Despite the constraints posed by COVID-19, family farmers won’t let the pandemic ruin their emerging coffee business.
They were just getting on their feet when the pandemic hit.
Hector Frias is a Panamanian farmer who heads an association of coffee producers in Los Santos Province, a region in the central part of the country. Unlike other regions in Panama famous for Geisha coffee , this part of the country is not known for coffee production. With water scarce and land degraded, many coffee plantations in Los Santos had been abandoned for decades when Hector and other producers decided to restart this activity with the help of Panama’s Ministry of Agricultural Development and FAO.
After two years of training and technical assistance, Hector and his partners had finally managed to begin production, growing the coffee plants to sell to other producers. They obtained legal status for their association and were reproducing seedlings when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“This year we had started with more strength than ever in our association, but the coronavirus interrupted everything because, due to quarantine measures, we cannot meet,” Hector explained.
With the enormous difficulties that the pandemic poses, Hector could have given up, but instead he chose to go ahead and keep caring for the 13 000 coffee plant seedling that his association had already sprouted. With the help of two other farmers, he went to sell these ready-to-plant seedlings in this new context of the pandemic: “We work at a safe distance, taking all precautions,” he said.
Movements in the country had been restricted to two hours per day, greatly limiting their ability to sell these seedlings to other farmers interested in producing coffee.
“If the pandemic continues, we will contact them [buyers] by cell phone, or we will look for alternatives so that they can have access to these seedlings. We have great faith in our coffee and believe that its production will help us to overcome this crisis,” he added.
Hector and other farmers continue to care for and sell the coffee plant seedlings to producers ©FAO
Panamanian farmers refuse to quit
Hector also raises livestock and started the usual planting of rice and corn that he uses to make feed or to sell. He recently began quail farming and has two other projects that he would like to carry out in the future: greenhouse vegetable production and goat farming. “We, as producers, cannot stop,” he explained.
Like Hector, other family farmers in the country are also adapting to the new reality. In Eastern Panama, Modesto Figueroa, who leads the National Committee for Family Farming, also continues to work during the pandemic:
“Due to the confinement measures I have some limitations to go to my land, but I keep working to get the production going, and I dedicate myself more to the activities I have in the house to generate income,” said Modesto, while feeding his hens.
Modesto regularly shares the tasks for poultry production with his wife, Liliana Pinzon, who in turn leads their marketing: “Our products are 100 percent hand-grown and have a very good acceptance in the local market. Now marketing has become difficult because we cannot attend to customers in the usual way. What we are doing is communicating with them through the cell phone. They place their orders and pick them up when they are ready,” she explained.
Response and recovery during COVID-19
In Panama, about 80 percent of all farmers in the country are family farmers. FAO and the Hunger-Free Mesoamerica Initiative, supported by Mexican Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AMEXCID), have helped farmers establish provincial and county associations that make up the National Committee on Family Farming. This committee contributed to the creation of the Family Farming Development Law which establishes that family farming is nationally important and contributes to the economy, food and nutritional security, cultural identity, rural development, conservation of biodiversity and improvement of the quality of life of farmers in rural and urban areas. This law was ratified just weeks before the first case of COVID-19 in Panama was detected.
In these difficult times marked by the pandemic, family farmers have shown their leadership, greatly contributing to food security by continuing to provide fresh, quality food and maintaining their associations. The pandemic has also strengthened the resilience of farmers by proving that they can find alternative ways to sell their products.
Plans for recovery
In the midst of this pandemic, FAO has also worked with the Government of Panama to guarantee food supplies and will provide technical assistance to the sector’s recovery plans. FAO will also assist in the registration process of family farmers in the country, which will allow for more targeted public policies to further develop their productive potential.
These actions will strengthen the country’s food security, particularly for families that depend on agriculture for their subsistence. This will contribute to the post-COVID-19 recovery and to a more inclusive rural development that ensures that farmers like Hector and Modesto will maintain a leading role, not only in times of crisis but at all times.