Book Review

Amaranth to Zai Holes - Ideas for Growing Food Under Difficult Conditions

by Laura S. Meitzner and Martin L. Price

ECHO, 17430 Durrance Rd., North Fort Myers, FL 33917-2239. Phone: (941) 543-3246; Fax: (941) 543-5317. E-mail: echo@echonet.org Web site: http://www.echonet.org Published 1996. 404 pages. Paperback (in signatures). 8-1/2x11 inches. $29.95 plus shipping (US/Canada $5; worldwide surface $5; Latin America/Caribbean airmail  $11, elsewhere airmail $21). See web site for order form.
(Price/availability info may have changed since original publication of review.)

Reviewed by Michael Zarky (03/1999)

Amaranth to Zai Holes - Ideas for Growing Food Under Difficult Conditions is aimed at missionaries and others who work with farmers in developing countries, primarily the tropics. The authors have organized and connected together articles and letters from a quarterly newsletter put out by the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, Inc. (ECHO) which contains reports and questions from diverse locations and situations about the success and failure of an array of experimental agricultural ideas.

Many of the topics are presented as works-in-progress, with one subject in a newsletter issue often getting updated by the response of the readers, presenting sometimes conflicting experiences. So it is quite useful to have these observations on, say, a particular crop or water management, now grouped together. (I've been receiving the ECHO news for some years vis-a-vis my work with a community in India.) The book is easily enjoyed in the usual linear manner of reading from front to back but subject-matter chapters provide a good organizational basis for specific research. There's also a modest index.

Many in the ECHO network assist people to whom the success of their crops is a matter of life and death. These are not the sort to whom the latest costly technological device is even a consideration. Throughout the book are the sort of home-style remedies most of us in CRFG gather a real satisfaction from employing - the inventive and knowledgeable frugal use of local plants and other materials for food preservation, pest control and soil improvement.

Not all the information will be directly useful to CRFG members but some of it will, and much of it will be very stimulating intellectually. Most readers probably won't need the ideas for keeping elephants out of their fields but I'll be trying the rodent trapping technique, and brewing up some home organic-type recipes for insect and fungal sprays.

The important food crops discussed (not so much fruits per se) may well be unfamiliar to many but could probably be grown given a subtropical climate or long growing season. I think most CRFG members by nature enjoy trying new crops, and anyone reading this book could have his appetite whetted for several experiments. (I've been trying winged bean and taro in my garden.) The book presents lots of cover crop techniques, and gives details of plants for medicinal use.

Amaranth to Zai Holes often gives extensive references to other publications so the reader can carry out more detailed research. A chapter on food science offers many preservation ideas as well as thoughts on preparation for maintaining nutritional values or removing anti-nutritional substances. Another section deals with domestic farm animals.

There are some clever low-tech mechanical systems such as pumps for wells, and a modification for hoes that improves the cutting edge which I think I'll try.

The chapter on Human Health has ideas on water purification from moringa seeds, various treatments for the skin from neem and from honey, and most intriguingly, first aid for poisonous bites by electric shocks, which sounds very promising.

One of the book's strengths is that the information is recently gleaned from practical experience in many different climate and geographic situations, so that dogmatic proscriptions are less likely to develop.

ECHO is well aware of the ramifications often lurking behind oft-proffered simple solutions and doesn't hesitate to remind people of the difficulties that may arise from an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation. So not just food to eat but food for thought is important in this book. It causes us to reflect on the complexities and synergies of the world's economies - for instance, that the simplistic stopgap measure of charitable food donations needs to be supplemented by longer-range measures. The book offers a real sense of perspective by reminding us of the difficult situation most of the world's farmers encounter.

To get a sense of what can be found on one specific subject in Amaranth to Zai Holes, readers might return to the article on Moringa by co-author Dr. Price that appeared in the Sept/Oct 1998 issue of the Fruit Gardener.


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