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. 

Published in Orphan Crops

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.

Published in Orphan Crops