TEJUTLA, Guatemala – In San Marcos, Guatemala, on the border with Mexico, several young farmers have seen an exponential increase in their sales of organically grown crops over the past five years and the coronavirus pandemic has not been an obstacle to their plans to keep innovating with online sales.
The diversification into vegetables in a region covered with cornfields, new marketing models and the tenacious desire to get out of poverty has enabled some 40 communities in five districts of San Marcos, located 300 kilometers (186 miles) west of Guatemala City, to cease having to depend on selling mere thousands of quetzales worth of their crops. Now they sell millions.
One quetzal is worth about 12.9 cents.
The huge increase in profits has come due to better management of the Cuilco River valley crossing San Marcos, the use of new technologies and marketing routes and the integration of networks of family farmers.
The farmers, most of whom are quite young, have gone from banding together into two organizations making barely $2,000 per year to having nine organizations taking in more than $1.8 million over the past five years, all this as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Rural Development Program for Alto Cuilco financed by the Swedish government with the support of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Guatemalan Agriculture, Livestock and Food Ministry (MAGA).
One of the farmers who has seen the beneficial evolution in his sales is Carlos Domingo, and he emphasized to EFE that the initiative “has changed our lives a lot and … we see a much better future … We’re thinking of connecting more to be able to produce more” and basically “to migrate less, (since) we have work at home.”
Domingo, 23, has seen how in the past they were only able to grow corn at a subsistence level, but “now we’re doing it in a graduated way so that we’re supplying our schools, children who are our customers, and so we’re providing them with healthy and organic food.”
The farmers grow onions, carrots, cabbage, corn and other vegetables, now producing a huge variety of crops whereas before they were only able to focus on “survival agriculture.” They have also been able to provide local buyers with their products, market them along commercialization networks and integrate the programs of family agriculture and school nutrition.
“It’s changed our lives. … One family grows one thing and another grows another product. We exchange vegetables and it’s a big opportunity … for us,” Domingo said.
Another farmer is Jenner Jesus Perez Godinez, 21, who said he focuses more on reproducing the seeds after being trained to do so. His idea is to make a seed bank and “put into practice the assistance and training provided by MAGA and the FAO.”
The peasant farmers in the Cuilco River valley used to distribute their produce twice a week at local schools, but the pandemic has changed things now that the schools are closed and people are under quarantine.
The coronavirus situation has become a big challenge, but new technologies, the Internet and the social networks have been a way to bring the local farmers back from the brink of disaster.
So far, more than 75,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Guatemala and 2,790 people have died.
The director of the Rural Development Program, Norma Perez Ixchop, told EFE that an important element has been “how the organizations have dynamized the economy” and “how the networks of family agriculture providers who had challenges with the pandemic sought alternatives” to keep marketing their crops.
One of the program’s participants, Meylin Suseth Chun Gomez, 23 and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, said that the farmers began to promote their products on the social networks, on a Facebook account and among their friends in March and April, when the pandemic first hit Guatemala. Soon thereafter, they began receiving messages on the platform and telephone calls for their products, something completely new to them.
Before the pandemic, they had their products ready for delivery twice a week, but with the closures of businesses, schools and the like, the harvest was harder to bring in and – since perishable products did not enter into the Education Ministry’s plans – that changed the prevailing dynamic.
Some agricultural organizations in the country changed the crops they grew, shifting to basic grains and other basic items – like salt, sugar or toilet paper, but farmers like Meylin Suseth wanted to continue growing vegetables and seeking alternative marketing methods, lowering their prices and selling from home. Innovation is vital in a country where one in every two children suffers from malnutrition and 59 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.