In Honduras, group irrigation schemes are transforming the future of small-scale agriculture.
Without access to a consistent water supply, farmers are at the whims of nature, relying on inconsistent rainfall to determine the viability of their harvest.
“When it rained, we ate,” said Jesus Pinto Gonzales of Las Palmeras, Copan. “When it didn’t rain, we didn’t eat.”
Feed the Future ACCESS to Markets is working with communities to increase household incomes through the adoption of basic agricultural production technologies to improve productivity, diversify crop production, and install drip irrigation systems that enable year round production. Access to a consistent water source is changing the way entire communities view agriculture.
Typically relying on subsistence level farming of basic grains such as corn and beans, farmers with traditional production practices could harvest once or twice a year, leaving them with little breathing room should the rains not cooperate. At this level, corn and beans do not generate a cash surplus, placing the households in even more difficult conditions.
Working with project and local partner technicians, our farmer clients learned improved production practices with corn and beans such as land preparation, seed selection, and proper plant spacing to improve yields. After seeing better productivity on the traditional crops (at no cost to the farmers), technicians began to introduce the idea of diversification, i.e. planting higher value crops such as eggplant, tomato, and onion, with corn and beans as rotation crops.
“The basic practices really changed everything,” explained Hamilton Bardales of San Marcos, Santa Barbara. “We learned how to be more technical and prepare the land so the crops had room to grow.”
With increased confidence as corn and bean yields began to steadily increase, many farmers took the decision to move into higher value crops, basing decisions on market demand, the availability of water, and cost of production. Crop diversification not only enables the growers to generate sales and income, but also reduces risk and can improve soil health and break pest cycles. Initial planting areas were small, averaging 0.2 hectares per grower.
“We worked with technicians throughout the process — planting to pruning to harvesting to selling,” said Hamilton.
Over the life of the project, ACCESS to Markets technicians delivered more than 56,000 trainings and technical assistance visits to irrigation group members.
With the market opportunity high for horticulture, farmers needed steady access to water to produce consistently at a commercial level. Working with ACCESS to Markets, growers were initially grouped to receive technical assistance, develop production programs, and access market opportunities, finance and inputs. Groups ranged in size from 4 to 116 people, depending on community size and land available.
Water source options for irrigation were then identified and, where technically and economically feasible, options were discussed with the growers. Irrigation investment costs were joint-funded, with the growers (and local organizations/institutions) covering construction and labor costs and ACS-USAID funding the equipment costs. Over time, most of these irrigation systems have become legalized grower group organizations. Across all regions, the project worked with 124 groups comprised of 3,363 people and 1,326 hectares of irrigated land.
“Water is life,” said Maria Garcia Portales of the CASFUL cooperative in San Marcos. “It’s changed the way we live. There are so many who didn’t grow crops before and they see us and now they want to grow.”
Maria is the president of CASFUL, under which 29 group members plant on 14 hectares of irrigated land. Over time, she personally has gone from growing staple crops on 0.35 hectares to growing eggplant on 2.1 hectares. The group has a formal supply agreement with an exporter who consolidates products with other growers for export to the US.
Working in groups, and between groups, the farmers are able to aggregate their production to supply larger, formal, and higher-paying markets as well as access loans or purchase inputs in bulk at lower prices. They also share the operating cost of the irrigation system and work together on basic maintenance and upkeep and ensure the protection of the water source.
The group management aspect was particularly important in La Comunidad, Ocotepeque, where farmers were practicing what they called “flood farming” on rented land until starting to work with the project in 2017. The sloping hills of their community were rocky and seemingly inhospitable to crop production, so they had to rent small plots of land at the bottom of the hill, leaving them with little chance of more than subsistence level earnings.
But after working with field technicians on land preparation and irrigation, the members of the group cleared their own homesteads of rock and slowly began planting maize crops. With continuous technical support, they branched out into cucumber, onion, and tomato on irrigated land.
“The technical assistance has been so important,” said, Margarita Bojorquez Maldonado.
“As a woman, I never learned anything about farming, but I knew I had potential and I wanted to work. For me, the education has been the most important — I can show my kids what I learn and we build our farm as a family.”
Consistent across all the irrigation groups is the multi-generational family involvement. Mothers are bringing their high school age children to trainings and group meetings, encouraging them to adopt the new practices on the family plots.
Maria’s 80-year-old father said he was proud of the leadership position his daughter had assumed in the San Marcos. “She is making her husband work harder, too,” Juan Borjas Garcia said with a laugh.
Outside of immediate family, the irrigation groups are helping create employment opportunities for their communities. Maria, for example, employs 16 people on her farm during planting and harvesting. Carlos Gomez employs an additional four to six people during planting and harvesting times, and Hamilton has three full-time employees with surges in seasonal labor. At times, the members of CASFUL need so many laborers that they’ve had to recruit men and women from other neighboring communities.
“It’s a huge source of employment,” said Carlos.
“People are coming back to the community to work on the farms,” added Maria. “We are proving farming is a living.”
The irrigation systems are creating positive change off the fields as well. Many farmers have invested their earnings into livestock, household improvements, or the widespread small general stores known as pulperias in Honduras.
Margarita said she never had livestock because she had nothing to feed them. But thanks to the knowledge and skills she learned from ACCESS to Markets, she’s created her own mini ecosystem at home.
“It’s a chain,” she said. “More crops meant more sales. I bought animals with the earnings from my farm, and because I have crops, I can feed my animals. The healthy animals give us milk and cheese, which I can feed to my family to make us all stronger.”
Many groups have also adopted conservation practices to help protect this critical natural resource. The irrigation groups practice safe disposal of agrochemical containers, conduct routine checks on the water source to ensure there is no contamination, and are encouraging other community members to be more mindful of waste disposal and management.
“We will always take care of this gift,” said Jesus.
Looking to the future, the irrigation groups to the letter said they hoped for continued technical assistance so they can build their skillsets to improve yields and consistency with an eye to attracting long-term buyer contracts.
Continued and increased access to finance is another challenge identified by several groups. Larger loans with reasonable interest rates are still difficult for many smallholders, so they have begun their own community banks that lend smaller amounts to members at low rates. The community banks earn a small interest that they save in a communal fund to be invested in land or inputs.
Regardless of what the future holds, none of the ACCESS to Markets clients expressed doubt in their potential. The knowledge and support they’ve received have instilled a confidence in their own abilities and in the myriad opportunities agriculture offers their families and communities.
“No matter what, we will move forward,” said Carlos (Jesus’ son).
Margarita, hundreds of miles away, agreed.
“I am building a life for my family with this knowledge. I will keep learning; I will keep growing.”