Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Grains and Leaves: Weekly Ag-Related News, Events, and Others

Hi there fellow readers -

Here are some good links for your weekly reading list. Suggestions are always welcome. Happy reading.
  • GMO-Free salt! The WSJ on how companies are finding profitable adding the 'GMO-Free' label to things that don't even have genes. 
  • Meanwhile Scotland ban all GMO grown in the country, which amounts to a remarkable 0%!  reports Politico 
  • Fred Perlak - one of Monsanto's renowned scientist behind Bt corn - gives a fascinating interview to the folks at Inquiring Minds. Also check out his Q&A session at Redditt 
  • Thinking of buying organic? Not so quickly, the NYT reports on how organic food accounted for 7% of the foods recalled in 2014 - up from 2% last year. Now, if you're craving burgers, you may be better off buying 'organic'. The Washington Post describes how ground beef from grass-fed, antibiotic-free,  has fewer chances of having 'superbugs' (nasty bacteria). 
  • Now this one got me worried - according to the Washington Post, eggs are getting more expensive and are not longer the cheapest source of animal protein. In some places they are almost six cents a piece! Luckily, here in Afghanistan they're still about 7 AFA (11 cents)
  • For NGOs interested in doing 'Local and Regional Procurement' (a much better way to do food aid), check out CRS's new guide: MARKit: Price Monitoring, Analysis and Response Kit. It gives practitioners tools to monitor and adjust your program to market fluctuations. Also, if you're looking for other field-tested technical information on development interventions? Check out: 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Goat Cheese Paradise - Shvil Izim

One of my favorite parts of visiting other countries is getting to know farmers. While I don't hold anything against large, mechanized farming, I'm a lot more interested in farmers that are more attuned to the environmental limits of their work, and are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of modern agriculture.  Progressive farmers always offer a unique perspective, leaving you with new ideas and inspiring you to update your long-neglected blog.

Welcome to “Shvil Izim” or “Goat Path” a wonderful family-run goat farm, specializing in Agrotourism. Located in the serene rolling hills of Moshav Tal Shachar – Central Israel – Goat Path offers an excellent refuge from the busy streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Similar to Kibbutz, Moshav are communities organized around farming, where cooperation and democratic values are central to the community. In contrast to Kibbutz, however, each farmer owns and manages their own farm.

Two of those farmers are Ruth and Alon, the couple that started "Goat Path" farm in 2004. I had contacted Ruth a couple weeks ago about the possibility of attending one of their cheese-making courses. I’m expecting to have copious amounts of goat milk when the snow starts to melt in the Afghan central highlands, and what better way to preserve it than with some tasty chevre and feta.  So when Ruth graciously agreed to host us, we scheduled our visit to “Goat Path” as our first stop on our itinerary.

We visited the farm on an unusually rainy Friday, so the farm wasn't as packed as it would have been otherwise – Friday’s are their busiest days. We started out with a brief chat with Alon. He told us more about the farm, his background, and farming in Israel. Like pretty much any other country, small farmers often struggle to cope with the regulations and taxations of central governments that have little interest in the needs of small farmers.

According to Alon, he needs about 400 goats to have a herd that is economically viable. With only 40, the farm relies on people like us who are willing to pay a premium to try excellent cheese right at its source.

After the intro talk, we headed to the pen where Alon keeps his Alpine goats – one of the best breeds out there for milk production. On average, he gets about 3 liters per day, though some of his best performers can produce up to 6 liters. There were heaps of fodder everywhere, which explains why the goats look plump and healthy.

Alon then picked five goats and brought them up to the milking platform. Being a small farmer doesn't mean you have to neglect ag technology. The farm has a mechanized milking machine made by Afimilk that individually tracks each goat's production with chip technology. That way, Alon can identify goats that may show signs of trouble or ones with excellent production traits.

This time, however, went the old-fashioned route. Equipped with surgical gloves and a hair net to filter the milk, we sloppily started milking one of the goats. We only needed about a litter, so with Alon’s help we got there pretty quickly.

We then took the precious milk back to the farm where the magic began. Alon told us we were going to make Circassian goat cheese – a simple fresh cheese that requires less than an hour of preparation. We began by warming the milk to about 80 degrees C. Although it’s not needed, we added a tablespoon of yogurt to activate some cultures and then another tablespoon of vinegar to generate curds. I was surprised at how quickly the whey started to emerge. With great care, we took out the whey and filtered the curds. To finish it off, we added a pinch of salt, zetar and nigella seeds. So simple and yet so delicious.

Waiting for us to finish up a wonderful day was a plate of 5 different locally-made cheeses, ranging from fresh to several months aged.

