For the past 30 years, no one at the El Jabali Coffee Cooperative had ever planted a tomato in any month other than May. The formula was simple: when it rains in May, the tomatoes get planted. Between the annual coffee harvest and the few vegetables that they planted nearby, the El Jabali farmers got by. While they didn’t make enough to put away for savings, this was “business as usual” for the average subsistence coffee farmer in El Salvador.
When the coffee rust hit in 2012, the cooperative suffered extensive damage to their coffee plantation, reporting a 95 percent loss across the farm. As the aggressive fungus swept the region, more and more farms began to breakdown, putting the livelihoods of thousands of rural families at risk and El Salvador’s coffee industry in the balance. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014. Managed by NCBA CLUSA, the program introduced sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies to help transition ailing coffee farms to environmentally sustainable and cost-effective farming practices.
By 2014 the El Jabali Cooperative had hit rock bottom. While NCBA CLUSA’s coffee specialists worked with farmers to replant the farm using electric augers, chainsaws and tree trimmers, they also saw the opportunity to plant other quick-return cash crops to generate revenue and offset costs during coffee’s off season. With some PVC piping, drip irrigation tubing and a hardy tomato seed, the farmers set off into the uncharted territory of planting tomatoes during the dry season.
“Of our 120 cooperative members, only seven of us dared to take the challenge of planting in the off-season," said Jaime Aguilar, vice president of the co-op. "Even our neighbors told us, ‘You’re crazy! You won’t even grow enough tomatoes to make salsa!’”
Armed with their new drip irrigation system, the farmers planted in January 2017, four months before the rainy season was set to begin. By taking their tomatoes to market in April, instead of June and July, when the powerhouse farming countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua flood the markets with produce, the El Jabali farmers gained a price advantage. Averaging out at about $13 per 50-pound box, the farmers sold over $12,600 in tomatoes from their first harvest. They were so shocked by the results that they planted again in June (this time without having to rely on NCBA CLUSA for financial support) and plan to plant again in September, effectively getting three harvests out of the year—all in the time it takes to produce one coffee harvest.
For Israel Flores, the cooperative’s treasurer, the tomato harvest represents much more than the sudden influx of cash. “I’ve planted tomatoes for 25 years and have never had such an incredible harvest. The support from NCBA CLUSA has been so important for us. Every time we would run into a problem, we could call them and ask how to solve it. Before, I used to farm 'blindly,' so to speak, with no guidance on how to deal with different types of seeds and their needs.”
Flores continued, “With the prevalence of gangs these days, it’s really important to keep our young people busy and away from bad influences. Now when I see a young person looking idle in the community, I ask them if they want to work in the tomato field, and they say, 'Yes.' Our wives can now work in the tomato field instead of commuting to San Salvador to do domestic work, and we can afford to send our kids to school. My nephew works in the tomato fields on Sundays and goes to school during the week. With these tomatoes, we’re creating jobs and keeping our families safe.”
NCBA CLUSA agricultural specialist Mario Zarceño says he's pleased with the results at the El Jabali Cooperative. "In order to scale up these results, we coordinated a ‘Field Day’ for our farmers to share their experience with nearby communities. Now that these farmers know how to assemble their own irrigation systems and troubleshoot their tomato crops, we hope that they can start advising the other 300 small shareholder farmers in the area.”
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 is working 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.