Agroecological Farm Empowers Rural Women in El Salvador

Fernanda Valladares packs fruit and vegetables into one of the baskets of farm products sold by the cooperative “La Canasta Campesina”. The project promotes a model of ecological agriculture in a dozen villages located near Comasagua, a community in the department of La Libertad, in central El Salvador. Image: Edgardo Ayala / IPS.

By Edgardo Ayala (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – On a 19-hectare (47 acres) property, a collective of men and women is striving to bring their dreams to reality through an ecological farm where they produce organic fruits and vegetables, harvest rainwater, and take advantage of solar energy. It’s also a site where women can empower themselves and plant crops to generate independent income.

“We emphasize agroecology – producing healthy food, using the resources provided by nature. In that way, we raise awareness in the communities about the effects of climate change,” explained Kasandra Portillo, president of the La Canasta Campesina cooperative, in an interview with IPS.

The property, called Ecofinca, is the nerve center of the cooperative, an agricultural effort that began in 2009 as a group of women growing organic produce in their small home gardens. In 2014, they formally organized into the current cooperative which today comprises 47 people, 37 of them women.

The farm, acquired in 2020 with funds donated by the French Peoples’ Relief, is located in the vicinity of Comasagua, in the department of La Libertad in central El Salvador.

A new house has recently been constructed in the farm’s central area, with space for the office, a kitchen, and a cold storage room, among others. Solar panels have been mounted on the roof, and the house has a system for rainwater collection. The lampposts lining one of the paths to the farm are also fed by solar energy, each one topped by a small solar panel.

Erlinda Salazar (left) and Kasandra Portillo pose in the field of the ecological farm that forms the nerve center of “La Canasta Campesina” in central El Salvador. Behind them are the plots where they plant green beans and chives. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS.

It all began as women’s home gardens

Kasandra Portillo explained that the current project has been launched with the support of French and Spanish assistance. This aid allowed the acquisition of materials and constructions tied to agroecological production, such as the greenhouses, the drip irrigation system, and the purchase of drums for rainwater collection.

There are now some men participating in this embryonic phase of the cooperative. However, prior to the formal organization of a cooperative and the purchase of the farm, it was an initiative entirely made up of women who were cultivating home gardens.

The men, who were accustomed to working as day laborers on the coffee plantations or harvesting corn and beans on their small plots, didn’t see any future in a collective effort to harvest vegetables, even though there was a market for them. El Salvador doesn’t produce enough of these products and has to import them from neighboring countries such as Guatemala.

Still, not only did the men refuse to participate in the initiative, but also, given the culture of machismo, didn’t want to let their wives attend the training workshops. “The project’s technical team had to explain to the husbands or partners what it was all about; otherwise, they wouldn’t let the women participate,” recalled Kasandra Portillo, who at 27 is expecting a baby in June.

Because of the men’s reluctance, the project focuses its efforts on the women. The trainings center on topics such as leadership, teamwork, gender issues, and above all agroecology.

“The cooperative members tell us that they used to believe that planting wasn’t women’s work, because that’s what they’d been taught. Now, with the trainings, they’ve changed their mentality. They can also stand up better for themselves, they’re feeling more empowered,” stated Erlinda Salazar, the cooperative’s coordinator of community organization.

Salazar, who is also a producer with the association, began to work in the cooperative in 2022, helping put together the baskets. Little by little she became more involved, until the moment came when she began to plant and harvest in four plots of land a yard wide by 10 yards long on the eco-farm.

“I planted chives, carrots, radishes, and cilantro, and that was my first experience as an agricultural producer,” she recalled, standing in front of the strips of land where a new crop was already growing. Of those products, the chives were the star, since they yielded her a profit of US $300.

For Erlinda Salazar, it’s all been a continual process of learning.

Along one of the paths of the ecological farm owned by the “Canasta Campesina” project in El Salvador are several lampposts topped by solar panels. Beyond them are the fruit trees, such as mangoes used to make jellies. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS.

“I learned to make compost and organic foliar fertilizers; I never knew that a foliar could be made with bamboo shoots, chopping them and mixing them with molasses, or mango, using the pulp and peel,” commented Salazar, 23.

