By Heather Stone, Volunteer- 

Heather speaking about her project at the August Africa Committe Meeting.

My inspiration to do this project started in the summer of 2011. I was the designated weed helper for my sister Tiffanie at Compatible Technology International’s plot: Lost Crops of Africa.  I’d never done any work in a field before, and my only previous work with plants was growing garden vegetables. The crops were very unfamiliar to me, as were the weeds.  The first couple days of going to the field was full of differentiating between weeds and crops. As I got more familiar with the plants, I started asking myself questions. One of the main ones was on the tef that was planted. It was planted in rows, but after a month we could barely get into the crop to weed. Why was the plant so prone to lodging (falling over) and how do farmers in Africa deal with this problem? I started doing research to answer these questions.

Tef is a staple crop grown in Ethiopia, eaten at every meal. The tef seed is so small it’s comparable to sand (there are 1.3 million seeds per pound). The farmers of Ethiopia don’t have any technologies to plant this miniscule seed, so they hand broadcast it, which leads to lodging, inability to weed, harvesting difficulties, a laborious process. I researched ways to plant small seeds, and putting seed in rows always came up as the best way to get the most yield out of a field.

Before I started building a tef seeder, I wanted to be able to compare my seeder with other commercially small grain seeders available  for under 100 dollars. There were 5 of them: the Earthway seeder, Vibrating seeder, Dial seeder, Water Bottle seeder and a Push seeder (pictured right in order).

To test these seeders I rolled out a 56cm x 300cm paper roll and laid duct tape (sticky side up) down the center of the paper to catch the seeds as they fell. I then marked 25cm away from the center and also 52cm away. I set a metronome to 72 beats per minute and walked that pace down the paper roll while working the seeding device. Afterwards, I picked 3 different 52cm x 30 cm blocks and counted the seeds in each region (5cm duct tape, 25cm and 52cm). I repeated this for each seeder with 4 trials each and recorded the data. From this test I found out that the water bottle seeder was the best seeder of all those tested, it rarely hit outside of the 25cm mark and the amount of seeds per cm was very reasonable. This was surprising and a little ironic. All of the seeders except the Water Bottle seeder were bought; this seeder I made up on my own, thinking that by dragging the water bottle with holes, it will follow the path you take it on. Since it’s on the ground you won’t have to worry about wind carrying the seed and dispersing them. I then did a field trial on these seeders and my findings confirmed what I’d found in the home trial.

The next thing I did was make standards that I wanted my seeder to live up to. These included: lightweight, easily replicable design, made out of readily available materials, low cost, accurate and has an accepted seed flow rate.  I also made a list of materials that would be easily found in third world countries, including: cloth, wood, tires, nails, screws, bottles and cans. Then I went to designing and this is my final result:

Starting with the build; the handle is at about a 45 degree angle made to be pulled. The four (seed holding) water bottles are 4 ½ inches spread apart and are held to the wooden board by screws. There are aluminum slips in-between the wooden board and the caps of the bottles. This controls the flow of seed. On the underside of the board there are furrowing screws (right under the holes seed flow out of), these screws make divots in the ground for seeds to fall into. Because of the tilt to the seeder, the other side covers up the seed. There are also tacks in the wood to help the storing of the seeder, but these are optional.

With my seeder at hand, I tested the seeder the exact same way as the other small seeders with the paper roll method. The seeds never reached the 52 cm marker or the 25 cm marker; it was the most accurate along with having the most consistent seed flow rate.

The next step from here is to test my seeder directly against hand broadcasting. I am currently running tests on which got the most yield in a square foot.  I will let you know my findings on my next blog post.

Heather Stone is an 11th grade PSEO student at Century College, a local high school. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

How Peanuts Can Help Change the World

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By Laura Dorle, Intern—

Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are very familiar to those in the United States, and around the world. Here in the U.S., the peanut is our favorite nut—eaten raw, in the form of peanut butter, or in the many varieties that gave our own USDA scientist, George Washington Carver, his claim to fame.

