William Arizmendi regularly tours the fincas of small farmers in Boyacá, Colombia to check on their lulo and mora plants and help them enhance their agricultural practices. William’s technical assistance work forms part of the JUNA Project, aimed at improving the lives of fruit growers and their families in remote parts of the country. We asked William about his work and about the challenges and opportunities for Colombia’s fruit growers…
Q: What is your favorite fruit?
A: The Mora andina [Andean blackberry]. Its contrast of acidity and sweetness is fascinating.
Q: What made you become an agronomist?
A: [The] Boyacá [region] has rich land and lives from agriculture. That’s where I grew up. Rural life is a part of me. My work allows me to be out in the green, in the open, in the mountains and under the immense Andean sky. It’s a way of life.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: Building personal relationships with the farmers, being at their service and giving them a chance at a better life by spreading technical knowledge and recommendations.
Q: What do you do when you visit the plantations?
A: First and foremost my job is to build friendship and trust with the growers. They need to trust me in order to accept my help and follow my advice. We are talking about their economic subsistence, so trust is key. My mission is to convince them that cleaner agricultural practices and less contamination are better for their crops, their environment and for themselves.
Q: What’s the secret to minimizing harmful pesticides and fertilizers?
A: Access to information and technical assistance. Growers need the facts they don’t have, they need to know alternatives to what they are doing today. What is helping is that many food and beverage producers today demand stricter standards. So farmers are beginning to listen more. Often the solutions are quite simple: reduce the quantities of pesticides or fertilizers to the adequate levels; replace existing substances with less toxic ones already available in the market; use organic fertilizers by composting and recycling their own bio waste.
Q: What are the biggest worries faced by small farmers and their families?
A: Their main problem is that they never know whether they can sell their crop at a price that allows them to live. Most of them are exposed to intermediaries and the market, over which they have no say or control. Uncertainty is their single biggest fear.
Q: Do small growers appreciate the importance of good agricultural practices?
A: I think many are beginning to realize that things are changing. However, there is also the fear of their plants and fruit will be attacked by plagues. So a first natural reaction is to apply chemicals, and rather more than less. Overcoming these fears and working towards better methods is not easy. But it’s doable and we have to do it.
Q: Why are Colombia’s fruit growers not as organized as coffee or cocoa growers?
A: What happens is that Colombia’s fruit production takes place on tiny parcels of land all over the country. The production is not concentrated in certain parts of the country or on larger extensions of land, as is the case with coffee for example. The only solution is that every fruit growing region gets organized at the local level by forming associations or corporatives and that eventually these local and regional groups start coordinating and building leverage at the national level. That way they can start improving the conditions of their members.
Q: What are your hopes for the JUNA Project?
A: It’s a great project, and most importantly, a serious one. It’s not only about the product, but the people behind it. The project’s key component – a guaranteed fair price – attacks the core of the farmer’s biggest problem: uncertainty. That motivates them to look into the future and to invest in their farms and in themselves.
William Arizmendi lives in Tunja, Colombia, with his wife and three daughters. He is a certified agronomist and teaches at the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA), Colombia’s national institute for vocational and technical training.