Helping a $70 million export industry battle a microscopic pest
Guido Morel on his farm in La Vega, the heart of oriental vegetable production in the Dominican Republic. Photo: Arquimedes Forchue Almonte
Guido Morel’s Chinese eggplant and Indian Bitter melon grow amid rows of vibrant yellow marigolds and sunflowers on his farm in the heart of oriental vegetable production in the Dominican Republic. Other farmers in the region know about Guido and his eggplant. The harvest he recently delivered to an exporter’s packinghouse was categorized as “gold”—in other words, blemish-free and uniform in shape. And his fellow farmers know that Guido cut his average rejection rate in half, without even a single application of insecticide.
The packinghouses have heard about the eggplant, too, and Guido has been receiving requests from packinghouses to send other farmers to visit his farm—not to see his vegetables, but his flowers. They’re the key to Guido’s pesticide-free crops.
At neighboring farms, growers have had to apply chemical insecticides as many as 12 times. The enemy? A nearly microscopic insect, Thrips palmi, which is the bane of Dominican oriental vegetable farmers.
Disproportionate to their size, thrips have the ability to cause major cosmetic damage to eggplants. They are extremely difficult to control and insecticides can actually make the situation worse—the thrips hide under the eggplant’s stem cap while the insecticides kill their natural predators, resulting in population boom for thrips.
Dominican exporters and authorities are alarmed about the rate of rejection by European inspectors due to thrips. Eight expensive air freight shipments of eggplant and bitter melon per week are being destroyed due to the presence of thrips. The EU requires that Dominican eggplants and bitter melon undergo a hot water wash in the packinghouse to dislodge and kill thrips, but exporters say that this hot wash reduces vegetable shelf life.
It turns out that the best place to fight thrips is on their favorite turf: in the field where vegetables are grown.
Thrips palmi, also known as “melon thrips.” Photo: Stan Diffie, University of Georgia. Used under a Creative Commons license.
To fight the health and environmental dangers of heavy insecticide use and the economic threat to farmers posed by thrips, Exporting Quality, a program funded by the USDA, started an integrated pest management program that debuted on Guido’s farm. The integrated approach involves companion planting, grouping a combination of plants that work in a symbiotic relationship that benefits all the vegetation. Marigold and sunflower are an attractive refuge for insects that prey on thrips. The plants also serve as a trap, since they are more attractive to the pest than the crop itself, drawing them away from the valuable vegetables. For even more protection, Exporting Quality also taught Guido to use reflective plastic mulch that reflects certain wavelengths of sunlight that repel thrips. It has the added benefit of inhibiting weeds.
To adopt this type of pest management, Guido’s farm had to avoid applying preventative pesticides and wait until it was clear that pests were actually present. Exporting Quality arranged training on pest identification and determining the level of pest presence that would require an insecticide response.
This is a big cultural shift for Dominican farmers, who are virtually besieged by sales reps from chemical companies who advocate and encourage indiscriminate spraying.
Guido’s experiments with integrated pest management have been largely successful. He had a brief appearance of some potato flea beetles, his bitter melon crops remain thrips and insecticide-free.
Replicating Guido’s success and introducing it to more Dominican farmers will require extensive training for farmers, packinghouse technicians, and extension agents and ensuring there is ready access to flower seeds and plastic mulch. But the survival of a $70 million per year export industry is at stake, not to mention the health of farmers and consumers.
Over the next 2 years, Exporting Quality plans to expand integrated pest management to five demonstration farms and promote integrated pest management technology to all of the 46 oriental vegetable packinghouses in La Vega, offering training to their technicians and associated farmers.
As for Guido, he’s ready for next level integrated pest control—he plans to introduce beneficial insects to his farm. These insects, who feed on thrips and other problem pests, will only thrive if Guido continues to refrain from most pesticides and if he can limit the amount of pesticide drift from neighboring farms.
“In all my 20 years that I’ve been growing eggplant, I never thought. . .I would have to spray almost no insecticide,” said Guido of this new technology.
Exporting Quality is implemented by IESC, togther with Florida A&M University, the Global Cold Chain Alliance, and the Center for Agriculture and Forestry Development. The USDA-funded program runs through 2019.
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The smell of chocolate in the air is heady, even a bit distracting, as I sit down to talk with about 10 women who run Chocolala and Chocal, two factories in the northern Altamira region of Dominican Republic. They came together to tell the history of their businesses and how hard they have worked to build them, persevering despite significant personal and societal obstacles, and how their economic empowerment is in turn strengthening their community and empowering other women and girls to do the same.
The early times were hard. Nelfi Garcia, who works at Chocolala, remembers how she and the other women had to bring their children to work with them. “We would lay them under a cocoa tree and take turns taking care of them among ourselves.”
In addition to juggling entrepreneurship and child-rearing, this community of aspiring chocolate makers questioned themselves in every way. Were they capable of running a business’ Could this region produce fine chocolate’ Did they have the necessary skills’ Was it worth the effort’
Chocal and Chocolala were started with the support of international donors as a community development initiative for women and youth. At that time, it was not unusual for families to leave Altamira in search of better opportunities, so it was very important that any new enterprise supported through this initiative be based in the community and draw on readily available local resources. Cocoa had been—and continues to be—one of the most important crops in the area, and many local women had experience making sweets with chocolate at home.
But until then, none of them had considered that they might be able to make fine, quality chocolate themselves. Most of them worked at home at the time, caring for their children. Many had left school to raise a family. They didn’t know anything about running a chocolate business.
