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Field Notes: Central America

Jim Nienhuis, a CALS professor of horticulture, spends a lot of time conducting research in Central America, a place he has cared about deeply since serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. He’s never stopped thinking about how to address the region’s most pressing problems. Among them: the striking number of single mothers among the rural poor.

“The men had used them and then left for the cities,” says Nienhuis. “They were cast off, but they are young, they are smart, they are willing to work, and they love and care for their children. They can’t abandon their young families and go to work in the city, but they can and usually do live with their parents, and together they survive.”

Often, too, they have small parcels of land—and thus a means of support by intensively growing vegetables both to sell at local markets and to feed their families. Women’s agricultural cooperatives—groups that allow these farmers to share resources and experience, ranging from shared tools to increased bargaining power at the market—were formed to help them in those efforts.

The problem: quality seeds are often beyond their means. Multinational seed companies looking to make a profit prefer to sell to large-scale producers—and at up to 15 cents per seed, women hoping to grow crops for market simply cannot afford them. And inexpensive local seeds are highly susceptible to plant diseases that substantially decrease yields.

That’s where Nienhuis could help. With funding from USAID, three years ago he began a program called “Seeds of Hope” to teach women in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to raise their own seeds. As a plant breeder, Nienhuis helped develop open-pollinated varieties of disease-resistant tomatoes and peppers that women could save from their own crops and replant the following year.

The program is making a difference. “The women have really liked the new seed varieties for their rapid growth and high demand in the market,” says Doris Hernandez of CARE El Salvador, who works with the women. Each year Nienhuis conducts at least one training program in Central America that brings all the women together. And each year the program brings the women to the CALS campus. Workshops have covered everything from small business management and greenhouse production to business technology and seed storage.

Last summer, for example, they learned how to better save seeds with clay “drying beads” that are mixed with seeds to absorb moisture. In humid Central America, their use means much higher rates of unspoiled seed for the next planting season. Seeds of Hope supplied beads to each cooperative.

Having access to seeds and training has boosted the women’s confidence. Not only do they raise and sell vegetables, they have taken their businesses in new directions. Many of them, for example, now raise seedlings on an increasingly large scale to sell to other local farmers’ cooperatives.

“They continue to surprise me with their ingenuity,” says Nienhuis. With the new skills and international networks they have developed from Seeds of Hope, women’s cooperatives scattered across Central America are positioned for growing success.