In El Salvador, healthy soils produce healthy crops, benefiting people and the environment

Carlos Padilla leads a training session on organic fertilizers. Carlos Padilla leads a training session on organic fertilizers. Carlos Padilla leads a training session on organic fertilizers. Few could have predicted that the coffee rust plague would have ravaged El Salvador’s iconic coffee industry over the course of a few short years, putting thousands of rural families’ livelihoods at risk. In response to this national economic crisis, the USDA launched the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014. Managed by NCBA CLUSA, this sustainable coffee program introduces cost-effective technologies and techniques to farmers, as well as a co-investment fund that makes the implementation of these practices financially feasible.

One of the chief components of the program is organic fertilizer and pesticide production—a low-cost, environmentally sustainable soil amendment alternative to agro-chemical based methods. Based on the work of German agricultural chemist Julius Hensel and Japanese agronomist Dr. Teruo Higa in rock dust remineralization and effective microorganisms, respectively, the NCBA CLUSA program advises farmers on how to build organic soil amendment production facilities.

Stretching from the Piedras Azules Cooperative in the Alotepec-Metapan Sierra in the west, to the Los Positos Cooperative in the Cacahuatique Sierra in the east, farmers are learning how to create fertilizers and pesticides using easily accessible organic material such as coffee shells, chicken manure and microorganisms. Nearly 70 cooperatives, companies and producer groups have adopted the new techniques, and the trainings continue to grow as farmers see the positive results.

María Botto and members of the “Pinar Montenegro” group inside the Eco-Friendly Fertilizers Alotepec Factory. María Botto and members of the “Pinar Montenegro” group inside the Eco-Friendly Fertilizers Alotepec Factory. For high-altitude coffee farm owner María Elena Botto, the technical support and training motivated her to organize a group of 40 farmers in her area to test out the organic fertilizers and soil amendments at their greenhouses. Additionally, Botto carried out a separate pilot project with the organic pesticides on her family farm. Because the results of both initiatives were so positive, she set up a small business called Eco-Friendly Fertilizers Alotepec to increase production and sell the organic products to other farmers in the region. “This has been our first time working with a USDA/NCBA CLUSA program and we’re very grateful for the support they’ve given us," she said. 

“Healthy soils produce healthy crops, and both people and the environment reap the benefits of these practices,” said NCBA CLUSA organic agriculture and coffee specialist Carlos Padilla. “In addition to introducing the farmers to these types of low-cost practices to rebuild their farms, the organic fertilizers and pesticides contribute to a greater goal of soil recuperation. In this program, we are working to reconnect environmental health with human well-being, which is a relationship that has been deteriorated by generations of agrochemical usage in the coffee sector.”

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, companies and government agencies in an integrated approach to revitalize the industry and increase environmental sustainability through sustainable agriculture techniques and low-cost technology.

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