We think of peanuts as the classic American nut, and in a sense they are, as they were domesticated in Peru in South America and are now grown around the world, serving an important role in many diets.

Peanuts, legumes, or groundnuts?

We group peanuts in the nut family, but unlike many other nuts we love to consume, the peanut does not grow on trees. In fact, they grow in the ground, and in many parts of the world their name gives way to that fact, groundnuts. They belong to the legume plant family, one that includes all those beans we know and enjoy. And as with all legumes, peanut plants have the ability to fix atomospheric nitrogen to improve the soil.

The peanut plant grows to about 12-18 inches in height, and has green ovular leaves. The plant produces yellow flowers, which continue to flower throughout the growing season (about four months). Once the flower is pollinated, it forms a “peg” which then bends toward the ground, and pushes the ovary into the top layer of soil where the peanut pod develops.

Peanuts and the developing world

Peanuts are highly nutritious, containing many important vitamins and minerals, and are high protein and oil content. Because peanuts grow in abundance in many parts of the developing world, including throughout East and West Africa, they have the potential to provide desperately-needed nutrition in many communities that suffer with extreme hunger.

Despite their importance to the global poor, peanuts can be dangerous. Without proper handling and storage, peanuts are particularly susceptible to aflatoxin contamination post-harvest, a deadly carcinogen produced by a fungus that causes food safety issues for local consumers and losses in the ability to export. That, combined with the difficulties of manual processing, can lead to significant yield and quality losses in poor communities.

Better peanut tools can improve nutrition and lives

Efforts to create greater efficiency in production and higher marketable values can play an important role in rural communities in the developing world to improve farmer livelihoods and community nutrition.

With the support of the McKnight Foundation, CTI, in partnership with Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, is working on a project to do just that. In Tanzania and Malawi in Eastern Africa they are testing and developing simple, affordable mechanical technologies to improve harvesting, handling, drying, stripping pods from plants, storage, shelling, and grinding. They have been evaluating these new technologies with farmers on the ground, as well as seeking to improve child nutrition and reduce aflatoxin contamination.

In the next few weeks, I will be running stripping, drying, and shelling efficiency tests on the peanuts that CTI and the University of Minnesota have been growing as part of the Orphan Crops project on the University’s St. Paul Campus.

Laura is a student intern from the University of Minnesota who is helping CTI manage its Orphan Crops Plot—a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.

By Laura Dorle, Intern

Laura is a student intern from the University of Minnesota who is helping CTI manage its Orphan Crops Plot—a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.

Most of our crops are now in their 13th week of growth, and most of them are doing well. There has, though, been a fair share of challenges in achieving their success.

Last year, one of the biggest challenges once the grain crops (primarily pearl millet and sorghum) completed pollination and reached their milk stage was a population of hungry birds that was eating away at the fresh grain. The team tried hard to deter the birds, using netting, noise makers, metallic streamers, and everything they could, but the birds only became more relentless in feeding on the grain.

Well, those sparrows and other small birds are at it again. The bird issue was a large part of the discussion before the crops were planted. The team made the decision that this year we would bag the heads of sorghum and pearl millet as protection. Corn breeders at the University use special paper bags to prevent cross-pollination, and we were able to access some of those bags for the sorghum. Pearl millet, on the other hand, has a head that is much longer and narrower than the sorghum head. For that, we have used paper bags sent to us by ARS/USDA pearl millet researchers in Georgia. Though we were not totally sure about the effect that these bags would have, after a couple weeks, the heads that have been bagged are doing much better (untouched so far) than those without (see pictures below for visual).

Of course birds are not the only pests running around our urban ecosystem. We’ve had bunnies chewing on the Bambara groundnuts. The Bambara groundnuts are looking sickly, but we’ve since fenced them so maybe we have some chance. We also have had to continue to fight a virus induced by leafhoppers in the legumes. Finally, we’ve noticed that the fonio is rather behind where we thought it would be by this point. Some of the team hypothesized that like finger millet, a crop from last year with a similar problem. Day-length sensitivity may be an issue (reproductive stage triggered only by shorter days than we have in summer), but so far we have not come across any conclusive literature.

