Each year, the most spectacular natural phenomenon occurs between Mexico and its northerly neighbors, the United States and Canada, when the Monarch butterfly migrates en masse to warmer climes down south.
The epic journey ensures its survival. It’s a route that has also proved vital for the PRAGOR (Proveedores Agricolas Organicos) cooperative in Mexico when a trip to a trade fair in Canada in 2013 helped stall a downward spiral in sales – a drop that had threatened the future of their organic avocado business. In Canada, contacts with an old buyer they had previously dealt with only through a middleman were renewed on a firmer, more fruitful, and – this time – direct footing.
High Quality Indigenous Product
The avocado tree is native to Mexico. With ideal growing conditions for the green, pear-shaped fruit, it’s the world capital of avocado production, accounting for more than 40 percent of global exports.
The plant thrives in the heavily-forested region of Michoacán along the foothills of the ancient Purepecha highlands. There, groves of Haas avocado trees bear crate-loads of the highly nutritious crop the Aztecs used to invent Mexico’s most famous export: guacamole.
Picked by hand, avocados must be mature before they can be harvested. Then, farmers have about a fortnight to get their produce onto market shelves before it ripens enough to eat.
It’s a labor intensive activity that requires cool care, precision and professionalism to deliver a high-quality product.
Hard Graft Leads To New Buyers And Increased Sales
It wasn’t always this way. Previously, PRAGOR had dealt with an exporter and it was the exporter – not the cooperative - who made contact with potential buyers. The relationship with the middleman proved problematic – it lacked transparency; there were issues with Premium payments; trust broke down.
In 2010, the members decided to restructure, apply for Fairtrade certification for their cooperative, and deal with clients directly. However, after years of being dependent on the contacts of their exporter, they now faced the challenge of finding new markets on their own.
Like many fruit trees, avocados are usually grafted and it was a hard graft, too, for the farmers to rebuild their business.
They set up a website – in Spanish and English – to introduce themselves and their produce, even adding some delicious-sounding recipes to whet buyers’ appetites.
And they worked tirelessly contacting potential buyers directly to establish relations with them and promote their produce. A year on, with help and support from Fairtrade, they were selling a third of their avocados on Fairtrade terms.
Today, the successful co-op is selling 85 percent of its harvest on Fairtrade terms with North America its most lucrative market.
Fairtrade Certification Key To Building Trust
53-year-old Salvador Romero, who manages the co-op, says the quality of their produce was key but so, too, was their association with Fairtrade.
Our Fairtrade certification in 2011 generated trust with our commercial partners and helped us to recover our markets
“Our Fairtrade certification in 2011 generated trust with our commercial partners and helped us to recover our markets,” he explained. “We started sending small volumes to a client in Canada who we met up with again at an organic expo. From that point, the relationship developed anew. The trust we’ve built up has helped us build long-term commercial relationships and also expand our contacts in the United States.”
That investment in face-to-face contact between co-op members and importers has paid off with each getting to know each other personally through annual visits between Mexico and the US and Canada.
Creating Opportunities For The Next Generation
PRAGOR’s success has not been without challenges though. Growers are limited in the amount of land they can cultivate as forested areas are protected.
Michoacán has been blighted by the presence of drug cartels. For years, the region sent the highest number of Mexican migrants to the US. The homicide rate here shot up again in 2016. Many have turned to vigilantism to protect their homes, families and businesses.
But thriving avocado orchards can help carve a route out of poverty and create home-grown opportunities for the region’s young people, steering them away from the cartels.
“My children want to study languages,” says one of Salvador’s co-op colleagues. “But I think they will always have an attachment to the avocado industry that, later on, will attract them back to it.”
As well as hoping to keep avocado production in the family, the co-op has also been using part of the Fairtrade Premium it earns to support other activities for young people.
A musical project they fund is aimed at youngsters living in disadvantaged areas. They hope it will help encourage them to steer clear of a life of crime.
Small Beginnings, Big Dreams
The co-op members are well aware that their future - and that of future generations – depends on the land they cultivate.
They work hard to preserve their environment so that production of their sought-after avocados is sustainable. The Premium helps fund a bee project – avocado flowers must be pollinated by bees to produce fruit – and provides equipment and training for producers. They work on keeping their soil healthy and preventing soil erosion. They manage their water supplies and protect the forests around them.
Although their organization is small, the farmers of PRAGOR dream big and continue their work to expand opportunities for small-scale avocado farmers.
Learn more about PRAGOR on their website.