Archive for the ‘development’ Category

In addition to all of the work we’re starting around sustainable farming, we have a smaller project to help revive the beautiful botanical garden in Almaty. It is more than 100 hectares and could be a jewel of the city. At the moment, it is kind of run down and not very accessible.

Today we convened the first meeting of a project advisory board. I have to say, it was loads of fun. I think we have good representation from all of the important stakeholders and there was a lively mix of people.

I also learned some new things about Kazakh manners. Tea always served when people get together and it is never served alone. At minimum there is a little bowl of candy and sometimes cookies or crackers. But today, I was told that if you are hosting someone from a higher rank or a special guest, you go all out with the tea snacks. This must have been an important group of people because check out the cakes that were on the table

This takes "tea cake" to a new dimension

There are all kinds of protocols for respect and authority. Even though we had important guests, there is no doubt that Gulnara (Director of the Institute of Botany) was running the show. You can see that she is in charge because of her special-fancy tea cup distinguishing her from the rest of us.

check out the tea cups to see who is in charge


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So, today we had a plan to head west of Almaty to meet with a farmer and check out some land where we are thinking of building a cold storage facility for area farmers. The location is called Aksinger (pronounced Ahk-sing-gare) and the translation describes the way light plays on ice and frost covered plants on a sunny day. It sounds poetic and it does a good job of describing the place. All of the plants are frosted in ice and it must be gorgeous in the sunshine.

Zhumangali arranged the whole thing and we let him lead the way as we went charging off of the paved road out onto the steppes in Mr. Alexander’s van. This van is probably better suited for delivering kids to soccer games than wandering aimlessly over snow-covered grasslands, but that did not stop us.

This farm was only supposed to be 7 kilometers from the village and it wasn’t long before we started wondering if we’d missed a turn. So, every time we saw a herder or came across a lonely line shack we stopped to ask if we were going the right way. People started to tell us that we had missed the turn but there was another way, we just had to keep going a little farther. We finally came upon a livestock station and the guys there said we were on the wrong road, had gone 22 kilometers out of our way and had to turn back. The story goes on and on like that. I won’t bore you with the details – I’ll just skip right to the moral of the story. This is a culture that does not ever want to disappoint. People work very hard to make you happy by telling you what they think you want to hear. In this case we started our journey at the wrong village and none of the people we found on the steppes had any idea what we were talking about. But, they all answered us as though the farmer we were seeking was their dearest friend and they knew right where his farm was. And we, foolishly (and I mean that because I was in a car with real Kazakhies who should know better) believed them and followed their directions all over no where.

Here are Zhumangali and Alexander asking a herder for directions. Can you see him waving his arm in the direction of the fake farm of his fake best friend? We went right where he sent us.

We eventually caught on and decided to forget about finding the farmer and find some lunch instead. Zhumangali said it was all David’s fault that we did not feel motivated to press on because he made Zhuman impress upon the farmer that he was not to kill sheep for us and make our visit into too much of an event. Zhuman said that if we knew the farmer was going to that kind of trouble, we would have pressed on. Then he said, the farmer probably thought Zhuman had already decided not to come when he called about the no sheep agreement and was not surprised when we did not show up. Eventually the farmer did climb up a little hill where he could get his cell phone to work, contacted us and we were able to apologize.

Meanwhile the temperature was dropping fast and I was happy to get on the paved road and happier still to stop at a little roadside place for lunch. I was served a steaming bowl of bright cherry-red borsht with a dollop of snow white sour cream and a sprinkling of bright green fresh dill. A perfect ending to a perfect day – and I mean that. It sounds pointless and ridiculous but I honestly had fun wandering around out there and listening to my colleagues tell me Soviet jokes. I’ll post one of those next time.

A view of the wide open space in Aksinger. There are hilly areas too, but this gives you an idea of how lonely and open it is.

