Monday, June 8, 2009

More MSU science: Check out hyenas, pandas and biobased technologies

The members of the IPM Central Asia Project are back in their offices, glad the 30-hour journey home is over and suitcases are intact. Additional pictures are posted in the photo section of our web site, It is our intent to continue this blog by reporting in the future on our global IPM efforts.

If you have enjoyed reading about MSU science and its international applications, you may also enjoy reading these blogs:
1) MSU students researching hyenas in Kenya.
2) Travel journal kept by MSU researchers working on panda bear habitat in China.
3) A partnering trip to Sweden by MSU’s Office of Biobased Technologies.

Special thank you to my project partners and colleagues for their willingness to share their experiences through this blog. You are good sports and great travelers through all the jet lag, challenging conditions and long days. Thank you.

Global goodwill

The IPM Central Asia Project is in the last year of its funding from US AID. There are few other American universities working in Central Asia and we have compiled many indicators that our work has been productive here. The last day of our visit to Kyrgyzstan was spent developing a renewal request to continue our work. Most of our Central Asian partners came to our renewal planning session and, afterwards, surprised us with an informal trip to the nearby snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains. At a national park, they hosted a picnic-style break of Kyrgyz cheese, sausage, bread, chocolate and kumis, fermented mare’s milk. In Googling “kumis,” (to learn the correct spelling), I found this interesting factoid from Wikipedia:

quote-- In 2005, George W. Bush visited Mongolia, becoming the first U.S. president to do so, "and probably the first to drink fermented mare's milk in a felt tent guarded by the latter-day Golden Horde and a herd of camels and yaks", according to the Washington Post. The same article casts doubt on whether Bush actually drank: "No word on whether Bush actually swallowed or not, but some of his aides evidently did, judging by the looks on their faces afterward." --end quote.

I would like to report that our team was bold and I believe all tasted the kumis. It is very sour like plain yogurt and has a smoky flavor like a sausage – very odd, but perhaps no odder than American eggnog. I was assured by Kyrgyz friends that it was great for my health.

In the evening, one of our Bishkek colleagues, Gulnaz, graciously invited us into her home for dinner and we were given more gifts by Central Asian members of our team. As you’ve read in this blog, the people have been amazingly generous with us. They are extremely resourceful and quick to envision how to adopt an American agricultural practice to suit Central Asian conditions. We are in awe of them.

One last thought to share about the kindness of people around the world. In Aleppo, Syria, as we walked down a street, an older man called out to us and asked where we were from. After learning we were Americans, he replied he likes Americans and believes Americans like Syrians. He suggested the conflict is among politicians and has nothing to do with the American and Syrian people. “We should be like brothers and sisters.” We shook his hand and left enjoying the goodwill he offered us.

Picnic preparations underway.

The national park included a traditional "yurt," the felt tent home of these nomadic people. Dr. Walt Pett (sitting in the yurt) agreed to try the kumis and reports he does not intend to drink more in the future.

Gulnaz and several of the women who are partners in the IPM Project prepared us dinner in her apartment.

Friday, June 5, 2009

You are invited to a dinner in your honor

Ceremonies tell others about us. They honor, entertain and seal friendships. Throughout our visit, the Kyrgyz people have welcomed us with several variations of their traditional ceremonial dinner. Typically, these are hosted by dignitaries – our hosts included the Minister of Agriculture and the President of the Kyrgyz Agrarian University. The dinners are held in pleasant locations and table settings are carefully designed with food and dishes creating a lovely display. Many salads made from fruit and vegetables along with cold meats and cheese fill the table. Pieces of round bread made in tandori-style ovens are eaten throughout the meal. Waiters keep bowls filled with either green or black tea.

The first course is usually a clear broth soup seasoned with dill and filled out with large pieces of meat and perhaps vegetables. The next courses include cuts of meat and perhaps noodles or rice. The highest honor is the final meat course which is mutton. The boiled sheep’s head is served to the top-ranking guest and the other honored guests are served large cuts of meat. Fruit or something sweet completes the meal.

The host welcomes and offers a toast for the guests and dinner. This begins a steady stream of toasts throughout the meal as specific guests are invited to speak. Interspersed between the toasts, talented entertainers sing and dance displaying Kyrgyz customs. At times, guests are encouraged to join in. By the end of the evening one knows the Kyrgyz are creative, fun-loving and generous people. We are glad to be among them.

The dinner hosted by the president of the Kyrgyz Agrarian University.
The Minister of Agriculture presents IPM Central Asia CRSP Project leader Karim Maredia with a gift.

A singer and dancer at the minister's dinner.

Bright students, bright future

During lunch, seven students from the Kyrgyz Agrarian University answered my questions about their studies, interest in agriculture and family life. Most are in their third year of study and excited to be focusing on their area of specialty having finished core classes. They enjoy the student farmer field school because they are actively farming with their friends and contributing to something productive. One works for an agricultural publication and hopes to continue in that area after graduation. Another wants to attend graduate school in horticulture, while a third will specialize in forestry. The others are more generalists studying agronomy. All grew up in farm families with two to three siblings. Our interpreter noted families were larger a generation ago. Their family farms are small (most about 2 hectors) and few grow enough crops to sell beyond local use. Typically, they have a small number of livestock.

