To battle coffee rust losses, farm mechanization is making rehabilitation affordable for co-ops

Written by Holly Jones

Introducing mechanized farm equipment has made planting and farm maintenance more efficient.Introducing mechanized farm equipment has made planting and farm maintenance more efficient.Introducing mechanized farm equipment has made planting and farm maintenance more efficient.Tucked into the slopes of the San Salvador volcano lies the Jabali Cooperative, a sprawling coffee farm known for its Fairtrade-certified coffee. Established in 1980, this 121-member cooperative has been producing high-altitude, organic coffee in El Salvador for generations.

When coffee rust began affecting the crop in 2011 and 2012, nobody could have predicted that the plague would destroy the entire farm in a matter of two years. Not only did the cooperative lose 95% of their production, the lost income meant they could no longer afford to pay off the previous year’s working capital, spiraling them into a precarious financial situation. On top of that, the cooperative faced the stark reality of having to replant the 300-hectare farm from scratch. At an average cost of $4,500 USD - $5,000 USD per hectare to rebuild, the future of the cooperative was dire.

As the coffee rust spread, affecting more cooperatives across El Salvador and putting thousands of rural coffee families’ livelihoods at risk, the USDA launched the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014. Managed by NCBA CLUSA, the program combines an array of sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies with a co-investment fund to transition farms to rust-resistant varieties, introduce environmentally sustainable and cost-effective farming practices and provide the access to funding to make the conversion process financially feasible.

In an attempt to break free of its financial stalemate, the Jabali Cooperative began working with NCBA CLUSA to explore business planning, financing and the new sustainable agriculture techniques that the program offered. With the help of NCBA CLUSA’s team of specialists, the farmers decided to introduce mechanized farm equipment to their operation, including chainsaws, motorized sprayers, tree trimmers and electric augers to make planting and farm maintenance more efficient. In effect, the cooperative was able to decrease labor costs and carry out the farm maintenance necessary to begin rebuilding the cooperative. Instead of renewing the farm at $4,500 USD - $5,000 USD/ha, the NCBA CLUSA model was able to drop the cost to $700-$1000/ha, representing a major turning point for the cooperative.

Electric augers are making planting new coffee trees much easier.Electric augers are making planting new coffee trees much easier.Incorporating the mechanized farm equipment has also proven to be an attractive, cost-effective strategy for some 24 other producer groups working with NCBA CLUSA. Through coordinated farm visits and equipment demonstrations, farmers are able to test the equipment and see for themselves how these and other sustainable agriculture practices can reduce environmental impact and increase productivity. By combining the co-investment fund with activities such as building low-cost nurseries, producing organic pesticides and fertilizers and diversifying crop selection for sale in the off-season, the program provides an integrated, cost-effective model for rebuilding.

Luis Marroquín, NCBA CLUSA sustainable agriculture specialist, remarked, “The progress that is being made at the Jabali Cooperative has been a great accomplishment for the farm and the program. The results from the past two years have been very positive and the farmers are motivated to continue rebuilding.”

While El Salvador’s coffee industry has experienced periods of instability over the decades, coffee leaf rust, climate change-related impacts and market volatility have devastated the national coffee economy in recent years. The El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project will work with 7,500 producers and 50 producer organizations, cooperatives, government agencies and the private sector in an integrated approach to revitalize the industry and increase its competitiveness through sustainable agriculture techniques and low-cost technology.