How one inspired MESA steward linked consumers in Quito, Ecuador, with farms on the urban fringe.
Farm in the City
“Did you study something related to agriculture? Would you like to experience it in the field?” Seeing these words printed on a poster made me realize that although I had just obtained a degree in agriculture, I had spent no more than a day actually working out in the field. I thought that if I really wanted to work in an area relating to agriculture it would be necessary to gain some hands-on experience of my own, starting with production in the field. This was why I contacted the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) program. At the time, I had no idea what I was about to see and learn. Before I knew it, I was living and training at an organic farm in northern California. In my whole life I had never even lived outside a big city.
Thanks to MESA and its collaborators, I had the opportunity five years ago to experience agriculture and to understand the meaning of organic production. Six months of learning at Riverdog Farm in Yolo County, California gave me not only a good professional experience, but also the beginning of a new and different perception of agriculture. When I began my experience I had never heard of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). At the beginning, when my host family explained that part of my duties would be to contribute to the development of the farm’s CSA program, I didn’t understand what was being asked of me. Actually, I was just worried about the hard work that it implied: carrying heavy boxes of watermelons and seasonal produce during the hot Californian summer, in addition to the scary new experience of driving a truck.
The more I became involved in the farm’s CSA program (picking produce, packing the boxes, contacting the members, delivering the boxes, contributing some traditional recipes from my country to the newsletter) the more I came to understand this sustainable concept. I saw how CSA creates a connection between farm and city and also promotes the production of healthful food. I understood the benefits to the farmers who received support from the members to continue with this hard but rewarding activity. At the same time, I realized the benefit for the members because they were receiving healthful, fresh food.
[img_assist|nid=204|title=Cocotog-invernadero|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=222] After I completed my MESA program at Riverdog Farm, I returned to Ecuador in 2003 with a desire to develop the CSA concept as a viable alternative for small producers in my country. Within a year I started a modified CSA with the support of a MESA Home Country Project grant and a partner with whom to work. We began by planning how to adapt the concept to Ecuadorian conditions. The next step was deciding what to call this new project.
We chose to name our project “ROOTS”. The name was in English because we wanted it to be related to where the idea begun: the U.S. We also chose this name because the word “root” refers to one of the most important parts of the plant, the part that gives it nourishment and stability, which is exactly what we wanted for this project: for it to grow with stability. We also wanted to express our feeling that we were setting the “roots” of this new idea so it could start to grow in Ecuador. During the planning and the adaptation process we undertook some marketing research by contacting some possible members and farmers. We wanted to consider their needs and determine how they could benefit from a project like this.
The planning included many steps, starting with initiating production under organic conditions. Suggestions we received from people involved in sustainable agriculture in Ecuador made us decide to work with small farmers or associations of farmers who were already producing under organic conditions. These farmers were generally facing problems marketing their products due to such factors as: lack of information, lack of education, limited access to markets and infrastructure for selling, and low quality and quantity of products.
[img_assist|nid=205|title=Cocotog community|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=222] ROOTS started with a commitment to the development of organic agriculture in Ecuador, by encouraging farmers to produce organically. We supported the application of techniques used by our ancestors complemented by practices derived from new technologies. At the same time, we educated our members about the importance of healthful, nutritious food and the reasons for supporting sustainable agriculture. Our objective was to introduce the concept of CSA in Ecuador as an alternative for small organic producers to obtain fair prices and for families to obtain high quality, healthful food.
ROOTS began as a collection of eleven different farmers and one organization of female farmers. Some of the farmers were part of a local government project in organic production (AGRUPAR project ). Almost all of our farmers were not certified because they could not afford the cost and also because the local market did not demand certification. However, they received constant technical assistance and oversight from us in order to ensure the maintenance of their organic practices. Their goal was to obtain organic certification as a whole group. Included among these eleven producers was one well-developed, certified organic farm (certified by BSC in Germany and OCIA in the US) that was selling mostly to conventional supermarkets but with the organic label. The others were small independent farmers using different marketing channels. Most of the farmers were characterized by a low level of income.
[img_assist|nid=206|title=Mariuxi working soil|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=222] Accepting that there is a big gap between the poor and the wealthy classes in Ecuador, we decided to unite these two groups through a common cause: sustainable agriculture. That is why most of our CSA members were of a higher economic standing: they were able to pay a fair price for the organic products (higher compared to prices of conventional products). These people are generally well educated and aware of the importance of good nutrition, but they had little if any information about sustainable agriculture and how they can help small farmers while getting better products. Our hope was that, in time and with more experience, we could expand the membership beyond the wealthy to people in other economic classes. We started with 30 families in April, 2004; by the end of March 2005 we were working with more than 100 families in various areas of Quito.
My partner and I were responsible for contacting new farmers, developing new projects, contacting the members, packaging and delivering the baskets, and finding ways to increase sales through promotional and marketing strategies. We tried to get closer to the farmers by visiting them often, participating in community work at the farm, and by offering trainings, especially in post-harvest practices and the importance of good quality products. All this also allowed us ensure that the products we offered continued to be high quality and healthful.
[img_assist|nid=207|title=CSA Baskets|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=222] We delivered the produce boxes every week, but our work started long before the actual delivery. We first contacted the producers to determine what they had available in their fields that week. We then made a list with the products to be used in two kinds of baskets: a big one for four- member-families and a small one for two to three member-families. Then we contacted the members by email or phone to let them know the contents of the week and to determine the number of baskets we needed to prepare. During special local holidays we offered baskets containing all the produce needed to prepare traditional dishes for that holiday in an effort to promote the maintenance of our culture. Examples of some of these traditional dishes are colada morada, a beverage made out of purple corn and fruits, and fanesca, a soup prepared out of grains.
We rented a room to serve as our packing shed. Some producers were able to bring the products to this place, but others did not have the economic resources to transport their products, so we picked up the produce directly from their farms. We put together the fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants that we receive from different farmers in the boxes the night before delivery, making sure everything was well cleaned, packaged and presented.
[img_assist|nid=208|title=ROOTS Logo|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=203|height=200] We also tried to get closer to the members and to bring them and the farmers closer together. For this purpose, we included a weekly newsletter with every basket as a way to integrate all the participants and to better inform the members about nutrition, organic farming, recipes, environmental issues, and our traditions and culture. In addition, we took part in the delivery and took the time to visit each member’s house to answer his or her questions and hear suggestions, ideas, or needs.
After a year of running ROOTS I had the opportunity to continue my studies outside of Ecuador, which meant an end to the program for the time being. ROOTS was a great experience and an excellent way to introduce the CSA concept in Ecuadorian people interested in producing and consuming in a healthy, fair way. Finally, we can say that ROOTS represented an way to bring the farm into the city, in the sense that ROOTS was a means for people in the cities to understand the importance of organic agriculture, the hard work that it takes and how we, being people who live in the city, can play an active role in promoting all the elements of sustainable production systems.
There are many members and farmers who took part in ROOTS and are anxious to restart the program. We will make every effort to make this happen and also to support other similar initiatives.