Small-scale farmers in Peru are being confronted with many problems, such as climate change, commercial competitors and flawed government policy. Trias wants to tackle the situation.
Farmers face difficult challenges
With 4.6 million tonnes a year, Peru is the largest potato producer in Latin America. Potato cultivation is mainly in the hands of small-scale farmers living in the high mountain areas. However, it is difficult for them to keep up with commercial competitors in the coastal region, who approach potato production more professionally. The small farmers harvest at most 15 tonnes of potatoes per hectare, compared to 60 tonnes for conventional agriculture. This difference can be explained by the fact that the land of small farmers is not suitable for machinery, which means that a great deal of manual labour is required. Moreover, small farmers do not receive a fair price for their products. On top of that, they also have to deal with climate change, rising temperatures and the drying soil reducing harvest volumes and affecting the quality. The number of plagues and diseases is also increasing, forcing the farmers to move higher and higher up in the Andean region. They are now growing their potatoes 1,000 meters higher than thirty years ago. Food security and the income of Peruvian families are at stake.
Dreams get chances
Better government policy is crucial: more resources for research, promotion of agriculture, better infrastructure, technical knowledge and seed certification. However, the NGO Trias does not want to wait for that and is doing everything it can to improve the situation of Peruvian potato farmers. The organisation supports the cooperative Coopagros, which is setting up numerous actions. This association organises trainings for potato growers on how to use fertilisers efficiently, among other things. In addition to cultivation support, it also offers microcredits and explores new markets. The cooperative has its own shop where farmers can buy all kinds of materials at a lower price.
The small farmers harvest at most 15 tonnes of potatoes per hectare, compared to 60 tonnes for conventional agriculture.
The Incas used to freeze-dry their potatoes for centuries. The freezing process starts by spreading the potatoes out on the field in the uplands. The farmers then place the tubers in a river to wash them and prevent them from discolouring. Finally, they massage them with their feet to remove the moisture, before spreading them out again. The result are 'chuños', freeze-dried potatoes that can be preserved for up to ten years.
Coopagros was the first cooperative to set up a chuño plant. It has a refrigerated room, designed by eight students from the VTI in Torhout, in which the potatoes are slowly frozen. Farmers can now produce freeze-dried potatoes all year long, whereas in the past this was only possible during the cold months of June, July and August. In addition, they can now freeze-dry independently of the warming climate. This gives them greater income security and strengthens their position against commercial competition. A big step in the right direction! For normal potatoes, farmers receive only 15 euro cents per kilo, while a kilo of freeze-dried potatoes gives them between 2.6 and 3.5 euros.
By processing potatoes and making sure the added value stays within the farmer families, it becomes more interesting for young people not to leave the countryside permanently. In addition to their studies, they focus on the potato activity in their parents' village, as long as it is profitable.