Field Focus: Helping Farmers Feed Their Families
Warehouse and Farmer Cooperative Promote Nutrition and Economic Development
By Ariel Bleth
Red crates filled with of cabbages claim my attention when I enter the warehouse, an otherwise grey and sterile environment. Men and women, wearing white lab coats and hair nets, move the cabbage through the washing and packaging process as if it were a routine activity — when in fact, they are preparing vegetables for the warehouse’s first delivery. The magnitude of this event—tons of lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower being prepared for a journey to Tegucigalpa, Honduras—is not lost on the manager who glances again at the chart of producers, product, and amounts, clearly monitoring how close they are to reaching their goal.
In La Esperanza, a town often swathed in the high mountain mists of the Intibucá department of Honduras and hours from the capital, Tegucigalpa, this center for sorting and distribution is a much-needed innovation. A project of Save the Children (STC), Honduras, USAID, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the warehouse serves to build capacity for organization, infrastructure, and marketing for Intibucá Lenca horticultural producers — without which, smallholder farmers have little hope in accessing markets beyond the local ones.
Fermin Basquez knows that marketing product to large supermarkets requires enormous organization and commitment. He watches as the delivery truck is stacked with crates, the final stage in a process that has been underway for many months. Basquez is a farmer and the president of the Association of Agriculture and Livestock Production Intibucana Lencas Families (ASOFAIL), a cooperative of over fifty members who work together to meet the rigorous demands of large supermarket chains—regular deliveries, consistent standardization, diversity of product, and large scale quantities. Their goal is two weekly deliveries of 3 to 5 thousand pounds each and a much higher return to the producers—perhaps double—compared to what they received when paying "coyotes" (middle-men) to transport and sell their product.
Basquez's wife, Blanca, also a cooperative member, quietly but firmly insists that the benefits for female members goes beyond economic development and includes learning how to become more effective organizers. It also brings increased awareness of their rights and the importance of education.
Training for producers, on basic practices of vegetable production as well as all other aspects of the food chain, has been a major component of STC’s effort to increase the food security and living conditions of rural families. Honduras is the third poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean—and one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters and extreme weather conditions, both contributing to the extensive problem of food insecurity. Those farmers who are able to move beyond subsistence farming and build capacity for innovation, planning, and organizing, are often better able to meet the challenges of their country’s changing environmental and socio-political realities.
Ibbis Abbila, a member of ASOFAIL, stands amongst the rows of lettuce he has planted on his farm. Drip irrigation lies at the center of each mound and nearby seedling trays, surrounded by a hoop frame and covered with a plastic sheet, are full of hundreds of tender shoots waiting to be planted in the ground. By employing these relatively new methods, he hopes to deliver lettuce year round to the warehouse in La Esperanza.
Resilience and forward-thinking is embodied in the cooperative's approach. Fermin admits they are just beginning — with plenty of needs and more planning to do — but their aim is to do well with what they have now. "Our motto, a common saying here, is ‘One who doesn’t do well with little will do even worse with a lot.'"
On the outskirts of La Esperanza, Juan Gonzalez strolls through his greenhouse and gladly shares his story as a prospering smallholder farmer. Once a day laborer, Gonzalez now owns and operates a farm through assistance from STC’s “Support to Small Producers” project, a partnership with a Montana-based NGO, Missoula Medical Aid (MMA). MMA provided him with initial funds for cement, poultry fencing, seeds, and irrigation. STC offered technical training and support. Gonzalez’s enthusiasm and hard work quickly allowed him to expand his capacity in growing more than the traditional crops of maize and beans. He now grows more than 10 products, including organic strawberries, hanging squash, and the greenhouse tomatoes that climb over seven feet, creating a veritable jungle of green vines, ripening fruit, and pungent, earthy scent.
The effect of increased availability of food as well as products that generate income ripples wide — ushering positive changes for family members and other community members through better health, nutrition, and ability to engage in educational and economic opportunities. Gonzalez shares that the assistance he was given has helped him care for his family and provide education for his four children. It also allows him to share his knowledge and experience with his neighbors, becoming a model farmer for the area.
Exuberance dangles on the curve of his smile and rides the rapid lilt of his speech, while the fecundity of his farm hides its humble origin. "I enjoy learning," Gonzalez grins.
Photos by Ariel Bleth for Bread for the World