San Salvador, El Salvador, April 2012 (IICA). At the field schools that have been set up in El Salvador since early this year, the hustle and bustle of the students alternates with total silence as they pay attention to their instructors. Other sounds include those made by birds, the branches of the trees or the nearby river.
This is what can be heard in the “classrooms.” What can be seen, however, in the surrounding area are poor smallholdings, mangrove swamps along the coast, dusty dirt roads and typical fauna of the region. In the midst of all this, with notebook in hand, the farmers ask technical experts questions and take notes. They learn by playing… and try not to overlook anything.
The students are adult men and women, and a few young people, who make up the rural population of El Salvador. The average age is 50…many of the young have emigrated from the countryside.
This methodology for providing technical training -Field Schools- is being promoted by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in El Salvador, as part of its support for the government’s Family Agriculture Plan (PAF), in particular its Production Chains program.
The methodology was created a couple of decades ago by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for countries in Asia and Africa. IICA has taken the process one step further. In addition to acquiring technical know-how related to their work, participants receive training in marketing, entrepreneurship and the institutional framework. Even the facilitators at the field schools, some 300 of them, receive training. In each school there are three facilitators, usually one experienced and two novices.
Gerardo Escudero, IICA Representative in El Salvador, said “At present, there is no other experience of this scope.” The goal is to create 640 schools, 500 of which are already in operation.
The schools, designed to meet the needs of those involved in commercial-scale family agriculture, which include some 65,000 farmers already linked in some way to the market, focus on eight production chains identified as priorities by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Farming (MAG): coffee, dairy, honey, fruit, vegetables, cacao, aquaculture and staple grains (beans and maize).
On average, each school has 25 students. One of these is Oscar Elias, a shrimper from Jiquilisco (Usulutan Department), who is learning not only how to increase productivity, but also to make better business deals. “Here, intermediaries buy our shrimp at the price they want to pay, not what it is really worth.” He, like the rest of the producers in the eight production chains, wants greater access to the domestic food market, which currently depends heavily on imports.
Jorge Escobar, Coordinator of the Production Chains Program, explained that it is the farmers themselves who set the rules, ranging from the time training sessions are held to how to show respect for classmates. Of course, a good part of the content of each is determined by the needs of the participants. “The problems and limitations of the producers are identified and a six-month program is set up to address them, in one three-hour session per week,” he explained.
Topics for inclusion in the sessions also emerge from the workshops MAG and IICA conduct to describe in detail the production chains, which make it possible to assess the level of coordination that exists between the links of the chains, improve such coordination and reach competitiveness agreements; in other words, to ensure that the entire chain is focused on the objective of increasing sales of national food on the domestic market.
Adults are back in school
Zoyla Rivera, her husband and six children are shrimpers from Jiquilisco. At the field school, they have learned the ideal weight at which to offer shrimp for sale.
“If we harvest the shrimp at two and a half months, they are well developed. If we can average 60 or 65 to a pound, that is good. They are producing some in China that cost US$2 per pound (65 shrimp per pound),” she said authoritatively, while only a few meters away the MAG/IICA instructor was giving instruct ions on how to install shrimp feeders and, a few meters further away a scorching sun was reflecting off the shrimp ponds.
The Field School methodology is designed for adults, said Edgar Cruz, an IICA specialist in the field of competitiveness. It was chosen because it is based on identifying bad habits people have already acquired, which, once shared and discussed, are corrected and then put into practice. According to Cruz, the schools make it possible to implement advances in agricultural techniques quickly.
“The assistance we provide is aimed at bringing about changes in producers in El Salvador. We do not bring the knowledge back with us; it stays in the countryside,” said Cruz. To this end, IICA works side by side with the offices of the MAG and the National Agriculture and Forestry Technology Center (CENTA) located throughout the country. The MAG will gradually develop the capacities it requires to take over coordination of the facilitators by 2013.
Jessica Galvez, age 23, is one of these extension agents. A recent graduate of the National Agricultural School, she trains coffee growers in Chinameca Municipality, San Miguel Department, where she shows them how to solve problems related to packaging. “They may be aware of good techniques, but do not always apply them,” she said with a slight smile: she had just received her degree as an agricultural technician.
Galvez had travelled to San Salvador the day before to attend her graduation ceremony. She had only a few hours left to spend time with some of her 111 fellow graduates before returning to Chinameca. All had jobs and would be leaving the next day to train producers in the field schools.
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