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Earlier this week, David mentioned that the Agricultural University was sponsoring a conference on slow food and sustainable agriculture. They asked his to give a talk on organic agriculture at WSU. Since he is a relatively recent hire and has never actually been to WSU, he asked me to do it. I felt like a bit of a fraud because I am not an agronomist. But, as I put the presentation together, I learned that I knew more about the program than I thought. Some of my colleagues sent good material and, in the end, we put on a good show. Her are some pictures

Here is the audience before our talk. Can you tell that it is a Soviet era building with malfunctioning heat?

David is translating for me

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Agencies who help the most vulnerable people in the world have been hit hard by the financial crisis as governments reduce their contributions. In order to carry on with their excellent work, the World Food Program has launched a campaign challenging a billion people to donate a euro each.

It is easy to do! Just click this icon  it will only take a moment and could save lives.Donate to feed the hungry

Read more about the campaign in this article in Reuters.

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Glowing Reports

While we were interviewing farmers in Southern Kazakhstan, some interesting things came up during discussions about exports. A number of farmers complained of unfairly high quality standards that prevented them from participating in export markets. One criteria that came up a few times was testing grain for radiation.

That really got me thinking and I’ve finally had time to do a little research this week. I am so embarrassed that I did not know this before. But, Kazakhstan is one of the world’s leading radiation hot spots because the Soviets conducted above ground nuclear testing there for 40 years. Kazakhstan was the first (and maybe only) nation to divest itself of nuclear armaments, knowing the price first hand.

I don’t know what we can do about this – it is really outside of our scope. I also don’t know how it will impact our work at this point. But, the context is critical.

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Father Apple

I have not gotten a straight translation, but have been told that Almaty means Apple Place, Apple City or Father Apple. The long and short is that this is where apples come from. Wild stock remains in the area and markets are filled with hundreds of varieties. People from this region of Kazakhstan are rightfully proud of this horticultural heritage.

On our last day of interviews, I met a man who had an amazing orchard with an even more amazing story. During Soviet times, there was a very large farm collective near Uzanagash and this man worked as the artist for the farm. During the collapse when the farm was dismantled for privatization, the apple orchard was chopped down and burned. He saved seeds from ten varieties partly out of pride for nearby Almaty’s namesake.

Since then, he managed to secure what many would see as a sorry plot of land – 20 hectares of riverbank slope. But, he has turned it into a little paradise, terracing all the way down to the water and planting his beloved apples.

Father Apple himself

Father Apple himself

Maybe because he is an artist at heart, his orchard was very picturesque with pretty views of the water and his paint box set up in case he needed to capture some vision. It was also well managed. We saw so many farmers who could not afford fertilizer, but who were letting their manure pile up just wasted. This orchard had a few inches of good sheep manure on the floor around the trees doing its job.

The Orchardist asked if we would like to try one of his favorites. Naturally we said yes, but instead of picking one or two, he shook the tree and apples all plopped down into the manure. He rinsed them off in a bucket of dirty looking river water and handed one to me with such pride I could not refuse. It may indeed have been the best apple I ever had and no, I did not get sick. I just felt lucky to meet this tenacious and creative man who is truly an artist who can make something beautiful out of anything.

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Meeting Yurts

We are starting a new series of farm interviews in a new Province and having fun figuring out how the new region works. At the end of the day, we have a central place to meet in the field to sum up our findings. This time, it is a collection of roadside yurts that also serve great Shashlik so we can have our meeting and dinner at the same time. What could be better?

Our meeting site with a view of the Alatau (of Ten Chen Mountains) in the background

Our meeting site with a view of the Alatau (of Ten Chen Mountains) in the background

Lynne and Jerman ready to start. The textile behind them is all hand felted. It is gorgeous

Lynne and Jerman ready to start. The textile behind them is all hand felted. It is gorgeous

Tom leading the meeting. This is probably the first time someone has used a flip chart in that yurt. The yurt had a little crystal chandelier at the top so we could keep going after the sun went down

Tom leading the meeting. This is probably the first time someone has used a flip chart in that yurt. The yurt had a little crystal chandelier at the top so we could keep going after the sun went down

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