Now, on the same four strips of land, she’s planted onions, green beans, cilantro, leeks, and radishes, in addition to chives, and there are still another four beds waiting to be planted.

“In twenty days, I’ll be harvesting green beans – they’re already flowering,” she asserted after kneeling down to examine the flowers on this leguminous plant.

Farm produce by subscription

The cooperative gets its name from the circular basket woven of bamboo fibers, often used in El Salvador’s rural area to carry products – on their heads, in the case of women; or on their shoulders, for the men. It can also be tied to the waist to catch the coffee beans that the day laborers pick during the harvest season.

The Canasta Campesina association sells fruits and vegetables in baskets like those, through a system of trimestral subscriptions that’s very novel to El Salvador. The system implies a greater sense of commitment between producers and clients. The purchasers have to pay in advance half the cost of the baskets they want to receive monthly for those three months – be it four, three, two or one. The rest is paid when they receive the last basket.

The baskets of produce are sold in three sizes: the small ones cost US $20 each; the medium-sized ones $25; and the large baskets $30. The income received from the sale of these baskets goes directly to the producers.

Each basket includes 12-14 different products: seven types of vegetables, three seasonal fruits, aromatic herbs, and a supply of farm eggs – laid by cage-free hens, as the rural residents eat, not eggs from hens confined to cages in processing plants. The quantity of products varies with the price, with the large basket containing more of everything.

Among the principal products harvested and sold in the cooperative are tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, beets, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, green beans, and squash, in addition to seasonal fruit such as mangoes and bananas.

The customers who have registered for the cooperative’s marketing system, pick up their baskets at specific points in San Salvador. There’s also a home delivery service in the capital, at an additional cost, and the association has a couple of points where they sell the baskets directly, without a subscription.

“The products are fresh, 100 percent organic, healthy produce, which is hard to find in the city’s markets and supermarkets,” stated Fernanda Valladares, as she filled one of the baskets with vegetables and fruit. Currently, the cooperative markets around 320 baskets a month. During the covid-19 pandemic the figure was 600, as the demand for home delivery grew due to the quarantine.

The cooperative also produces organic jellies and tomato sauce to generate additional income. They’re also working on a project to dry fruit and have plans to set up a small rural restaurant in a rustic cottage located on the ecofarm.

Among the projects being planned for the ecological farm near Comasagua, is the idea of converting this rustic cottage into a rural restaurant, as a mechanism to generate more income. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS.

A rural community effort

The cooperative’s production model depends on the harvest from its small plots of land, some of them owned outright and others rented by the 47 members who live in the eleven communities or settlements around Camasagua. A total of some 250 families live in those villages. Those who don’t have fields of their own can apply for and receive permission to plant crops on the ecofarm.

Part of the green bean harvest on the ecological farm belonging to the “Canasta Campesina” cooperative in central El Salvador. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

The production is organized through a cultivation plan, Erlinda Salazar explains. The plan is discussed and analyzed once a month, during the producers’ assembly, in order to know beforehand and with certainty what the demand will be in the coming weeks, and what products will be ready in the communities or on the ecofarm.

“That’s where we see how many baskets we’re going to sell, and how much and what type of products we’ll need to cover the demand,” she stressed.

Salazar added that in addition to the agricultural production, the cooperative has a program called Consciencia Verde [“Green Consciousness”] to spread the word about the advantages of agroecology for the welfare of the families and the planet, especially among the children and teens who study in the surrounding school.

“It’s easier to change the mentality of children than it is to change adults. We what them to learn that you don’t have to use chemicals for a plant to bear fruit,” Erlinda Salazar highlighted.

Añadió que además de la producción agrícola, la cooperativa impulsa su programa Conciencia Verde para difundir las ventajas de la agroecología, para bien de la familias y del planeta, sobre todo entre los niños y adolescentes que estudian en las escuelas circundantes.

“Es más fácil cambiar la mentalidad de los niños que de los adultos, queremos que aprendan que no es necesario usar químicos para que una planta dé sus frutos”, destacó Salazar.

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