There’s a well-known season among small-scale coffee farmers around the world, known as the “lean months.” It’s that time of year when last season’s earnings have already been invested in the current crop and there is little to no income flowing in to cover the family and farm’s current expenses.
In El Salvador, with the 2013 coffee rust disease dropping production on some farms from 4,500 pounds to 500 pounds per year, the whole year suddenly became “lean months.” Producers of all sizes have been struggling to make ends meet as the perfect storm of coffee rust, climate change and market volatility came together and pushed the country’s iconic industry to the brink of utter collapse.
In response to this economic crisis, the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project, a USDA-funded program managed by NCBA CLUSA, began working with coffee producers in 2014 to address this issue and diversify income streams through the introduction of quick-yield crops that can be planted and harvested during coffee’s off-season. Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers grow well among the coffee plants and can be sold easily in local farmers markets.
At the Ana Guerra de Jesus Cooperative in San Vicente, this crop diversification strategy has proven to be successful. With the farmers’ markets paying out at $5,600 USD for an hectare’s worth of tomatoes, cooperative members are walking away with $2,800 USD in profit per hectare that normally isn’t cultivated in the off-season. Although market prices fluctuate throughout the year, the investment is paying off. For tomatoes, farmers are able to plant and harvest two crops per season—all while the coffee is still growing.
For small-scale farmers like José Armando Ayala, a member of the neighboring Chinchontepec Cooperative, crop diversification has proven to be much more lucrative than annual coffee sales, especially when market prices and growing conditions exceeded expectations. In one particularly good season for cucumbers, Ayala was able to harvest $24,000 USD from his two-hectare plot alone.
With quick-yield crops like cucumbers and tomatoes, the same plots of land can be planted two to three times per season and produce upwards of five times as much profit as the ailing coffee crop.
“We’d been planting cucumbers, tomatoes and beans for some time already,” commented Ayala, “but since we started working with NCBA CLUSA, we’ve been focusing on improving the soil quality with organic fertilizers and other soil amendments, like rock dust. It’s made a big difference in the harvest, and the new income gives us the ability to keep rebuilding the coffee farm.”
NCBA CLUSA’s agriculture diversification specialist, Francisco Navarrete, commented, “The major advantage to crop diversification is that it gives farmers the quick cash they need to take care of their families and cover the immediate costs of rebuilding the farm, without having to seek out financial support from external sources. Some of the farmers are so pleased with the results that they are looking into building greenhouses to keep the new crops growing year round.”
While NCBA CLUSA’s crop diversification strategy has supported some 100 farmers so far, not all farms have the proper conditions to make the investment work. Farms located at high altitudes and those lacking access to a stable irrigation source, risk low production or losing entire crops during an unpredictable dry spell.
Since the launch of the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014, NCBA CLUSA has worked with El Salvador’s environmental policy and advocated for sustainable agriculture practices in an effort to revitalize the coffee economy that has been devastated by coffee leaf rust, climate change-related impacts and market volatility.
Through business planning and co-investment opportunities, the program works with producers to transition their farms to coffee rust-resistant plant varieties and incorporate sustainable practices such as soil conservation techniques and organic fertilizer and pesticide production, in an integrated approach to rebuild the industry and increase its competitiveness.
As farmers diversify, this means they are more financially flexible and able to invest in their coffee farms to rebuild after the rust crisis.