Linking Women Farmers in Mala, Peru

MESA alum Ana Huamani is a perfect example that great courage sometimes comes in small packages. Over the last five years, I’ve seen Ana navigate detours and wait out storms following the winding path to reach her dreams, smiling all the while. Maybe it’s her sparkling black eyes or her tendency to break into song and evoke impromptu celebration, but I seldom hear people say “no” to Ana. According to colleagues at the Berkeley Natural Grocery Company where Ana just completed her Next Level Program with MESA: “Everyone felt thanked by Ana, she connected with each person. She was always present, kind and soulful.” MESA is delighted to be awarding Ana with a $2000 grant this year to seed a women's farmers association in Mala, Peru to increase cooperation in ecological production practices and improve direct marketing channels.

Growing up in a small city and agrarian community outside of Lima, Ana learned about agriculture from her father, a full-time farmer, helping after school to plant cotton, potatoes, corn and beans on their six-acre parcel. Middlemen sold their crops in Lima. Ana learned to love working the earth, but it didn't take long to realize that her chances of supporting her family as a farmer, and especially a woman, were slim to none.

During her teen years, Ana watched as her father toiled the land with degrading soil and decreasing crop yields due to overplanting of cotton and all the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that accompanied it. Ever since agrochemicals arrived from transnational corporations in the 1960’s in sleek containers promising lower labor costs and higher yields, many traditional methods of Peruvian farmers had fallen by the wayside. Her father said when his parents’ generation passed away, a wealth of knowledge that hadn’t been drawn upon during the agrochemical fixation was lost forever. Initially, the corporate promises held true. Ana’s father remembers doubling yields in the first year they converted with much less work. Yes, they had to keep buying the chemicals every season (they were gifted them the first year), but now they could afford them with the increased production! Unfortunately, success was short lived: yields declined again and farmers began buying more inputs in order to sustain production. Even more devastating, farmers started getting sick. It began with respiratory and skin problems, followed by cancerous tumors and birth defects. When Ana was 19, she and her father took a class in organic agriculture at the Huayuna Institute because they’d heard about low cost and nontoxic ways to improve the soil. Ana was thrilled to discover alternative techniques, but became dismayed by the lack of advanced educational opportunities and resources available, particularly around marketing produce.

On her own, Ana decided to focus on improving her farm's profits by opening a small stand to sell spices, produce, grains and chicken in the local market. Despite naysayers at the market with bigger stands, Ana set up her own “store” — a 4’ by 2’ table. Ana’s warmth and vitality soon attracted loyal customers. However, the local bank scoffed at Ana, a single mother, when she requested a loan to expand her business. It was against bank policy to lend to single mothers; too risky, she was told. As you might guess, Ana didn’t give up! She implored friends and family to loan the funds to expand her store to a full market stall, thereby increasing sales tenfold and her profit by 30%.

Ana heard about MESA’s training and exchange program from Alfredo Villegas, a MESA alumnus from 2005. From over 300 applicants in 2007, Ana was selected along with 24 others to be awarded Peruvian government scholarship to cover her international airfare and two months of English before joining MESA. (MESA‘s collaboration with partners at El Huerto at La Molina Agrarian University, the Peruvian Ministry of Economics and the American Embassy in Lima yielded five highly successful years for Peruvian stewards and U.S. farmers.

I met Ana in 2008, the first time she traveled outside Peru to participate in MESA. Her U.S. training focused on ecological production and direct marketing at Terry's Berries Farm (above), an organic diversified vegetable farm in Tacoma, Washington. She learned about crop rotation, increasing agrobiodiversity, improving the soil and crop health, compost preparation and crop transplanting. She then transitioned to farmers markets and customer service. Her host, Terry Carkner noted: “Ana was always happy, smiling and laughing! She was eager to learn, a hard worker and always asking questions. She would often call her father in Peru and tell him about things she was learning. I was so impressed because she really wanted to make changes and improve their marketing techniques. She really did ‘get it’!”

After completing MESA’s Core Training Program, Ana returned home to manage her store and help at her father’s farm. Incredibly, when I visited her store and took the happy photo of Ana above, she had been robbed only the day before; her cash drawer emptied and her valuables stolen! But Ana didn’t let anything knock her down. Her community helped by donating some products to restock, and Ana used the opportunity to rearrange her display and better feature local farmers’ value-added products such as jams, dried fruit and juices.

