Slowing Emigration by Making Farming Profitable in El Salvador

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Santa Marta is an impoverished rural community located 30 miles northeast of San Salvador. Most of its residents are subsistence farmers who typically plant corn and beans and raise livestock. Their income is meager, and employment options are scarce, leaving many young people with no choice but to migrate.

To help address these issues, the Asociación de Desarrollo Económico y Social Santa Marta (ADESSM) submitted a proposal to the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) to improve agricultural production for 100 families. The project called for introducing new crops and boosting incomes by selling agricultural products at local markets.  

The ADESSM proposal involved young volunteers working at a community radio station, students managing two community-owned hothouses, and young people working at a local computer center to support the new activities. While the proposal was not entirely framed as a youth project, young people played a key role. 

In 2005, the IAF awarded ADESSM a three-year grant totaling $349,245. The project was subsequently extended by 18 months, with additional funding of $61,960. ADESSM contributed $27,275 of its own resources and secured another $32,737 from other sources.  The project was undertaken in collaboration with its Santa Marta’s matching hometown association in Virginia, where 600 former Santa Marta residents, almost 20 percent of the population, have immigrated. 


Students Jaime Martínez and Xiomara Lainez sell crops produced in their farms at a solidarity  market in Santa Marta.

 GDF levels in pyramid graphic

The results of the ADESSM project were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF), which measures results on three levels: the individual or family level; the organizational or grantee level; and the community or societal level. At the lower level of the cone, the project had a positive impact on the lives of approximately 100 low-income farm families, as measured by indicators such as training, application of skills, income, and self-esteem. ADESSM reported on dissemination at the middle level, but did not report on any of the indicators at the upper or community level of the GDF cone.

Based on their interests and skills, farmers participating in the project formed six different production units focusing on greenhouse technology, hydroponics, beekeeping, chickens, pigs, and fish farming. Initially, farmers and their families received training on production and soil conservation practices, but the project’s focus later shifted to solidarity in marketing. Some farmers set in their ways did not participate in the marketing phase of the project, but in those cases their children assumed the marketing role, participating in the training sessions and following up with sales.

In one local marketplace known as the 10 de Octubre Market, selling live fish was a welcome novelty introduced by young project participants. Barrels filled with water and ice were used to keep fish alive. Adults who had previously sold fish that had already been killed were skeptical of the idea, but were soon won over after seeing the young vendors’ success with customers.

Young project participants also quickly and enthusiastically adopted agro-ecological techniques taught by project technicians. For example, they built earthworks to hold fertile soil in place during storms.

As do many local high schools in El Salvador, the school in Santa Marta requires students to do an internship to graduate, and many students opted to intern under the guidance of ADESSM. They worked in demonstration plots and on their parents’ farms, learning how to supplement subsistence farming with cash crops. The experience was so rewarding that nine of the students continued their education at the El Salvador’s National Agricultural School.
Mango, avocado, orange, and lime trees planted during the project period continue to bear fruit, providing additional income and nutritious alternatives for farming families. 

Broadcasts by young people at the radio station reinforced the use of soil conservation techniques instead of traditional slash-and-burn methods.

Students from one school also launched anti-pollution campaigns to collect plastic waste and clean a creek that runs through the community.


At the Individual Level
Five years after IAF funding ended, 20 young people are still working as ADESSM technical or administrative staff, while 10 others are working in government institutions.  
Secondary school students who earned high school credit by working  on ADESSM’s 10 demonstration plots, or by selling produce in Santa Marta’s weekly solidarity market or bimonthly fairs in Sensuntepeque, gained a different perspective on agriculture. They realized that opportunities still exist for farmers to make a living by selling their wares.  
Project activities benefited 500 people and 100 farming families, including young people who took advantage of the opportunities offered through the project. They learned about crop diversification, soil conservation practices, farm management, and marketing.

At the Organizational Level
ADESSM accomplished its goals of setting up six production associations to provide specialized training and technical assistance to farmers. Through these associations many of the young farmers learned about crop diversification, agro-ecological practices, fish farming, beekeeping, and marketing. In many instances, young people took the initiative to implement the techniques they learned in the demonstration plots. These young project participants were primarily responsible for taking care of the fruit trees, and had it not been for their efforts the trees would not have survived some long periods of drought in recent years. 

At the Community Level
Strong bonds were formed among many of the young participants from the various neighborhoods of Santa Marta. They shared their production and marketing skills with others. Ninety percent of those interviewed deemed this aspect of the project as the most valuable experience.

Radio Victoria, the community-based radio station staffed by four young volunteers, played an important role in disseminating information about new farming practices and project activities to its listeners. The station interacted frequently with the population through its market news and product information programs. The radio station continues to keep residents aware of community problems and opportunities. 


What Worked? 

The approached used by ADEMSS in the demonstration plots to teach farmers about crop diversification, soil conservation, and fish farming methods resulted in early and enthusiastic adoption of these practices, particularly by young people.

The solidarity market strategy also worked well. Farmers were able to sell their fresh produce directly to consumers at local weekly markets and bimonthly fairs. In doing so, they avoided using intermediaries who traditionally come to their communities and buy at below-market prices in order to resell at higher prices, to the detriment of local consumers and farmers.

ADESSM’s collaboration with Radio Victoria and its young volunteers also benefited farm families and their community by disseminating information about project activities and farmers’ products through news spots and advertisements.

What Did Not Work 
Of the 100 families that participated in project activities through their associations, only 36 continue to work collaboratively. ADESSM underestimated the individualistic mentality of farmers. Farmers tend to be risk averse, and those accustomed to a subsistence way of life resist working in groups. 
Of the six productive associations initiated by the project, only one – the beekeeping association consisting of six farmers – is still active.

The ADESSM project sparked local farmers’ interest in adopting year-round cultivation of diversified crops in an ecologically sustainable manner. By diversifying their production, farmers were able to increase their incomes and improve their families’ nutrition. At the same time, the project gave participating youths the tools to earn a living in agriculture. This is a significant achievement in a locality most known for losing its residents to emigration.