At the turn of the century, I used to traverse the globe in search of organic producers. I gallivanted off to Ecuador and Peru customarily accompanied by Fair Trade USA. I traipsed and traversed continents to develop direct relationships with banana growers: important because bananas were our biggest single selling item in terms of volume. I remember long dusty drives on bumpy roads through poor villages only to arrive at some overheated office to meet a group of hardworking Spanish-speaking farmers. I often sat a bit dumbfounded, understanding about half of the conversation, I would ask myself “Why am I here, why me?”
Apparently, all of those long dusty trips prepared me for this moment.
It’s bright and early when I depart from the city of Santo Domingo. The urban chaos of darting motorbikes, careening cars and trucks that snarl through the streets is dangerous yet also exciting. This strangulation of human movement is a daily beast that must be reckoned with for all who traverse this city. The metro only runs only two directions underground, so everyone is on the street—a veritable congestion of humanity.
The road north swiftly plunges deep into a rainforest of trees and vines, boasting flora and fauna of the sultry kind generally experienced between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. In this rich, moist zone, life flourishes in abundance. The native Yagrumo trees catch my eye sporting cylindrical, soft-fleshy fruit that droop in mad clusters resembling an octopus. Their girth and broad leaves are majestic.
I journey with a team of experts from IESC, dedicated to helping groups of small producers in far-flung villages become drivers of their own destiny and successfully enter the international market. For three consecutive days we embark on twelve-hour tours into the countryside to work with associations of small avocado and pineapple producers. It is reminiscent of my banana romps in Machala, Ecuador.
Along the way I learn a few things:
The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s most productive avocado producers. Despite high productivity and the proximity to the US, the largest market for avocado consumption in the world, the DR lags behind other global exporters: ranking just 9th in the world. There are myriad obstacles blocking progress at the level of both the producer and the market. Only 5% of all producers are organized into groups. Very few are collaborating on marketing, transportation or aggregated purchasing of farm implements and inputs.
The country’s pineapple sector used to be ranked as one of the favored world producers, but it too has fallen behind due historical disruptions and economic debacles. The Dominican pineapple industry is continuously caught in a never-ending startup phase. They suffer from poor planning and organizational knowledge and have trouble supplying regular markets. Yet the exquisite taste of these pineapples is the finest I have savored.
I find out that the Ministry of Agriculture offers insufficient support to either sector. I utter a silent oath of gratitude for our USDA and all the services provide they provide our rural communities in the US. The DR could use a splash of policy work along with a douse of grower empowerment.
I discover that access to land is a huge problem. Many families that have planted and tilled, fertilized and nurtured this fecund land since time out of mind aren’t legally land owners. “Certainly if my grandfather’s, grandfather’s grandfather toiled here, planted the first coconuts and pineapples, then surely this land must belong to my family?” Not so fast—the protocol of titles and paperwork were simply never instituted. So now no one, not even the family who has worked for generations, may claim legal ownership. It’s a bizarre conundrum.
As we pass through barrios (neighborhoods) and pueblos, the residents are resplendent in their relaxation. It’s the middle of the morning and the plenteous shade trees host young men lounging in hammocks, old women soaking their feet and children sporting soccer balls. I wonder at the percentage of unemployment and realize it is a tough metric to measure. I am told there have been censuses but how do you define “employment” here?
This place languishing at 19 degrees south latitude is rich in resources but poor in rural opportunity. It’s a complication born from a history of conquistadores and plunderers, smallpox intermingled with Europe’s gluttonous romance with sugar. The original natives were all but obliterated, slaves from Africa were brutally installed and the wooden edifies of New Orleans were built from the felled native forests. Conquest, pillage, suffering and domination are the vestibules of this potential paradise.
We meet with an assembly of small avocado producers not yet ready for export. They haven’t created a brand, nor do they have food safety protocols in place. The room is steamy and the coffee is strong, bitter and sweet. They listen intently and fill out evaluation forms I have created to identify gaps and future trainings.
We move on to a veritable army of pineapple producers. Some are skeptical and think they don’t need our assistance. Yet as we dig into the various questions on export protocols and marketing strategies, they become interested. Despite a litany of trucks rattling by with blaring loudspeakers and cacophonies, many in the room perk up, take note and listen… Yes a few are sleeping, but at the end of the two-hour discussion, they nod with understanding, there is much to learn.
We trundle on like this for three arduous days. As I visit these associations of small farmers in various stages of sophistication and development, I wonder at the serendipity that has led me to this mission.
With the last darkening dusk, driving back into the city of Santo Domingo, I am rendered thunderstruck with gratitude for the immense providence and grace that fills my life. The opportunities that have been afforded me just by the precarious chance of birthplace, it leaves me humbled. All the work I have done in agriculture and agribusiness has not only been for my benefit but now can be used to help transform the lives of others.
Everything I have done has led me to this moment.