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Resilient small-scale coffee farming in La Fundadora

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

Last month I had the opportunity to visit La Fundadora, a small town in Jinotega in the fertile coffee mountains, towards the north of Nicaragua. There I met Don Agustin and his family at the Finca Agroecologica “La Loteria”. Agustin dedicates his life to cultivating his beautiful, lush parcel land and harvesting its delicious foodstuffs. One of his main crops is what the area is famous for: coffee.

The steep slopes of La Fundadora are nothing for Don Agustin. I found it a lot more challenging!

Agustin is not alone. Indeed, small-scale, rural agriculture is big in Nicaragua. The latest stats from the World Bank show that 44% of Nicaragua’s population live in rural areas. Agriculture the the staple of the economy; accounting for 17% percent of GDP and 70% of total exports of primary products. And of the total number of agricultural units, 85.2% are small-scale farms.

Climate change in Nicaragua is not a “future threat”. It is affecting lands and livelihoods, ecosystems and existences, right now. The people who are already feeling the effects most are also facing other challenges. In Nicaragua, 94% of people affected by multidimensional poverty live in rural areas. This means that the continued existence and growth of micro- and small-scale farming is very important to the country's food security, food sovereignty and long-term success.

So what are the challenges facing small-scale coffee farmers in the region?

  • Dependence on a single crop. Plenty of farmers in La Fundadora farm just one variety of coffee. meaning that they are dependent upon the success of that one crop. If there is a disease that the crop cannot resist, or an unusual turn in the weather that weakens the harvest, their income is gravely affected. If this crop failure is on a large scale that affects all the farmers in the region, this in turn affects the food supply of the entire country.

  • Selling at the bottom of the value chain. Those who rely on selling the raw product (usually for export) are at the mercy the international market price. Situations beyond their control can disproportionately affect their ability to earn. If there has been a bumper coffee crop in another country, difficulties with exports, or variations in quality of the product, the price for coffee in the international market may go way down.

  • Access to infrastructure, equipment and technology. Often, adding value to a product means processing. And processing requires equipment. The machinery that can produce consumer-grade goods is often too expensive for small-scale farmers. When such facilities (for example machines for coffee roasting, or fermenting cacao) exist, small-scale farmers can't necessarily access them. Some farmers are restricted by lack of infrastructure, or the distances and expense that the journey would imply.

Other small scale farmers in the nearby nature reserve "Datanli" do not have road access. This makes it harder to add value to products at source.

Small-scale farms integrate into the surrounding forest.

Fortunately, I've got an inspiring guide to building resilience in small-scale farming. Agustin is one proactive man. With his 10 acres of land he is acting now to prepare for the future and grow his business.

Resilience against climate change

Here are some of the steps that Agustin, and other small scale farmers in La Fundadora, are taking to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects:

  • Diversification: planting a wider variety of crops - both coffee and other agricultural products. This builds resilience: if one crop fails, there is another to fall back on. Agustin diversified the varieties of coffee plants; experimenting with the strengths of each type of crop. He also diversified his crops; branching out from a coffee monoculture, to less common products like cinnamon.

  • Reforestation: planting trees not only helps to mitigate climate change, but also can provide a cooler, shaded environment. Farmers in La Fundadora changed planting methods, introducing banana trees into coffee fields to mitigate the heating effect on coffee plants which grow in a cooler zones. The bananas also serve as a additional source of income.

Small scale farmers in La Fundadora planted banana trees to shade coffee plants from the effects of climate change, and to diversify income sources.

And what about Economic Growth? Agustin has tips and tricks for that too.

  • Adding value at source: finding a way to process the raw product enables farmers to sell at a higher price. Agustin built a home coffee roasting device. Roasting and grinding his own coffee adds value to his products. Now he can sell higher up the value chain; rather than depending on the market price for coffee beans.

  • Agro-tourism: inviting tourists to visit ecological and beautiful farmlands adds an extra source of income. Agustin also offers tours to tourists interested in learning about his methods and sampling his delicious coffee. (Yes, that includes me.)

Sharing a delicious traditional meal of beans, tortilla, eggs and "cuajada" cheese, in the home of Don Agustin and his family.

The work of Don Agustin is an inspiration. Not only is he protecting his lands from the effects of a changing climate, and ensuring the success of his family in the future - but he is also one of the happiest souls I've met. Even the name of the farm "La Loteria", meaning "the lottery" shows how lucky he feels.

And, in the process, he is contributing to building food security and food sovereignty; supplying the population with a wide variety of delicious and nutritious earthly treasures.

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