Strengthening Agricultural Resilience among Guatemalan Fruit Tree Farmers
“Son, what have you done?” Sergio Hernandez recalled that his father was exasperated, almost in tears, at the sight of the cleared fields where a small forest stood for decades on their family farm.
During the 1980s-1990s, many parts of Guatemala’s western regions turned to planting peach trees after a slow decline of apple harvesting and market price drops. Hernandez joined this wave and one day decided to plant peach groves over this parcel of land owned by his family’s farm in the hopes of making it productive and lucrative for his family.
Hernandez recalls not being sure what he had gotten himself into regarding the management of the peach groves. He knew very little about peaches. However, Hernandez's attitude, much like other farmers embarking on similar agricultural ventures with peaches at the time, was to take on the risk, diving in feet first and learning along the way.
Hernandez is the owner of Las Flores 1 peach farm in Salcajá, a small town in Quetzaltenango department in Guatemala. A son from a long lineage of farmers, Hernandez today is one of the original six founders of the National Association of Deciduous Fruit Trees (ANAPDE), which officially launched in 1996. ANAPDE is one of Guatemala’s leading fruit tree farmer associations dedicated to promoting the sector’s economic, social and technological development. They contribute to reducing poverty through the annual employment generation of over 1.4 million job opportunities.
Guatemala remains one of the primary Central American populations emigrating to the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are an estimated 1.3 million Guatemalan immigrants living in the United States, which is a 44% increase since 2013. Generating job opportunities can serve as a key incentive in deciding not to migrate and, in turn, maintain family and community fabrics in Guatemala.
Guatemalan farmers adapt to evolving challenges
When Hernandez was growing up, his family, who also held lands in southern Guatemala, cultivated crops such as wheat, coffee and corn. Farmers like Hernandez are very familiar with contending with unexpected transitions and evolving challenges impacting farming.
Agricultural production costs, changing consumer trends and demands, technological gaps and environmental impacts are a few, but significant, factors that generate both short-term and long-term challenges for farmers. Guatemalan farmers from this region are visionaries who are not afraid of hard work, but do not always possess the necessary efficient tools, techniques or latest practices to keep up with the ever-changing demands leading to cost-effective, high-quality yields.
Early on when Hernandez began to see his initial peach blossoms, he realized there was a need to improve quality and quantity. At the time, his journey felt very isolating. Smallholder farmers in the region worked their lands in a fragmented manner but soon realized that in numbers, there was strength. Six nearby farmers came together to build what today is ANAPDE to learn from sharing information and experiences to support one another to all succeed.
Enhancing yield quality through innovation and technology sharing
Since 1996, ANAPDE has reached 964 fruit tree farmers across four departments of Guatemala, and serves as a fundamental platform for critical information exchanges and a support network. Partnering with USAID-funded Partners of the Americas John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program has played a pivotal role in ANADPE’s growth and development. It has provided fundamental technical advice, tools and practices that have enhanced their overall production value chain. F2F connects specialized volunteers from the United States with farmers, cooperatives, agribusinesses, extension services, government agencies and other institutions in developing countries.
With 16 F2F volunteer visits since 2015, ANAPDE improved their member farming operations and agricultural resiliency concerning critical issues including, but not limited to:
- Tree management
- Postharvest practices
- Frost mitigation and control
- Product storage
- Orchard harvest management
- Product commercialization
- Tree diseases
Hernandez remembers when F2F volunteer Mario Moratorio came to visit his farm and looked over his grove. One of his first requests was to be given a pair of shears and immediately began hedging and pruning his peach tree fields. With great shock, he quickly saw how his once unruly growing fields had been drastically reduced and primped to take on new and healthier growth.
From Moratorio, Hernandez learned and developed pruning timetables and its importance in maintaining proper tree health. Hernandez jokingly recounted how the other farmers were afraid of handing over their shears on his visits in fear that she would whittle away their accustomed, full-bodied tree lines.
“This is how we all learned and now this is how we carry out our own tree maintenance like professionals to see growth and improved results," Moratorio said.
Another ANAPDE farmer, Rolando De Leon Rodas, from Quetzaltenango has been a longtime beneficiary of F2F’s volunteer wisdom and experience. A farmer for more than the last 18 years, De Leon Rodas also attested to the transitional nature of cultivating crops, specifically fruits. He, too, previously planted and grew apples before switching to peaches.
As an ANAPDE member, De Leon Rodas recalled how F2F’s technical support impacted his development as a farmer, as well as the quality of his production yields.
“Everything from fumigation, tree diseases, to adapting to late-season frosts, F2F volunteers have shared such critical information making an important difference in bringing in innovation and broadening our perspectives,” De Leon Rodas said.
De Leon Rodas reflected on one of his most memorable volunteers, Florent Trouillas. Before meeting Trouillas, Rolando would prune his trees and then leave the dead branches, twigs and foliage on the ground. What he and other farmers did not know was that their trees were affected by phytophthora, a common tree disease that can potentially kill fruit trees. One of the ways it spreads is disposing of affected dead branches near healthy trees, as many farmers innocently practiced.
“We were all making this mistake and we didn’t know it!” De Leon Rodas said. “The sickness seeps and spreads internally. We didn’t see it, but he identified it right away. He helped us update tree disease controls.”
With new, basic techniques, farmers like De Leon Rodas are ensuring sustainable, healthy peach tree growth.
Cultivating jobs and keeping guatemalan families united
Hernandez and De Leon Rodas, like so many other fruit farmers from this region, hold onto a deeper vision and dream in caring for their groves. Peaches are not just another fruit to be sold at the markets, but moreover, an avenue to create opportunities for themselves and their extended farming communities.
Caring for their groves represents economic engines and income generators for seasonal fruit pickers and their families. When Hernandez harvests, he pulls in seasonal workers from southern Guatemala where coffee cultivations once thrived. Hernandez stated with great satisfaction that sometimes workers come accompanied by their brothers or cousins and stay to work the land. As a ripple effect, local women food preparers help in providing meals for the workers.
“In this way, we have helped to stem migration to the U.S. because they don’t want to leave their families,” Hernandez said. “They have jobs and they are happy.”
It was the dream Hernandez held onto from that moment that his father had protested in fear so many years ago. After his first harvest, he invited his reluctant father to visit. Amazed by the number of workers in the field and the peach-filled baskets, he embraced his son and said, “Son, I never imagined this. Forgive me for what I said to you and our problems. God bless you and congratulations.” Earnestly looking over his groves, Hernandez stated, “This is the story of this farmland.”