Project Alianza, founded and led by Kristin Van Busum, is brewing change. The initiative, based in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, 80 miles north of the capital, Managua, aims to link remote small-scale coffee farmers to their larger counterparts to receive higher prices and training on land management practices. Van Busum’s work contributes to more nuanced view of food sovereignty: for all the talk of small-scale local food production, export-oriented smallholder commodity growers still face very real problems—but addressing these issues should not necessarily alienate better-positioned actors in the global agriculture system.
This means encouraging the more prosperous farmers in Matagalpa to buy coffee directly from smallholder, who in turn benefit from more transparent pricing. The eventual goal is to set up professional, contractual relationships between growers, bringing more formality to an exchange that nowadays only happens sporadically. Typically, the smallholders urgently sell their crop without any concern for quality or any awareness of the actual market price.
Van Busum, whose project started out as a Fulbright fellowship, first saw the neglect of the poorest coffee producers during her first trip to the region. The government did not assist smallholders, and cooperatives had limited reach. To her, tapping the social responsibility, resources, and expertise of nearby larger-scale producers seemed like a suitable way to fill the void.
The project is establishing a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program to help the poorer producers avoid land erosion. Initially, Van Busum met and spoke with household after household to build trust and gain insight into daily challenges. The large-scale coffee operations hold much of the agronomic knowledge in Matagalpa, and Van Busum wants that technical know-how spread throughout the community. “How can we strategize so larger farmers can help us create a more equitable agriculture system and alleviate poverty in the community?” said Van Busum. “We look for those farmers who are socially conscious and ask, ‘How can they be a launchpad for helping us do the right thing?’ Let’s find the ones who can set a new standard.”
Leading the way is Enrique Ferrufino, Alianza partner and the manager of Finca Aurora, a 101-hectare (250-acre) coffee farm in Matagalpa. Widely known and respected throughout the region, according to Van Busum, Ferrufino organized community meetings to initiate discussions on leveraging Finca Aurora’s advantageous practices for other farmers. Many of the farm managers are locals, giving them an acute sense of what others are going through.
Finca Aurora identifies community leaders to conduct outreach to small farmers, and makes milling, transport services, and knowledge accessible to them, Ferrufino said. A key benefit of working with Alianza, he explained, is the ability to tailor the mentoring program to individual farmers’ needs. In fact, the project, in charting farmer partnerships, relies upon large farms’ longstanding position as a safety net in the community.
“When there is a lack of resources—no clinic, or no access to technical assistance—smallholders have come to the farm and asked for advice, or asked for a ride to city,” said Van Busum. “They saw that farm as having access to resources. They create a network so they can support each other.”