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Reflections

I’m catching up on some work and some beloved sleep since returning to Idaho. Once I’ve had a little time to clear my head, I still have some reflections on Kazakhstan that I’d like to share. For example, we had a terrible time getting through passport control on the way home and that is worth a short story in itself. Many good friends have asked me to blog about that and I promise to shortly.

While I am regrouping, I have something else to share. My team at WSU has been managing a wonderful program in Malawi for the past 20 years. It is called Total Land Care and they have done an excellent job of improving the livelihoods of area farmers. We have recently launched a fun web site that makes it easy to give useful help to the rural people who interact with our program. The site is called Ripple Effect and it will help you buy a goat, or a well, or a hive of bees or any number of small things that change people’s lives in big ways.

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Markets

We have visited a number of fascinating markets since arriving because understanding the agricultural marketing system is an important facet of our research. The little roadside stands are lots of fun because many of them are managed by the farmers themselves. But, the big bazaar in Almaty is amazing. We spent most of an afternoon there last week and I hope to get back again today. It is a feast for the senses and fascinating to explore. One of the first observations I could see was that it was organized exactly the opposite of American markets. It says so much about the way we manage our food and the way we live. Our shops are masses of highly processed food with a little strip of fresh-whole  food around the that comes from industrial farms.

The markets here in Kazakhstan are exactly the opposite. They are giant masses of fresh-whole foods in the center with a little strip of processed food (candy, flour, coffee, cookies, boxed cereal) around the edges. The produce is simply gorgeous. I have seen at least 100 different kinds of fresh tomatoes, giant piles of fresh herbs, many varieties of cucumbers, apples etc. They all look home grown and the varieties are bred for flavor and cooking not for shipping as ours tend to be.

Ladies marketing their produce - check out the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes. That is just expected here.

Ladies marketing their produce - check out the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes. That is just expected here.

This lady was really sweet. She insisted on putting out a picture of the bird who laid the little eggs so I could show people at home and then she posed for the picture.

This lady was really sweet. She insisted on putting out a picture of the bird who laid the little eggs so I could show people at home and then she posed for the picture.

There are a lot of different ethnic groups here because this land seems to have been a serious cross road for centuries. The different groups appear to remain distinct, but nobody takes themselves too seriously and they all seem to get along including Muslims and Christians. The market is the same, with different ethnic groups taking control of different markets and it all works pretty well. The majority of the produce was sold by Kazakh women, although there were some Russians as well. The horse meat, lamb and poultry was sold by Kazakh women. Pork was sold by Russian woman only. Dried fruit and nuts were sold by Uzbek men. Finally, there is a rather large group of Korean here who were displaced during WWII. They have a big section of the market where they have a deli with hundreds of Korean salads, Kimchee and special spices.

Uzbek men selling nuts and dried fruit

Uzbek men selling nuts and dried fruit

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Instead of going out into the fields to interview farmers yesterday, we decided to start inside the villages. Most farmers live in a village and walk or ride horses to their fields, which are some times quite far away. So the houses in the little towns are actually farm houses. Talking to people in the village was a great way to get a more complete picture of farm life. The first person we talked to was a woman named Dimiscule. She and her husband are in their sixties, have raised nine children and are just getting by on their farm. As they have aged, they have had to reduce their work accordingly, but this also reduces their income. Dimiscule has a very hard life as the work literally never ends. She seemed to undertake her tasks with pride and persistence going so far as to plant a few flowers next to her outdoor kitchen.

She spends her days working close to home where they keep chickens and a small garden. She has an equine dairy business and is famous for her Kumus (fermented mare’s milk). She was very proud of a medal she won recognizing the high quality of her milk. She has five mares who are out to pasture all day. The milking begins when they return to the farmhouse at night. Each mare takes 20 minutes to milk and must be milked every 2 hours until 7am. Dimiscule claimed that her husband helped her with the milking. I couldn’t help thinking of her with those nine babies milking horses all night and nursing babies. She looked remarkably good for having such a hard life.

