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May 2007: Agricultural Notes

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•  The following is taken from Manor House Agricultural Centre’s July–September 2006 report. Manor House staff learned this technique from the Kenyan organization ICIPE:
            “The non-chemical pest management against maize stem borer involved the planting of Napier grass on the border around the maize plot in which Desmodium was planted between the rows of maize. Desmodium smell repels stem borer moth from maize while the Napier grass attracts the moths which lay their eggs on it. The hatched larvae bore into the Napier stem and get trapped by the sticky substance produced by the Napier grass and die, thus saving maize from attack. The maize in this plot was not attacked by the stem borer to any significant extent. … Nitrogen fixed by Desmodium improves soil fertility and therefore reduces the need for purchased artificial nitrogenous fertilizers … Chemicals produced by the roots of Desmodium have a suppressing effect on Striga weed; and this allows the maize to make use of the available nutrients from the soil without competition from the parasitic Striga. Napier and Desmodium are popular fodder for livestock. Whereas Desmodium, a legume, provides proteins, Napier grass is a source of carbohydrates. These improve the availability of feeds for dairy cattle and thus enhance their milk production. In zero-grazing systems typical of smallholder dairying, molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora) can be planted around the cattle/goat shelters to repel ticks, thus preventing tick-borne diseases.”

•  The following was a sidebar to “An alternative to slash and burn” by Daniel Elkan which appeared in the 2006 Special Issue of Leisa magazine. The article details the work of Mike Hands in Honduras, experimenting with Inga trees in alley cropping systems:
            “In his efforts to understand the reason for phosphorus loss, Hands analyzed hundreds of soil samples taken at every stage in the slash and burn process. His results were surprising: the level of phosphorus in the soil only a few weeks after the forest had been burned was exactly the same as the level before burning had taken place. Natural rainforest contains little readily available phosphorus, but the ash left over from burning contains a massive amount. It had been thought that the ash provided the crops with the phosphorus they needed. However, Hands’ data showed that the phosphorus contained in the ash was being washed out before the crops could absorb it.
            “This created a puzzle. The farmers were getting decent crop yields for the first year or two, so the extra phosphorus needed must be coming from somewhere. Hands realized what was happening. Ash on the soil has the same effect as liming a compost heap: it speeds up the process by which soil microbes decompose organic matter such as dead leaves and branches. It was this process which was releasing the phosphorus. The data showed that this process only lasted two years, after which there was a dramatic drop in phosphorus levels and inevitable crop failure. Again, Hands had an explanation. Phosphorus is released as a result of microbes in the soil feeding on fallen organic matter. When the farmers clear and burn the forest, this supply of organic matter is cut off. For two years, the microbes feed on the organic matter that has already fallen, but when this runs out they die and phosphorus is no longer released.”

•  This information comes from “Where are the bees?” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in the April 4, 2007, issue of The Christian Science Monitor:
            “Colony collapse disorder” was first reported in Florida last fall but has “since spread to 24 states. Commercial beekeepers are reporting losses of between 50 and 90 percent. … Many worry that what’s shaping up to be a honeybee catastrophe will disrupt the food supply. While staple crops like wheat and corn are pollinated by wind, some 90 cultivated flowering crops … rely heavily on honeybees trucked in for pollination. Honeybees pollinate every third bite of food ingested by Americans, says a Cornell study. … Beekeepers suspect everything from a new virus or parasite to pesticides and genetically modified crops. … For many entomologists, the bee crisis is a wake-up call. By relying on a single species for pollination, US agriculture has put itself in a precarious position. A resilient agricultural system requires diverse pollinators. This speaks to a larger conservation issue. Some evidence indicates a decline in the estimated 4,500 potential alternate pollinators—native species of butterflies, wasps, and other bees. … Moving away from monocultures … and having something always flowering within bee distance would help natural pollinators. … A Canadian study suggests that if canola farmers leave 30 percent of their land fallow, they will increase their yields. Wild land provides habitat for native pollinators, improving pollination and increasing the number of seeds.”

•  This is a reprint of most of “How to Align Diet, Land Use and Economic Development” by Dennis Mc Laughlin, published by (
            “Good health and good business can be home-grown. … Iowa has determined its citizens could eat their way to prosperity—if they consumed five servings a day of locally grown fruits and vegetables for three months. Savoring such a menu, recommended by the USDA, Iowans would see the state’s economy improve quicker than their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
            “The ‘five-a-day’ veggie and fruit diet of Iowa-produced apples, carrots, spinach, squash and tomatoes would generate $331 million in total economic output, according to Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames. Its research also found there would be $123 million in total labor income and 4,484 jobs in Iowa.
            “But to get those results, Iowans would have to make huge shifts in their eating habits, and growers would have to replant their fields with the produce specified in the study. Less than 20 percent of Iowans eat five or more servings of vegetables and fruits daily, and very little of the produce targeted for consumption in the study is grown within the state.
            “The economic impact analysis worked with these assumptions:

  1. 31,800 acres of crop land would be required to produce 382 million pounds of produce with expected farm-level receipts of $101 million.
  2. Prices were based on conventional rather than organic produce, and retail value was estimated at $430 million.
  3. Half of the new fruit and vegetables would be sold directly by producers, and the remainder would be available in retail stores.
  4. All produce would be sold fresh for in-state consumption.



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