A fruitful exchange in Colombia
Agribusiness expert Christia Roberts learned as much as she taught during her placement as a sustainable development advisor in Ibagué, Colombia.
Experienced in commercial horticulture production, she wanted to help farmers in the developing world implement environmentally sustainable practices and generate more income for themselves and their families. When she retired, the grandmother of two signed on for a one-year placement with Fruandes, a Cuso International partner organization working with small farmers to grow and sell organic fair-trade produce.
“I have wanted to volunteer internationally for a long time,” said Christia, who lives in Vancouver. “I loved my career, loved commercial horticulture. That’s what I could do and what I had the skills to do.”
In 12 months, Christia helped 100 farm families transform their crop yields. She developed experiments the farmers could easily conduct so they could see how small changes to their techniques would produce big outcomes.
For pitahaya farmers—dragon fruit in English—it’s important they control the flowering process to synchronize the harvest. “You don’t want to go out and pick two or three fruits every day. You want to be able to harvest a crop,” Christia said. “Here, they didn’t know how to initiate flowering in dragon fruit—but they do in Israel.”
She connected the farmers with scientists in Israel who explained how to make the plants flower concurrently. Since then, dragon fruit farmers have seen noticeable increases in the volume of harvest and their financial return, while information-sharing continues between the farmers and scientists from around the world.
The banana farmers were concerned with how much water and fertilizer their crops were using. Christia recognized the issue right away. There were too many stems sucking up the nutrients and depriving the whole plant.
Because they looked healthy, the farmers were reluctant to prune until Christia showed them they didn’t need the excess.
“Bananas, they multiply like grass on a lawn,” she said. “The banana growers couldn’t be happier. The quality and volume of the crops was dramatically affected in that one year.”
German Betancourt, technology leader of organic development at Fruandes, said Christia really connected with the farmers and worked with them as partners.
“She brought methodologies about how to work in a more structured way and we applied it to the tropical crops here,” he said. “She was loved, she was always available to give advice and she talked to everyone without judgment.”
The experience was unlike anything Christia had in her professional life and she was able to learn a thing or two as well.
“It’s not just 100 proprietors, but 100 families that often included three generations of people,” she said. “What they do very well is cooperate with each other. They are not internally competitive. They are caring, and that’s a powerful way to work.”