All in all, a plate of cheese paired with delicious local wine was the perfect way to end our lesson - and a rainy Friday.  If you're looking for a place to reconnect with nature and enjoy local cheeses, give Alon and Ruth a visit. They'll be happy to show you around what's become their business and home.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Saying bye to East Africa

After a wonderful year in Malawi and Zambia, Agdes is now moving to Afghanistan. The pictures below capture the highlights of my time in the warm heart of Africa. More updates coming soon about the new location. For more pics, check out 

Market in Chikwawa, Malawi

Indigenous Veggies - Chikwawa, Malawi

Local community in Nsanje, Malawi

Local maize silo, Chipata, Zambia

Local traders buying maize - Kasungu, Malawi

SILC/VSL Group, Chipata, Zambia

Cotton field - Zambia

Local stables. Mongu, Zambia

Input dealer - Kasungu, Malawi

Monday, May 12, 2014

Where does your food come from?

Thanks to @calestous for sharing:

Baobab - My Favorite Tree and its Juice

I’ve always been fascinated with big trees. Growing up in Colombia’s Cauca Valley, the beauty and magnitude of the Ceivas (Ceiba Pentandra) tree was an essential part of my childhood and its fantasy. I would see these giants on our trips around the countryside and think that they must be in charge of the forest: so tall and thick, they must control where other trees grow and animals dwell. I wasn’t the only one creating mythologies out of Ceibas. These giants were also sacred to indigenous cultures such as the Mayans, who thought that Ceibas were the link connecting heaven with the underworld - Xibalba.

Across the Atlantic, the Ceibas’ older cousins are equally fascinating. Growing in hot and dry climate, the baobabs (Adansonia Digitata) are part of the quintessential African landscape of most countries in the sub-Saharan region. Like the Mayans, many African cultures consider these remarkable trees a Godsend. In addition to being a revered meeting place for the community, the Baobab has plenty to offer for those living in harsh climates. Many cultures pound its bark to create ropes and textiles. The white flowers and green foliage are also edible. The water-proof fruit shells are hard as metal, and many people use them as calabashes or containers.

But if you already have a clothing and kitchenware and are not too keen on eating flowers, Baobab Juice is for you! Each fruit has dozens of small seeds covered in a yellowish pulp. This vitamin C-rich pulp makes a refreshing, effervescent drink called ‘Baobab Lemonade’ (despite the lack of actual lemons in the juice). Here in Malawi it’s Baobab season and I enjoy the juice so much that I decided to try making it at home. 

Here is how:
  1. Travel to Africa and go to a place where it is hot and dry
  2. Wait until the end of the rainy season when Baobabs start to fruit
  3. Go to a local market and buy at least three large Baobab fruits
  4. Find a hard surface, hold the fruits with a towel and smack them against the ground (hard!)
  5. Try again, but harder!!!
  6. Once they crack, open the outer shell to expose the seeds
  7. Pull out all the pulp and put it in a big pot of warm water
  8. Stir for a couple of minutes and then leave it sitting for a couple hours
  9. Once the brown seeds are visible and the pulp is completely dissolved, drain the juice
  10. In a blender, mix the juice with some lemon juice (here are the lemons!), sugar, and ice
  11. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Promoting Agricultural Development with Video Technology

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the impressive work of Digital Green, an international NGO which uses pico projectors to disseminate extension messages. Their work started in India and spread quickly to other countries in Africa and elsewhere. Today, they are reaching almost 90,000 farmers with more than 2,000 videos. The impact of their work has attracted the attention of donors and practitioners as we look for ways to improve the intake of extension messages. Governments are also intrigued by the possibilities of equipping extension agents with DG's approach.  In early 2014, the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture held a series of training workshops with extension staff to pilot video-facilitated extension in four regions of the country.

FHI360's Integrating Low-Cost Video into Agricultural Development Projects: A Toolkit for Practitioners, is an excellent resource for those considering the use of video platforms to strengthen behavior change messages. The toolkit allows practitioners to develop a more systematic approach to use low-cost video as one of the mediums through which they share information with farmers.

The toolkit provides the information in six modules, starting with examples on how video technology is currently being used. Besides showcasing the work of Digital Green, the guide also describes the work of InsightShare, One Media Player Per Trainer (OMPT), and Agro-Insight, a Belgium enterprise, also producing professional videos on various agriculture topics. Agro-Insight videos can be streamed at or purchased for institutional used.

Although briefly discussed, the guide elaborates on the benefit of multimedia learning, and how a combination of visual and audio inputs increases the effectiveness of your messages (see graph).

The subsequent modules walk practitioners through the process of deciding if video is the right approach, and if so, how to create, disseminate, and track video platforms.  The final module provides excellent information about the technical considerations for camcorders, projectors, and other types of software and hardware needed for these types of projects. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

IFPRI 2013 Global Food Policy Report

​IFPRI just published it flagship report examines the major food policy issues, developments, and decisions of 2013. It puts into perspective the year’s food policy successes and setbacks, and suggests how to advance policies that will improve the food situation for poor people in developing countries.

Chapter 4, Sustainable Agriculture Intensification, is a must read. It reviews the different agronomic such as Conservation Agriculture, Organic Agriculture, and no-till, and provides an assessment on the impact of these practices in the cereals and grain yields. The report also has a series of shorter articles on hot topics, written by the heavy weights of ag. development - Spielman argues that new agronomic practices need more evidence, and Hoddinott reviews the different approaches to safety nets. Enjoy this excellent read!