Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Assisting Small Farmers One Hectare At A Time in Guatemala

Young dragon fruit plants (on poles)
surrounded by sweet potato
This post was drawn from a volunteer trip report written by Paul Wojtkowski.

The overall objective of this assignment was to strengthen horticulture value chains in order to stimulate productivity of small- and medium-scale farmers. Volunteer Paul Wojtkowski went to assist the host organization, Rincón Grande, in improving their agronomic management of organic fresh fruits like dragon fruit and vegetables like spinach, kale, rainbow carrots, and sweet potato. Its facilities are located in the municipality of San Andrés Itzapa, Department of Chimaltenango. Rincón Grande has about five hectares of land where vegetables are grown and is currently developing a dragon fruit plantation, as well as a plant that is equipped for receiving, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and shipping fresh and processed produce. The company places special emphasis on the development of healthy foods (i.e., organic and natural ingredients and inputs) that are easy to prepare and reduce waste by using packaging that prolongs the shelf life and nutritional value of the product. Rincón Grande also promotes the fair treatment of suppliers, employees, and partners; thereby meeting international standards of quality and safety.

Currently, the host organization is working towards the propagation of golden dragon fruit and also has over 10,000 pylons of red dragon fruit, for which the grafting process began in January 2015. Rincón Grande is interested in securing its own sources of nitrogen and other micronutrients by producing compost and employing vermiculture. The organization is in need of developing and systematizing the processes to achieve organic certification.

Over the first week of his assignment, Mr. Wojtkowski focused on one five-hectare farm, located in the highlands near the town of Antigua. This farm was singular in that other farms in the area raised mostly maize with beans, while this farm was in the early stages of converting to dragon fruit production. The farmer employed a classic taungya approach and was growing sweet potato between the young dragon fruit plants. There were about 50 fruit plants on the farm. 

Landscape of farming area
Given the young age of the dragon fruits, this is not technically challenging. Issues arise when the dragon fruit plants are older and the plant/plant interactions with a second species become more profound. The dragon fruits were initially raised in a nursery in bags of soil.  These were then transplanted to the field. One volunteer suggestion was to spread out the root ball immediately before transplanting. This should speed plant growth. A second suggestion was to plant vetiver in contour rows in the steeper section of the farm. This would be a cheaper erosion counter than the contour ditches currently being employed.

Later in the first week, the volunteers visited a second farm whose main crop was peaches. This farm was located higher in the mountains, about one hour's drive from the first farm.  Upon inspection, the volunteers noted that the chief threat to production was peach dieback. Although present on only three or four trees, peach dieback can kill infected trees. This could be serious if it became more widespread. The cause is below ground, involving insects and/or a virus. Local farmers do not have a solution. One solution could involve soaking the ground around newly infected trees with a soap solution.

During Farmer-to-Farmer assignments, most of the impact comes through direct, face-to-face, on-the-farm interactions.  The next week, Mr. Wojtkowski visited several farms that are raising vegetables such as broccoli and snow peas for export to the US.  The final day of his assignment consisted of a visit to the University of Guatemala and a discussion with the Dean of the Agricultural School and those involved in agroecology. The expected outcomes of this assignment will be to generate demand for value-added products and to strengthen producers’ national, regional, and international market competitiveness. In turn, this will improve income and standards of living for farmers, their families, and their communities in Guatemala.

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