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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/rafamerchan/ 

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 http://www.accessagriculture.org/ 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!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Notes from the Field - Seeds and Voucher Fairs

Right before the Shire River meets the mighty Zambezi, in the Southern tip of Malawi, lay two of the poorest district in the country. This beautiful valley, dotted with baobab and sugar cane plantations, has very erratic weather, ranging from dry spells and droughts to flash floods.

Traditionally, development agencies have used seed distribution to help farmers mitigate the impact of these climatic shocks. Using the ‘Seeds and Tools’ methodology, farmers were given seeds based on what the development agency considered most appropriate. Unfortunately, this approach was based on a flawed assumption – that farmers are passive recipients of seed, instead of dynamic agents relying on a combination of formal and farmer networks to acquire seeds.

‘Seeds and Tool’ approach was therefore plagued with many problems: farmers often consumed (instead of plant) the distributed seeds, or tried to sell them in other markets. More troubling, given that these seeds may not have been adapted to the particular ecological conditions of a community, crops failed completely, leaving farmers worse off.

A much better alternative is the Seed and Voucher Fairs (SVFs). The principle of giving vulnerable farmers seed to help them cope with the losses from climatic shocks remains the same. SVFs, however, are fundamentally different in that they empower farmers by giving them a choice. Instead of distributing seeds from the formal sector, SVFs provide farmers with vouchers. Each voucher has a monetary value that farmers use to redeem seeds from local and regional suppliers. And it’s the availability of these local seed suppliers what makes the fairs successful, as they act as marketplaces where farmers can chose the bundle of seeds that best fit their preferences (soil, area, taste, market etc.).

The pictures in this post are from a recent SVFs conducted in the Chikwawa district. Farmers in some areas of the district had lost part of their crop to heavy rain and flash floods. Using the SVFs, we distributed seeds for the winter season which starts in April and ends in June/July.  A successful winter season would help farmers compensate for some of the losses from the last harvest.

Farmers rely on residual moisture and irrigation to grow crops during the winter season. The cold climate of April-June reduces evaporation rates, providing enough moisture for plants to develop. There are two important elements for a good winter harvest: first, farmers need to ensure the soil has enough mulch and organic material to retain water in the soil. Conservation agriculture provides a good toolkit on how to do this, using maize stover and other crop residues. Second, because the winter season is shorter, farmer need short-maturity seeds that reduce the need for irrigation when it starts to get hot and residual moisture is used up.  

During the fair, we brought local vendors of sweet potatoes, maize, groundnuts, beans, cowpeas, fruit trees, and vegetables (Mpiru – Mustard, Bonongwe – Amaranth, and Kamganje – Rape). Each farmer received vouchers to exchange for 10kb bundles of Orange-Flesh Sweet Potatoes, 5kg of Maize, beans, and cowpeas, 2 mango trees, and small package of vegetable seeds.

While SVFs are a much better alternative than ‘Seeds and Tool’, this approach is logistically more complicated. Establishing the right price for the vouchers, identifying the venues, mobilizing the community, and working with vendors are all things that require a lot of planning with multiple stakeholders. Last minute problems are bound to happen. During one of the fairs, one vendor ran out of sweet potato vines and another one didn't show up. In another fair, the extension agents told farmers to show up at a different time for the fair. We also had problem with farmers standing in line for way too long. In any case, these are minor issues that can be adequately addressed – we told farmers to pick up the maize and sweet potato at another nearby fair and we streamlined the process to redeem the coupons in the subsequent fairs.

Farmers in this part of Malawi continue to grow at subsistence and sub-subsistence  levels. They have few incentives to increase productivity as market links are weak and farm investment too expensive for farmers to afford. And while SVFs do little to address these underlying problems, the fairs help farmers ensure they can at least cope with the immediate damage caused by harsh weather. Having enough food to feed their family is the first step in supporting farmers as they transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture production. 

Useful resources: