in pod size and seed color. Most varieties are classified as “Desi” or “Kabuli” types. Desi chickpea seeds are smaller, darker-colored and not as smooth as the cream-colored, mild-flavored seeds of the Kabuli varieties.  The ECHO Asia Seed Bank is evaluating both types.  Following the early November planting, the Desi type was ready for harvest in early February with the Kabuli type mature in early March.

ECHO Asia expects to have limited amounts of both types of chickpea seed ready for partners to evaluate soon.  However, it would be best to wait until the early cool season to plant. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Day 3: ECHO Asia Cambodia Tropical Agriculture Workshop

Hands-on learning-producing indigneous microorganisms for
natural farming
The third and final day of the 2012 ECHO Cambodia Agriculture Workshop was held at the Jumpah Center.  

Following a farm tour that included Jumpah's pig and quail production facilities as well as solar power and biogas generated from the pig waste, the workshop participants engaged in sessions led by Boonsong Thansritong (Partners Thailand) related to raising pigs on natural bedding as well as the production and use of fermented livestock feed made from banana stalk. 

Production and use of fermented livestock feed
made from banana stalk
And additional session was offered by Cambodia Global Actiona related to the production and use of indigenous microorganisms in natural farming, especially for rehabilitating degraded farm soils.

The workshop concluded with the presentation of certificates.

Making a pig
pen with natural bedding
ECHO Asia is grateful to the Wholistic Development Organization for local coordination of  the workshop as well as the Peri-Urban Agriculture  and Jumpah Centers for hosting the workshop.

Day 2:2012 ECHO Asia Cambodia Tropical Agriculture Workshop

Drip irrigation learning huddle
During the second day of the 2012 ECHO Cambodia Workshop, held at the Peri-Urban Agriculture Center (PUAC) outside of Phnom Penh, participants engaged in two workshop sessions.

PUAC's organic vegetable packing facility
One session, presented by International Development Enterprises (IDE) Cambodia, introduced participants to the basics of drip irrigation systems for small farms, including a hands-on component for setting up such systems.

Another session, led by the workshop host, PUAC, dealt with post-harvest handling and marketing of organic vegetables, offering exposure to sorting, grading and packing seasonal vegetables for the local market.

Sharing seeds from ECHO Asia
Day three of the workshop will be held at the Jumpah Center.

Day 1: 2012 ECHO Asia Cambodia Tropical Agriculture Workshop

Learning about PUAC's organic vegetable production work
Over 40 persons from approximately 12 Cambodian development organizations participated in the first day activities of the 2012 ECHO Cambodia Workshop at the Peri-Urban Agriculture Center (PUAC) in Kompong Speu on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Networking Time
The program included a tour of PUAC organic vegetable production facilities and an introductory seed exchange activity.  Three of the workshop participants brought crop seeds to share, including tamarind, jack bean and creeping cowpea.  ECHO Asia also introduced seeds of several crop varieties from its seed bank.

Sharing experiences about growing jackbean
The afternoon was devoted to networking, with representatives from the various participating organizations sharing about their work and areas of expertise.