Rainforest Alliance staff member Yessenia Soto shares a story about her visit to a small Rainforest Alliance Certified™ passion fruit farm in the central highlands of Costa Rica. She spoke with farmer Gerardo Jiménez about his work to make his farm sustainable and what it means for his children and grandchildren.
Gerardo Jiménez has been a farmer for more than 50 years. His 17-acre farm is essentially a mini-farmers’ market—in addition to passion fruit, he has cassava, squash, papayas, coconuts, beans, plantains and even livestock. This is not surprising; smallholder farmers in Costa Rica have always cultivated multiple crops on their land in order to provide a variety of food for their families and to supplement their income.
Every weekend, Jiménez’s nephew sells the farm’s produce at local markets. But, as Jiménez tells us, the price of fruit and vegetables is volatile—although cassava usually fetches the highest prices of all his goods, he remembers one year when prices were so low that he ended up losing money. And he was left with a huge pile of cassava sitting in his garage.
A little over three years ago, Jiménez started growing passion fruit for the first time. He had been invited to participate in a Chiquita initiative for smallholder passion fruit farmers that was designed to create an alternative and sustainable supply of passion fruit in Costa Rica. This initiative aptly coincides with the United Nation’s International Year of Family Farming, which highlights the potential family farmers to eradicate hunger, preserve natural resources and promote sustainable development.
Chiquita offered Jiménez and other farmers training, technical assistance and a contract that guaranteed the purchase of all their passion fruit. The company helps the passion fruit farmers implement best sustainable agriculture methods and achieve Rainforest Alliance certification. Today, the group consists of more than 180 farmers across the country and is currently preparing to renew its certification.
“This is a great opportunity for smallholder farmers who depend on crops with small profit margins,” explains Luis Valverde, sourcing manager at Chiquita in Costa Rica. “They can diversify their production, receive a guaranteed income for the passion fruit and discover the importance of sustainable farm management.”
Since joining the program, Jiménez has received training on earth-friendly techniques, including how to prepare and nourish the soil, plant seedlings and build a structure for the vines to climb on. He has also learned how much sun, water and fertilizer the plants would need, as well as a special technique for pollinating the flowers. And in order to meet the strict environmental requirements of Rainforest Alliance certification, he takes active measures to protect the waterways on his land.
“I used to cut down all of the trees by the river with my machete,” says the 72-year-old farmer, who has since reforested his farm and now protects the stream and the wildlife on his property.
He learned that he was over-applying chemicals, endangering the environment and his own health and incurring needless costs. “Before, I didn’t know anything about agrochemical regulations. I used to apply herbicides freely and never wore safety gear—I always smelled like herbicide myself.” Thanks to the Rainforest Alliance certification program, now Jiménez knows which chemicals are safe and minimizes their use, keeping records of all agrochemical applications. He also bought protective equipment for himself and his son and nephew, as well as a few workers that help him when needed.
Even though passion fruit plants only account for a half-hectare of his land, Jiménez has implemented these best practices on the entire farm, for all his crops. He expressed happiness that his family, especially the grandchildren, can now enjoy a healthier environment.
Jiménez estimates that he makes at least 20 percent more money from the passion fruit than from his other crops, but he remains committed to crop diversity. “Having a little bit of everything is the best way to use the land,” he said wisely.