On the farm, Ana and her father planted more varieties of maize, apples and vegetables. Ana became more involved in the Dos Valles farmers association and helped them to increase membership and sales. Having received mentoring and training from the mighty 75-year old Terry Ann from Tacoma, Ana realized how few women were part of Dos Valles Association. One of the association’s marketing outlets was the remarkable Lima food festival, La Mistura, an international event attended by over 30,000 people celebrating Peruvian cuisine. Ana attended with other Dos Valles members to sell purple corn. Sadly, the first day they didn’t sell a single bag. The second day Ana realized that people selling prepared food had busier booths. She thought about her Terry’s Berries successful farm store and how customers loved samples. Ana had an idea. Why not sell chicha morada–a drink made out of purple corn, pineapple juice and cinnamon? It worked. They went from selling zero bags of purple corn to selling hundreds of glasses of chicha morada! Such is the innovative creativity that MESA aims to impart through the direct exchange of ideas and knowledge between experienced and beginning farmers.

Ana applied to MESA’s Next Level Program in 2011 to train in organic produce retail marketing at the Natural Grocery Company. Ana’s training objectives included selling fresh produce on a larger scale and learning about ordering, merchandizing, handling, selling and customer relations. Ana not only mastered all of these skills, but was equally excited about lessons that weren’t on the training plan, one in particular. “I saw many women in leadership roles, being respected by men in their profession, managing a team of people and making creative solutions to problems. This was exciting to me and I think, I can do this!” After attending an inspiring event women strengthening food security in India at the Women's Earth Alliance (WEA), we discussed Ana's goals. Ana has been deeply inspired by her MESA hosts, her fellow MESA stewards and the work of remarkable like-minded organizations like MESA and WEA, and knew she wanted to do something big in her own community.

Ana wasn’t the only one inspired. Bob Gerner, the founder of the Natural Grocery Company collected thoughts from his and the Natural Grocery Company team: “Customers are missing Ana and employees are still talking about her. All of the staff were inspired by her and her enthusiasm, sincerity and intelligence. Everyone liked working with Ana; she was able to be present on the floor and retain her personality and character while still being efficient. She responded with a sense of wonder when she experienced new things; she was interested, but not intimidated.”

Last month Ana returned to Mala and has already found her exchange at the Natural Grocery Company to be showing its value. She feels increased capacity to connect to customers and make them want to come back due to positive relationship building and feeling invested in the sustainable supply chain Ana is building. “If I could connect to many customers in English, I should be able do this even better in Spanish…I can help people realize why it is important to support local farms and how to improve their nutrition by eating fresh organic foods. When they care about this, they chose differently. This is good for my store, good for their health and good for our farms.”

Ana is now embarking on a MESA-supported Home Country Project to start a woman farmers association in the Mala region. Before she left, MESA and Ana prepared a presentation about her experience at the Natural Grocery Company and developed ideas to establish MUA, Mujeres Unidas Agricolas (MUA) or Agricultural Women United. Ana gave an amazing presentation (which you can see below), inspired her audience with her vision and brought them to tears with her moving song. Thanks to the support of MESA’s generous donors, Ana’s has already raised $2000 to start MUA! The next objectives for MUA include cultivating ten members in the next year to form an association focused on sustainable farming methods and improving more direct marketing strategies. Cooperating on planting schedules and selling their produce together will reduce competition, improve access to markets and increase profit margins.

Two weeks ago, Bob Gerner and his wife Carla visited Ana in Peru and took her to visit and learn about the successful Chanchamayo Highland Coffee cooperative in Junin (see photo below). Next week, Ana is giving her presentation to the members of the Dos Valles farmers association to galvanize community support. MESA is committed to supporting Ana and other pioneering MESA alumni working to transform lives in communities by helping small-scale farmers protect their natural resources, preserve ancestral knowledge and build innovative marketing models. You can make a donation today to help Ana and her fellow steward alumni improve cooperation between small-scale farmers and create vibrant futures for agrarian communities across the globe.  

Check out Ana's video presentation below about her project plans to the staff and the Natural Grocery Company!


MESA would like to thank the Natural Grocery Company for hosting Ana and contributing to her Home Country Project. We especially want to express our gratitude to Bob, Tim, Jay, Jennifer and the rest of the Natural Grocery Company staff who persoanlly supported Ana during her training as well as her previous hosts Terry and Bob Carkner of Terry’s Berries and Nina and Jonathan White of Bobolink Dairy. Most of all, thank you Ana, for following your dreams and creating a greener, more equitable, and more celebratory world.