Ultimately, it was not a lack of education, skills, or experience that presented the biggest obstacle to starting a business. It was finding their voice in a space where they were not always heard, where the men did the talking, and where women depended exclusively on income generated by their husbands.
Still, they did need extensive training, and the training took place outside of town, which provoked even more pushback from the community, and especially from their husbands.
“I’m the only one who knows how difficult it was, and the difficulties I had with my husband,” said Noemi Crisostomo, who is vice president of Chocal. “But in the end I showed him that I was really learning and needed the courses to take the project forward.”
Today, Nelfi, Noemi, and the others refer to themselves as courageous and empowered women who are role models for their children and for the community.
In addition to improving their own quality of life, they are committed to helping as many others as they can. For example, through an employee rotation program, Chocal allows anyone who comes in search of a job to work there for two months. During that time, the employee generates an income, and the factory management is able to identify skilled people that can be fully integrated into the company. Employees range in age from 30 to 85. The older women are valued equally, and even if they aren’t able to handle the most physically demanding tasks, they take great satisfaction from their work.
The journey to a successful chocolate enterprise has been long, but the positive effects are far-reaching. For women, generating an income reaps benefits that go well beyond material things. Women’s economic empowerment changes mindsets. With more of a say in decision-making at home and household responsibilities that are increasingly shared by their husbands, the women of the Altamira chocolate factories have carved out a space where they have a voice’and are heard.
As we finish up our conversation, the atmosphere in the room is friendly, almost joyful. The self doubt they experienced when they were first getting started is gone and is replaced with a unanimous belief that they are achieving their goals on a personal, career, and community level. Yes, they fantasize about being able to buy nice things for themselves and their families, but they also dream of stronger factories that provide more opportunities for women and young people in Altamira. They imagine their children getting involved in the business and carrying on the dream that united all of them. And what I notice is that behind their dreams and fantasies is an underlying current of tangibility, driven by the knowledge that given what they have accomplished already, perhaps they can make these dreams come true, too.
Julissa Almanzar is value chain facilitator for cocoa and gender with the Dominican Republic Exporting Quality and Safety Program, a USDA-funded program that is increasing productivity and domestic and export sales of high-value fruit and vegetables: avocado, greenhouse and oriental vegetables, pineapple, and cocoa.
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It’s obvious within the first few minutes of talking with Margarita de los Santos that she is a powerhouse. Quick to crack a joke but just as eager to get down to business, Margarita is the sort of magnetic person who has a natural ability to inspire you to match her tempo. Daughter and mother, aunt and friend, she is part of a close-knit family where everyone is supportive of each other. Her children and family are the center her life. Margarita is also a professional woman, and describes herself as very active. Her vibrant and full life mirrors that of the city in which she lives: Santo Domingo.
Margarita’s energy and talent, combined with her passion for improving life at home in the Dominican Republic’and around the world’serve her well in her role as finance and administration manager for IESC’s Exporting Quality and Safety Program.
This four-year program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service will increase productivity and sales of agriculture products for domestic and export markets. The program focuses on high-value fruits and vegetables, such as pineapple, avocado, peppers, and eggplant.
Margarita has been an invaluable member of the startup team in Santo Domingo, setting up systems and processes that will help the program run efficiently and effectively. As the team member in charge of making sure the program meets USDA and IESC standards, Margarita’s oversight is essential, and she understands the importance of her role. ‘I have a responsibility to record the complete history of program implementation in the best way possible,’ she said. This is not just a legal and financial responsibility to the donor, but also a technical one. The record of this program’s successes’and learning curves’will inform future agricultural development programs in the country, the region, and elsewhere.
Margarita has a wealth of experience that informs every aspect of her work, from the hefty responsibility of maintaining quality standards, to the day-to-day responsibilities. She’s been working on development programs for five years.
‘Every day, women in this country are gaining more professional capacity, but there is still a mentality among businesses that a man is the preferred executive.’ Margarita attributes this to the fact that many women require time off for maternity leave and other childrearing responsibilities, causing all women to be perceived as less dedicated than their male counterparts. So essentially, the very thing that matters most to Margarita ‘ supporting and caring for her family ‘ could also be seen as a disadvantage by potential employers, making it difficult to do the work that she also loves. It seems that the struggle to ‘have it all’ is a universal one for women.
Margarita’s determination and the support of her family help her to press on in this challenging professional environment. Plus, she truly believes in the work. ‘[Working for a nonprofit] has been an enriching experience,’ she said. ‘I love to work for these types of organizations due to the way they are structured and the transparency that these organizations require.’
Though juggling the numerous administrative and logistical demands associated with launching a big program keeps Margarita busy, she says that meeting potential beneficiaries face-to-face is a huge motivator, and she hopes that the program will help Dominican farmers earn a better income.
Margarita also sees the benefits of this program extending right to the family dinner table. ‘I would like if, in addition to the great impact we expect the program to have on our exports, Dominicans would also, by the same token, be able to consume quality products at home,’ she said.
Margarita is special. But she is also representative of countless Dominican women who find great value in their roles as mother, wife, sister, daughter, but also want to grow professionally and have positive impact in their communities and in their country. The struggle to have both is very real, but a firecracker like Margarita won’t let that stand in her way.
‘I would love to continue developing myself within international organizations, applying my knowledge and also facing new challenges. The world is constantly evolving, and each day there are new things to learn.’
This blog was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign.
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