Overreliance on just one or two crops has long caused problems for the farmers that populate the Telica Volcano. If the bean or corn harvests fail, families are left with few other options. Since 2010 Nuevas Esperanzas has sought ways to help these communities diversify their sources of food and income with new vegetables, fruits and honey. From this year, we are launching a model farms project to bring alternative technologies to an even greater number of people with the help of two new agricultural extensionists, or on-site agricultural trainers, Carlos and Eliézer.

Until now Nuevas Esperanzas’ agricultural engineer, Enrique Bolaños, has made regular visits to organic family gardens in El Ojochal, passing on his knowledge and expertise. Meanwhile specialist beekeeper, Erika Pérez, has provided hands-on training in honey production in this and three other communities. It became clear that, to bring new techniques to all of the farmers living on the slopes of Telica, it was no longer feasible to visit them all individually.

The four model farms – one between El Ojochal and El Najo, one in El Caracol and two in the larger and more disperse Agua Fría – will provide a space where all community members can come and learn how to grow a range of produce using different techniques. It will allow them to return to their own farms and put their new skills into practice, making them more resilient in the face of an array of economic and environmental pressures.

The farms themselves will go beyond small organic gardens to look at the whole farm system. With bean prices dropping up to 80% in recent years and continuing to fluctuate month on month, the new extensionists will introduce a diverse range of profitable fruits such as plantains, pineapples, avocadoes and dragon fruits. These are not alien to the communities, but they have never learned how to grow them commercially.

They will use both biointensive and conventional techniques side by side to produce tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers and an array of other vegetables. This will allow farmers to see for themselves the benefits of more labour intensive methods that improve soil quality and increase water retention. Techniques such as double digging allow for more effective use of scant water resources as plant roots reach down deeper beyond the dusty dry topsoil.

As well as recognising that diversity of production brings greater financial and food security when crisis hits, the model farm also recognises how plants respond to and benefit each other. For example, vegetables that draw a lot of nutrients from the ground must be rotated with nitrogen fixers to maintain soil quality. Slow growing fruit trees need not be cut down as they will offer much needed shade for coffee plants, with fast growing plantains acting as an umbrella in the meantime. And with beekeeping completing the model farm portfolio, farmers who have not previously engaged in honey production will learn which trees they should nurture to give their hives the best chance of success.

Beyond the fields the project will open farmers up to the commercial potential of different produce. It will introduce them to the right networks and buyers so that after the harvest they can bring their fruits, vegetables and honey to market and get the best price.

Despite the agricultural problems they experience on a yearly basis, these communities are wary of tinkering with the ways they are used to leading their lives. The model farm provides them with a small space to experiment at Nuevas Esperanzas’ expense, minimizing their risk. What they grow on the farm will be theirs to keep; those without land will benefit from this alone. Those with land can pick and choose from the new skills they learn and apply them on their own farms when they feel ready.

To decide on the exact location of the farms it became clear that the conditions had to be just right. Poor quality soil would put farmers off participating in the first place. Meanwhile a plot with ideal soil conditions would leave them struggling with difficult growing conditions sceptical about whether they could replicate a successful harvest on their own land. A range of other questions had to be asked too: Is the farm public enough that it will not be neglected or stolen from? Will those who have decided not to take part easily be able to see the farm and be encouraged to get involved later?

Once these questions had been examined, the communities still had to agree on the farms’ locations. Buy-in in El Ojochal – the community where Nuevas Esperanzas has worked most consistently during the last nine years – was almost instantaneous and the land was chosen within minutes. Although interest was piqued early on, the comparative difficulty of finding consensus in El Caracol is perhaps the clearest sign of social progress in El Ojochal. It also shows the importance of relationship building in development work more generally. In the end, the four farm locations were chosen by the end of March.

Looking forward to the start of the planting season in May, the farm preparations have begun in earnest. By the end of April the plots will be fenced and the hedgerows prepared for planting. The beehives will have been delivered to each of the new apiaries, and the dragon fruit and pineapple will be established. With representatives from around 50 families already signed up, there is no reason why the model farms should not bring these four communities one step closer to local self-sufficiency and food security.

We are grateful to the European Union and other donors in the UK for their funding for this project.

31/03/2014