San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Producers Share Organic Farming Advice

WHILE some Costa Rican farmers arepanicking about possible internationalfree-trade agreements, and others are sufferingfrom the global coffee crisis, agrowing number of small producers areturning their heads and hopes to organicagriculture.And although many had never heard of“organic” five years ago, they are now askingnational consumers to follow theirlead.On a mission to save their rurallifestyle, and perhaps the country’s healthand environment, nearly 100 small farmersfrom around the nation gathered this weekin the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba,at the Tropical Agricultural Center forResearch and Higher Education (CATIE).There, they shared ideas on how toplant organic pineapple, make compost outof heart-of-palm peels, and market theirhealthy and environmentally friendly products– all part of the fourth annual NationalMeeting of Farmers and Researchers inOrganic Production.PRODUCTION of organically grownfoods still represents only about 2.2% ofall commercial agriculture in Costa Rica,but this figure has grown from 0.18% justfive years ago, according to FeliciaEcheverría, of the Ministry of Agriculture’sNational Program of OrganicAgriculture (PNAO). In 2003, there were4,000 organic farmers in Costa Rica registeredwith certification agencies.The country is far advanced in itsdevelopment of organic standards, andamong Latin American countries is secondonly to Argentina in international approvalof its products, Echeverría said.Europe, the United States, Canada andJapan have provided an international market,particularly for coffee, bananas, cacao,blackberries and orange juice (TT, March5).But not all organic farmers are lookingto the international market. It is difficult todetermine what percentage of organics isexported because the system of coding forexports often does not distinguish organicproducts, Echeverría explained.MANY small farmers view organicfarming less as a business opportunity andmore as a way of life, she pointed out.“Organic farming is very importantbecause it allows small farmers to maintaintheir lives in the country,” said farmerFrancisco Sibaja at the CATIE meeting. “Ithas allowed us to produce for our own consumption,and then some for local markets.”“It is very beautiful the way we shareour crops, to know that the food we plant isgoing to be eaten by a family nearby …Idon’t view farming as a job, rather I thinkof it as an activity,” he added.Sibaja and others are working with theAgriculture Ministry on campaigns to educatethe Costa Rican public on the benefitsof organically grown foods. Because theyare grown without chemicals, proponentssay organic foods are better for bothhuman consumption and the environment.They also are often of a higher quality,according to Echeverría, although most atthe CATIE meeting agreed quality control is still lacking in Costa Rica.Last year, the ministry hosted workshopson organic foods for 662 rural teachers.Teachers then introduced programs intheir schools in which students – many thechildren of farming families – grew organicproducts. In some cases, these cropsallowed for fruit and vegetable self-sufficiencyin school lunchrooms.“THE students are then going to showtheir parents the benefits of organics,”Echeverría said.“A lot of older people say, ‘no, you arecrazy (to grow organics), I’m continuingwith conventional agriculture,’ so you haveto begin with young people,” said 23-yearoldNelson Mora, who has convinced hisfather to switch their 120-hectare farm onthe Nicaraguan border to organic.While education campaigns mayincrease demand in rural areas, near wherethe products are grown, the demand fororganic products in Costa Rica as a wholeis actually greater than the supply, accordingto Echeverría.SUPPLY and demand of organicallyproduced products have fluctuated sincethe concept arrived commercially inCosta Rica in 1995, but in general theshort supply has threatened the futuresuccess of organic agriculture, accordingto Manuel Amador, of the EducationCorporation for Costa RicanDevelopment (CEDECO).Many small farmers do not grow enoughvolume of individual products to justifytransportation and placement on supermarketshelves, even to San José. They insteadchoose to diversify their crops, growing asmany as 100 different products on one farm.Farmers are therefore using forumslike this week’s meeting to create cooperativesin which they can work together tosell their products in national and internationalmarkets.Such cooperatives, as well as theexchange of techniques and ideas, mayanswer another serious challenge to organicagriculture – cost.WITHOUT use of pesticides and herbicides,organic crops can be more labor intensive,which can raise prices 30-40% in grocerystores and 10-30% in farmers markets.Some farmers view this as an advantage– on the international market organiccoffee sells for 30-100% more than conventionalcoffee and has found a niche thatis still growing in spite of the coffee crisis.But Amador said the organic growers hehas worked with would rather offer theirproducts at the same price as conventionalagriculture.“People who grow organic food don’twant to offer their food at a higher price,they want to make it affordable, make itavailable to everyone,” he said.CATIE is helping to reduce coststhrough research on organic methods forplague and pest elimination, fertilizationand crop diversification.While experiments on 36 farmsaround Turrialba since 2003 have hadsome conclusive results, studies must becontinued for at least two more years,CATIE officials said.“In our research, every day we see moreimportance in organics,” said CATIE directorPedro Ferreira. “There is a growing marketfor organics and a large interest amongindigenous to cultivate organic products.”

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