La Roya

This is a re-post of my latest entry at the Social Business Network blog

This year, in the face of the leaf rust blight that has devastated coffee farmers across Latin America and the added insult that the coffee price on the international market have taken a sharp dive over the past year, Social Business Network has joined forces with The Community Agroecology Network and a farmer’s cooperative outside of Matagalpa called the UCA San Ramon to try to turn the onslaught of this double disaster into a turn for the better.

One of the small member cooperatives of the UCA has been hard hit by the leaf rust, losing up to 85% of their harvest this year.  A walk through the coffee parcelas reveals not only the damage of the fungus but also signs of underlying stress and neglect – vines cover the coffee trees in certain areas, and in others the forest floor is bare and eroding.  The farmers recount the difficulties they face – first among them, the rising cost of fertilizers and fungicides, and difficulties securing financing.  Then the increased intensity of the diseases, which mean even more financing needed to purchase larger amounts of fungicides, narrowing even farther their profitability margin.

Historically this community has grappled with “organic” farming.  After a bad experience with poor technical assistance and costly certifiers, mentioning the word to any of the coop members sets off a tirade of a million reasons why “organic farming” doesn’t work.  Lack of quality organic fertilizers on the market and strict certification standards that rely heavily on verifying what farmers are NOT doing (NOT applying any agrichemicals, NOT using any non-certified off-farm inputs, not even their neighbor’s cow manure) have left many farmers frustrated and with the impression that organic farming means doing nothing and leaving everything up to mother nature.

Our new collaboration has kicked off by organizing a series of workshops bringing together the coop members, a local succesful bio-dynamic coffee farmer, and an agronomist.  For two days, we transformed a local school into a laboratory complete with microscopes and a centrifuge.  Even though the farmers have had their soil tested before, the samples are sent away to a laboratory and no one learns how the tests work.  Using a type of soil test called chromatography which reveals mineral content but also the microbial life of the soil, farmers were able to perform the entire soil test in their own community.  The agronomist, after a straightforward presentation on several different types of beneficial and detrimental fungi that either attack coffee plants or contribute to the plant’s better absorption of nutrients, went with the farmers to gather soil samples from around their farms and then used the microscopes to identify and see the different physical structures of different fungi.  Demystifying the invisible biological world that impacts so directly farmer’s livelihoods will hopefully not only empower them in this moment of crisis by giving them a new understanding of part of the crisis, but also impact how they manage their land.  Although it is common knowledge that the leaf rust virus travels by spores through the air, seeing the millions of tiny round balls on each leaf (see the image header on this post) revealed clearly how this fungus has been able to cause such devestation in the region.  Examples of beneficial fungi that were found locally were isolated using the microscopes and then used to innoculate seeds in sterilized soil to reproduce them and use them in a fertilizer that can be elaborated on-farm, improving the coffee plants absorption of minerals and nutrients in the soil.

The local farmer leading the soil chromatography process was very clear that this was not a workshop to promote organic agriculture, it was a workshop to promote better agriculture.  His own farm has only suffered a 15% decrease in production due to the leaf rust, well below the 50% national average.  In any other year he might have been met with glazed looks and disinterest from this group of farmers.  But this year, when the management systems they use have failed to mitigate the impact of this blight, their interest was keen, everyone participated, and they requested another workshop to continue deepening their understanding of soil life and assistance in using beneficial fungi to innoculate the new coffee seeds they will be planting to replace the portion of their farms that have perished due to the leaf rust.  Studies have shown that in small farmer cooperatives where management of the coffee and soil is tended to more carefully, there is less presence of rust.  Revealing the direct relationship between management and soil biology cuts through the layer of faith in purchased inputs that disempowers producers.  With the right approach, the double crisis hitting small coffee farmers right now could be transformed into an opportunity to reinforce better management practices that will help protect farmers and their livelihoods over the long term.

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