Obviously, growing season pests are a problem, especially when we have very little of each crop to begin with, but they’re not our focus in this project. Luckily, there are many researchers who are focusing on how to reduce pests and disease to increase healthy yields. With those increased yields, come tough questions on better post-harvest storage, market access, and efficient processing. Those are the questions that CTI is addressing, and as our crops get ready for harvest within the next month or so, I’m excited to learn more and test some of their innovative technologies. More to come on that!

Meanwhile, if you live in the Twin Cities area, feel free to come visit the plot yourself (PDF with directions). If not, we’ll continue to do the best we can to relay the experience virtually.

Thursday, 02 August 2012

Tending to Orphan Crops of the World

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By Laura Dorle, Intern —

Groundnuts (also known as peanuts)

Last summer, CTI and the University of Minnesota (UMN) collaborated in growing six “Orphan Crops”: teff, finger millet, pearl millet, sorghum, grain amaranth, and groundnuts (peanuts).

Orphan crops are important food crops for subsistence farmers in many African as well as Asian and South American communities, as they have a strong cultural importance, and are often more nutritious and drought resistant than many of the large commodity crops.

Most agricultural research has focused on increasing the yields of commodity crops, such as wheat or corn. However, simply growing more food is not enough—not when between 15-50% of crops are lost after harvest, often due to post-harvest spoilage and inefficient processing methods. That is why CTI is committed to filling some of the gaps in the research by working on orphan crops, focusing on the post-harvest side of the value chain helping bring rural farmers out of subsistence living while improving their livelihoods.

Tiffanie Stone, a recent graduate of the University, was the student intern on the St. Paul Campus plot last year with the guidance of Agronomy Professor Paul Porter and other UMN and CTI colleagues.

This year, we are at it again, and I’ve joined the team, along with many of the great folks from CTI and UMN who originated the project. I’m Laura Dorle, student intern with the Orphan Crops project and a junior in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Program at the U. With a particular interest in food, agriculture, and international development, and a great desire to learn a lot more in those areas, this project was the perfect opportunity to do so.

The plot has been off to a good start thus far. The crops were planted in late May. In addition to the crops from last year, we also planted cowpeas, fonio, quinoa, mung beans, and Bambara groundnuts. Most have been doing very well, despite heavy rains early and intense heat. As usual, there is group of stealthy weeds that are thriving right along with them, and a lot of volunteers have been out there working hard to battle them, the leafhoppers, and Japanese beetles.

Orphan Crops Plot

When the crops begin to mature at the end of the summer through the fall, we’ll be able to use them to do field tests of CTI’s post-harvest equipment including prototypes of groundnut processing technologies that are being developed for a program in Malawi and Tanzania funded by the McKnight Foundation. We will also be testing CTI’s new pearl millet processing suite on additional grains.

I’m really excited to be working on this project. Be sure to stay tuned. More updates to come as the process continues! And we’ll be organizing some field visits starting in mid-August!

~Laura

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Crops and Countries

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As the global food crisis increasingly impacts millions of people, we are attempting to answer the questions: What nutritious crops are readily available?  Where are they grown?  How can CTI’s post harvest technologies make the nutrients in those native crops available to the people who grow them?

After polling our volunteers and consulting with various agricultural agencies, we developed this chart which we are casually calling “Crops by Country.”

On this chart you will find those crops and locations where CTI’s post harvest technology is currently at work (“Y” or green), and those countries where we know the crops shown are grown, but where our post harvest technologies have not yet been introduced (“P” or yellow).  Click on the sample below to view the chart.

 


As we consider the appropriate technologies for processing these crops in remote rural areas, we are learning that the yield (the percentage of seeds recovered) from current manual processing methods are often as low as 35%. The simple mechanized systems we are developing are generating yields from prototype models of around 75%.  If field test units confirm these results, our technologies can effectively double the yield these farmers and their families will get from their crops.

Think of the impact on the global food supply!  An impact made real through your partnership with us.