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Mexican apple farmers learn techniques to improve crops

Six small apple farmers from Chihuahua, Mexico, are visiting Eastern Washington June 13 to 19 as part of a cross-border apple project supported by Catholic Relief Services/Mexico (CRS) and the Broetje First Fruits of Washington Orchard near Prescott.

Broetje and Mexican farmers
Ralph Broetje, back left, and Chuck Barrett, right, learn about apple leaf mold from Mexican farmers.

“It’s an example of supporting people’s ability to make a living in their own country so they don’t have to migrate,” said Scott Cooper, director of Parish Social Services with Catholic Charities in Spokane.  “Farmers with CRS’s partner Frente Democratio Campesino de Chihuahua—Farmers’ Democratic Front—have gained technical support to grow apples more competitively.

“This partnership shines light on some of the root causes of migration.  It is a positive, constructive solution that respects people, saves lives and keeps families together,” Scott said.  “It appeals to people regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of opinion on immigration.”

Catholic Charities in Spokane is arranging two gatherings to learn about the project and migration issues.  One is on Sunday, June 14, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Walla Walla and another on Friday, June 19, at St. Joseph’s, 1503 W. Dean. 

The project is part of Por un Mercado Justo (For a Just Market), said Chuck Barrett, economic development program coordinator for CRS/Mexico.  It involves growers who have farmed hillsides in Chihuahua for generations.  CRS/ Mexico works with communities of Tarahumara—also known as the Rarámuri—indigenous people, many of  whom work in apple harvests involved in the project.

Some Broetje employees and members of the Broetje family visited Chihuahua in 2007 and 2008 to teach pruning and thinning skills to grow larger, better quality apples; to set up demonstration acres to work with farmers on cultivation techniques; to teach about diseases, and to monitor market fluctuations in apple prices.  Six farmers from Chihuahua visited the Broetje Orchards in 2006. 

“The project has improved the quality of life for farmers,” said Chuck, who grew up in the South and was drawn through the civil rights movement into organizing farm workers and eventually working with CRS.

In 2005, with funds from Warren Buffet’s Foundation and the Broetje’s Vista Hermosa Foundation, Catholic Relief Services/Mexico began a revolving fund to help small farmers.  With no credit, cooling systems or transportation, the farmers were forced to accept 18 cents a pound for their crops at harvest, when prices are lowest.  The low price kept them in a cycle of poverty.

Starting by connecting farmers, and loaning a group of 20 an amount just over 18 cents a pound, families pooled their crops, pledged not to sell individually, and stored apples in a temperature-controlled space until the price cycle peaked in December.  Then they could earn 51 cents a pound. 

The farmers who were trained at the Broetje Orchards returned and shared skills with other farmers.  Now 200 farmers involved earn nearly 300 percent more than before, Chuck said. 

The revolving credit fund supports marketing and the apple growers’ school for farmer-to-farmer education.

“Solidarity among apple growers across the border is countering some of the negative effects of globalization on apple farmers of Chihuahua,” said Chuck.

“CRS has pursued root causes of migration since the collapse of the rural economy in Mexico in 1994,” he said.  “We also have programs to help corn and bean farmers stay on their land, working with different indigenous groups in several areas.”

For information, call 358-4273.