Dimiscule preparing Kumus

Dimiscule preparing Kumus

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Quick Check In

I have not had internet for a few days, so I’m a little behind. We’ve been out in the field interviewing farmers and have met a fascinating cast of characters. I have lots of stories to tell that I was hoping to share in real time. But, between our long work days and unreliable internet access, that kind of story telling is not going as planned. More later.

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Milk and Honey I

We drove miles to Taraz without seeing much of anything along the road when we came upon a truck designed for moving bee hives. It parked in the weeds with the hives set up all around. About a half mile later there were about 30 little huts and stands used by women to sell honey, or as our colleague Zhumangali calls it, “bee honey”. Of course we had to stop.

They had every variety imaginable. The first honey in May is almost as clear as water and tastes as delicate as flowers. Buckwheat honey looked like Guinness beer and tasted like molasses. The ladies had tiny plastic spoons and were very proud of their wares as they encouraged us to try everything. I ended up buying a small bottle of mountain honey to bring back to the office in Amaty to share.

honey merchant on the road to Taraz

honey merchant on the road to Taraz

This lady also had several kinds of mead. She demonstrated that it was an alcoholic drink by taking an imaginary slug and walking around with wobbly legs and laughing. She offered to give me a taste, but a smell was enough for me. It smelled just like the tej we drank in Ethiopia – which is basically the same thing.

honey wine made locally

honey wine made locally

It was a lot of fun to meet these enterprising women and look at all the beautiful colors of the honey with sunlight passing through and lighting up the jars.

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An Epic Landscape

We did some serious driving over some questionable roads over the past couple of days. The idea was to take an overview tour of the regions where we will be working to get a big picture understanding of the situation and to do a better job planning the interviews we will conduct over the coming weeks. We drove almost due east of Almaty along the Kyrgistan boarder. In fact we crossed it a couple of times along the way. For the entire time as we drove east to west, there was a mountain range and foothills to the south of the highway sloping down to wide open steppes on the north.

I live in the land of open space, but I’ve never seen anything as vast as this. It was awe inspiring. As far as we went and as big as it was, on the map, our trip was just a little smudge. Russia is big now, but I couldn’t help but think of how amazingly enormous it was during Soviet times when all these Republics were attached. There were German soldiers that went crazy out here during WWII and I can understand now.

So, we have mountains sweeping down into the steppes. The space is used by herders with combinations of sheep and goats and herders with horses or cattle. They move the herds from the mountain foothills in the summer out to the steppes for the winter. They are in the process of this migration now, so you could see them out there. No fences at all – just wide open range and livestock moving through. Many of the herders were on horseback and some had little yurts set up as they move slowly. When we got closer to villages and little towns there were still no fences – just livestock wandering where they pleased. You really had to pay attention driving because horses would jut walk into the road at any time.

The geology was very interesting too – the mountains bleed off rivers that plunge into the steppes where they go underground and percolate through the soil only to feed a big aquifer or, in some cases, resurface later. I’ve never seen anything quite like that.

Almaty is almost like a European city, so this trip out was the first time since I arrived that I could feel how far away from home I really am. I’ll post pictures soon – it is just such slow business that it is not easy to embed them in these blog posts. If you keep an eye on my Flickr page, it will all come up eventually.

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rolling forward

This morning I woke up to a dazzling view of the Almaty Mountains just south of town. These ranges in Central Asia are really amazing so it was a special good morning to have a look at them.

One of the reasons we are here is to conduct an intensive survey of local farmers so that we can identify problems that we can address through either research, or development, or both. Today we made some good progress in preparing for our interviews by working with representatives from the United Farmers of Kazakhstan. Here we are:

this is our core team along with the Zhumbyl district director from the Ministry of Ag

this is our core team along with the Zhumbyl district director from the Ministry of Ag

We had some great food today too. I am really impressed with the fresh vegetables that are like fabulous garden vegetables at home. They are also masters of seasoning with fresh herbs – lots of strong ones like dill and Cilantro.

Tomorrow we head out to Tiraz to assess the site and plan for our surveys. We won’t be back until 11pm on Saturday night. So I may not post for a few days, but should have some great pictures and stories when I return.

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