This Sunday I took a trip with Ruby two hours north towards Honduras to the town of Los Planes in the department of Chalatenango. We visited the organic farming cooperative, ACOPA (the cooperative association of organic producers), named after their town: Los Planes. The co-op is made up of twenty different small farmers growing a variety of vegetables, including baby carrots, green onions, green peppers, several varieties of lettuce, radishes, güisquil (similar to squash), cilantro, spinach, celery, radicchio, broccoli and sweet corn. All twenty farms of the cooperative are certified organic, as is the packing house where they triple-wash and disinfect all of the products before shipping them to San Salvador for sale.
The average temperature of Los Planes is 15ºC (60ºF), the soil is clay-loam, and the average annual rainfall is 2300 mm (90 inches). The elevation of the Los Planes farms is around 2200 meters (about 7,000 feet). The cool weather, the altitude, the rainfall – they all contribute to a very favorable climate for growing vegetables. The rainfall can be heavy at times, and so to combat the potentially damaging downpours, many farmers shelter their crops with shade cloth or even plastic roofs. Greenhouses are frequently seen – they are used both as protection against the rain and insect pests, but also to keep a nice warm micro-climate for seedlings or tomatoes.
We arrived at Pedro’s house shortly before 9am on Sunday morning, after winding our way straight up from San Ignacio. Pedro’s house was located next to the cooperative’s packing house, and he is responsible for managing it, hiring the 18 employees and ensuring the finished products are shipped safely off to San Salvador five days a week. Before our tour could begin, Pedro had to milk his cow. She was tied to a fence post next to her calf (though her calf was tied a bit farther down so the baby couldn’t reach the mother’s teats). Pedro filled two purple plastic buckets that appeared to be the kind of bucket bought for the beach. His daughter carried the buckets inside and Pedro asked if we would like our milk raw or boiled a bit first. A bit nervous about the cleanliness of the milk (boiled or no), we respectfully declined.
We first toured the packing house. Between 14 and 18 women worked in the facility (and one man), depending on the season and the volume of produce coming in. Outside the facility are large baskets – nearly four feet in diameter – where the farmers deliver their produce for weighing. The products are then brought inside and washed, disinfected, dried, and packaged into plastic wrapping labeled, “Vegetales Organico: Los Planes.” Then they are packed into insulated trucks for the ride into the city. Out by this loading dock is also a large whiteboard that lists every farmer that is part of the cooperative, what they’re planting, and how much they have planted. This ensures the cooperative can accurately tell their buyers how much of which vegetable they can expect in the coming weeks.
After touring the packing house, Pedro took us through his terraced fields. Most of them are covered for rain protection, and those that aren’t showed clear damage from the pounding rains. Three rows of Romaine lettuce that were uncovered was ruined because every leaf was rotting. Rain-fed irrigation water the terraced fields under the plastic roofs, and those rows under the white hoop-houses are watered by the rain that drips through the cloth. The vegetables are fertilized by compost that his son makes inside a long shed. He mixes chicken manure, sawdust, and rice husks – all locally sourced from neighborhood chicken coops, nearby wood mills, and Salvadoran rice mills, respectively. The compost is turned almost daily and then integrated into the soil prior to planting the seedlings out. Pedro buys his seedlings from the family down the road that specializes in seeding growing.
This “seedling family” manages two well-sealed greenhouses with rows of waist-high tables covered with seedlings of various sizes and varieties to suit the needs of the local growers. For the family, who does not have much land, it is an opportunity to take part in the thriving local agricultural businesses. For the surrounding farmers who do have land, the family provides a valuable service that frees up a lot of their time. Otherwise, each of these farmers would need to have space and devote time to their own seedling production.
Just past the family that grows the seedlings are six large greenhouses growing tomatoes. This began as a USAID project a few years ago, but contrary to their initial report, the man who showed us around said that the greenhouses were owned not by local farmers, but by someone living in San Salvador. All of the definitively non-organic tomatoes are picked up by one company with whom this faceless owner has a contract with: Wal-Mart (a.k.a. La Dispensa de Don Juan). Ruby said that the arrangement was unfortunate because the company set the price of what they want to pay, which can mean very little profit is made by the farmers. Ruby, on the other hand, let’s the farmers name their prices, which assures a fair wage is earned by the people who are doing all of the hard work.
On the way back we passed a truck packed with men in soccer jerseys. Pedro told us Los Planes (the town, not the co-op) has three soccer teams of its own and Sundays are the day they play games against other towns. He said that he liked when teams from La Palma or San Ignacio come up to play them because those players got tired quickly due to the elevation so his team had the advantage! I imagine working up and down the hills six days a week at over 7,000 feet will get you in pretty good shape! The life up in Los Planes seemed challenging but rewarding, and thanks to the organic co-op, the farmers there are not only making a good living, but living a healthy life free from the otherwise commonly applied pesticides.