Juan Villatoro, the executive director of the Coffee Association of El Salvador, assisted last week at the Maryland International Agriculture and Environment Conference in his quest to secure a memorandum of understanding with a Maryland-based organic fertilizer company. This collaboration aims to produce a cleaner, purer coffee, offering hope to the 22,000 coffee producers he represents.
El Salvador’s coffee farmers have faced numerous challenges in recent years, with the majority being small-scale operators who struggle to receive fair prices for their products. Currently, they are paid a mere 74 cents per pound, a figure far from the $2 needed for profitability in the coffee industry.
The legacy of a lengthy civil war, which ended in 1992, was compounded by the rise of gang activity, creating an environment that was detrimental to coffee farming. Over two years, these gangs extorted an estimated $80 million from farmers and claimed the lives of numerous coffee growers on their own land.
Last week’s conference brought together a significant delegation of Salvadoran businessmen, including Vice President Félix Augusto Antonio Ulloa Garay. Their visit generated optimism and the potential for assistance to the beleaguered coffee farmers.
The Maryland International Agricultural and Environmental Conference, led by CEO Gerardo Martinez, aimed to foster international partnerships and knowledge sharing between Maryland and El Salvador. The conference provides a platform for open discussions and encourages collaboration, hoping to facilitate the exchange of best practices.
Maria José Solis, a member of the Salvadoran delegation, expressed her happiness about the opportunity to invest in and revitalize agriculture, benefiting both the land and the people. She is the co-founder of one of the largest Latino income tax operations in the U.S., having immigrated to the country at the age of 16 in November 1991.
The conference, initiated last year with a delegation from Jalisco, Mexico, has evolved into a vital hub for Latino and African immigrant farmers. It also serves as a means to inspire the next generation of farmers, and Martinez’s Edgewater Farm is the nation’s sole bilingual community education farm.
During their visit, the delegation explored small livestock farm operations at Newport Valley Farm in Charlotte Hall and engaged with fellow farmers. They also visited Tobacco Barn Distillery in Hollywood for discussions and a tasting session, followed by a trip to AIRtec at St. Mary’s County Airport in California, where they learned about drone technology’s applications in farming.
AIRtec’s CEO and President, Thomas Jarboe, highlighted the advantages of drones in agriculture, particularly in pest control. Drone technology can quickly identify problem areas, such as infestations, using hyper-spectral imaging, revolutionizing the monitoring of crops. It also enables precise spraying and irrigation, though Jarboe acknowledged that farmers tend to be slow in adopting new technologies due to traditional practices passed down through generations.
Martinez emphasized that despite its troubled history, El Salvador is now one of the safest countries in the Western Hemisphere. However, it still imports over 90% of its food. The focus on El Salvador at this year’s conference is intended to empower the Salvadoran diaspora in Maryland, not only in agriculture but also in technology, aiming to boost the nation’s self-sufficiency.
The Maryland International Agriculture and Environment Conference continues to build bridges and foster collaborations to support coffee farmers and promote sustainable agricultural practices.