All of the students have cell phones and enjoy using them. They did not think their parents listen to farm radio or television shows. Some spoke a little English. They seemed to be enjoying interacting with the IPM CRSP team and were very engaged in the diagnostic training, asking questions and earning certificates of completion. The future of Kyrgyz agriculture would be in good hands with these enthusiastic learners.

MSU's Dieudonne Baributsa awards the students with IPM scouting materials from the IPM CRSP Project for their work in the farmer field schools.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Diagnosis, please

As in medicine, correctly diagnosing the problem is a critical first step in IPM. A farmer who unknowingly plants diseased tomato seedlings in her field, has a crop doomed to an early death or poor yield. Unfortunately, since many plant diseases are initially undetectable to the human eye, this situation is all too common in Central Asia.

In the past 20 years, molecular techniques have revolutionized pest diagnosis in the developed world. Unfortunately, this progress coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and severe economic limitations for the new Central Asian republics. As a result, many of these molecular techniques are unavailable in the region.

A key part of our trip was to hold a two-day pest diagnostic training workshop which was largely organized by Dr. Sally Miller (the Ohio State University), a plant pathologist who has worked on diagnosis of plant diseases in a several international settings. Sally was assisted by the IPM CRSP team and by Dr. Barry Jacobson (Montana State University), also an international expert in disease diagnosis. Students at the workshop learned how to couple modern molecular techniques with classical symptom-based diagnosis. The result means more rapid and accurate detection leading to the right course of action and – most importantly – more food and income for Central Asian farmers.

Biolabs: Replacing pesticides with biological control

A central tenet of IPM is to use biological pest controls whenever possible. As we have visited the region over the last five years, we have learned about their long history of using predatory and parasitic insects to control crop pests. Since Soviet times, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have relied on biolabs to rear and supply natural enemies for biological control, particularly in cotton. These labs produce many organisms, including: a tiny wasp called Trichogramma that attacks caterpillar eggs, green lacewings that eat aphids, and helpful microbes that promote healthy root growth by excluding harmful bacteria.

Typically a government-assisted central lab supplies smaller village labs. At one time, there were over 800 community-based biolabs operating in Uzbekistan alone. Formerly part of the collective farming system, many labs are now private businesses.

Two members of our team are focused on expanding the product line for the biolabs. Dr. Frank Zalom (Univ. California -Davis) and his post-doc Dr. Barno Tashpulatova have been developing simple methods for rearing predatory mites. These mites are very effective at controlling pest mites and thrips in field and greenhouse crops. Based in Uzbekistan, Barno has developed methods to rear these predators on easy to grow grain flour mites. She enhances their health by supplementing their diet with plant pollen. This system has proven very reliable and has been adopted by the central biolab in Kyrgyzstan who is now able to generate income by sales of this new product.

Barno, Frank and an associate at the central biolab. Below, staff explain rearing procedures.

Meeting the farmers of tomorrow's future

Here are the pictures we promised from our visit to the student field school farms. I was privileged to have lunch with these students. They are curious and bright young people. I hope to write more about that lunch later.

Students display information about farming with the landscape ecology team of the IPM Project.

One of the student's teachers explains how the hoophouse keeps plants warm despite some snow. New tomato plants sitting in the hoophouse are visible to the left at her feet.

MSU's George Bird receives a plant from the student organic farm.
A bed frame helps process compost at the student farm.

Most farmers are women. This baby bed is hanging from the barn rafters ready to be lowered for use if needed in the field.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

MSU student organic farm inspires Kyrgyz spin-off

The Central Asia IPM Forum has begun. One fascinating presentation was by Dr. Murat Aitmatov and his students from the Kyrgyz Agrarian University. Murat visited Michigan State University in 2007 as a guest of Drs. George Bird and Walt Pett (MSU Entomology) who co-lead the extension and outreach component of the IPM CRSP project. At MSU, Murat visited the MSU Student Organic Farm, and according to George Bird, nearly filled a notebook with drawings and notes on what he saw. From what he saw at MSU, Murat created what he calls “Student Field Schools,” an adaptation of farmer field schools he uses to educate Kyrgyz farmers.

In a Student Field School, a small group of students plant small plots of produce and meet weekly to learn and practice best Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. This includes selecting the best cultivars, growing pest-free seedlings for transplant, weekly scouting, manipulating natural enemies (beneficial insects and other sources), and harvesting and selling the fruits and vegetables.

One very unique aspect of the project was a direct result of our collaboration. While at the MSU Student Organic Farm, Murat learned of Dr. John Biernbaum’s (MSU Horticulture) work on growing season extension using plastic hoophouses. These allow growers to produce vegetables for most months of the year. Murat and his students have modified this technique for Kyrgyzstan’s environment. They use the heat from composting manure to warm small hoophouses they create from bent willow sticks and plastic sheeting. In this way, they are able to grow vegetables even when there is snow on the ground. This afternoon, we are looking forward to visiting these schools and seeing first-hand this offspring from the MSU student farm. I hope to have pictures to post from that field trip.