EL CARMEN, El Salvador (IPS) – Vegetable growing is flourishing in Cuscatlán, the smallest department in the tiny country of El Salvador, with the help of a national programme to promote family agriculture and lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.
On one and a half hectares of land, four of the Ramírez brothers used to grow only maize, without much expertise. Today they sell fruit and vegetables to the Walmart transnational chain.
They were determined to make the most of the Family Agriculture Plan (PAF), launched by the government in February 2011 to give support to more than 300,000 producers, improve their yields and incomes and fight hunger.
Government technicians trained the Ramírez brothers in horticulture and the creation and management of a cooperative. They learned to build greenhouses to control pests and rainfall, as well as dropwise irrigation techniques.
The Asociación Cooperativa de Producción Agropecuaria Hortaliceros de Cuscatlán (Cuscatlán vegetable producers’ cooperative) was founded in 2013. It already has 18 members and is one of several that supply national and transnational supermarkets.
In the canton of Santa Lucía belonging to the municipality of El Carmen, the cooperative produces tomatoes, chili peppers, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, bananas and guavas. Production gradually increased, and so did the families’ incomes.
“I like to work the land that belongs to us, instead of being in a ‘maquila’ (export assembly plant) earning next to nothing,” Andrea Beltrán, the wife of Francisco Ramírez, told IPS as she sorted foods before packaging them.
Her husband was walking along the rows of tomato plants, followed by his three children, checking the colour and ripeness of each fruit.
The cooperative makes three food deliveries a week to supermarkets in El Salvador owned by the U.S. corporation Walmart, generating monthly sales of 12,500 dollars.
Its members share the greenhouses and irrigation system, and each farmer grows their own produce, delivering what they harvest to a collection centre which handles sales and distribution to the markets.
The more a member produces, the more he or she earns, unlike traditional cooperatives in which all income goes into a central fund which is distributed equally between the members.
“The cooperative started with four brothers, and since then our family concern has grown,” said Francisco Ramírez, who has graduated as an agronomist.
The PAF is directed at two main sectors, very poor subsistence farmers and other farmers who, while still poor, have introduced some improvements and have some excess crops for sale, a group comprising some 60,000 producers.
The Ramírez brothers are among this group of poor rural people who nevertheless have a small plot of land that has allowed them to produce enough to pay for Francisco’s studies at the University of El Salvador, which is virtually free.
Another advantage the cooperative has is the Collection and Services Centre (CAS), which also handles produce from other cooperatives in the area, and carries out quality and hygiene monitoring before sending the products to their final sales points.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country has 35 CASs funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which up until late 2013 benefited 45,000 producers.
Lorena Guadalupe Fabián joined the cooperative two years ago, at no cost. Previously her life consisted of buying products and re-selling them in street markets.
“I would leave for work at three in the morning and get back at seven at night, but the PAF changed my life,” she told IPS.
She has received training “that has been very useful.” And now she grows vegetables, but also takes part in quality control, and the reception and dispatch of produce. “I am not only a member, I also have a job,” she said.
“Only yesterday, we sold Walmart 2,000 chilis,” she said enthusiastically.
Another beneficiary is José Arnoldo. He looks after the planting and harvesting, has a steady job, and has become an expert on treating produce, especially in the use of agrochemicals.
The cooperative is a few steps away from becoming a supplier to Súper Selectos, the largest supermarket chain in El Salvador.
It is also negotiating with ALBA Alimentos (ALBA Foods), a subsidiary of ALBA Petróleos, an initiative born of an agreement between mayors’ offices in the hands of the governing (formerly insurgent) Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, and which is broadening its scope to other fields.
“Now we have to carry on growing a lot more,” said Francisco Ramírez.