“I have a saying: Don’t confuse poverty with laziness,” says Doña Francisca Ros Gómez*, also known as Doña Fran. She is a 37-year-old single mother of four living in Huica, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. She is also a coffee producer, beekeeper, mushroom grower, gardener and excellent cook. Since 2012, Doña Fran began diversifying the crops that she grows as well as her sources of income. With unstable rainfall and temperature patterns in recent years, the coffee and basic grain harvests have been unpredictable. For rural people living in poverty, these changes affect their households drastically.
“Four years ago I started a garden on my property,” says Doña Fran. “I went to some workshops with the Esquipulas Cooperative in La Libertad, of which I am a member.” Standing in her garden, she points to the beets, carrots, onions, tomatillos, cabbage and radishes that are growing healthfully. “These are the herbs. We have basil, lemon verbena, parsley, cilantro, yerba buena, and that’s chamomile.” She shows me each plant, handling the leaves with a gentle touch.
“We learned organic composting. I throw layers of dried corn cobs, ashes from the kitchen, and green material onto the pile. I tell my kids to go out into the hills and bring back green plant matter, then we chop it up and layer it on.” In March, she takes the compost pile out onto the concrete terrance and turns it. “If we are planting new coffee plants that year, I use it to start the seedlings. Otherwise, it goes back to the vegetables.”
In 2014, Doña Fran lost 50 percent of her coffee harvest, which was her primary source of income at the time. Coffee leaf rust, a disease caused by fungal rust, devastated coffee crops all over Latin America over the last four years, so her situation was not unique. She started growing avocados, bananas, limes, papayas, oranges, peaches and squash, both for selling in town and to help feed her family. “Even still, we had to buy less food and stop buying new clothes. I also had more debt from taking out loans.”
“That was when I doubled my oyster mushroom production.” Doña Fran is the only person in her community cultivating oyster mushrooms. She has two mushroom farms, located in dark humid rooms that she added on to her house. She hangs plastic bags from the ceilings and fills them with corn cobs and black bean shells, both byproducts from her other crops. “I spray water on them and harvest daily. People come to my house to buy them by the pound.” Each pound goes for 15 quetzales, the equivalent of about $2.00.
“Changes don’t happen overnight,” she tells me. “It’s not easy to make people change things in their community. But the work we are doing here is for us, for our families. It is important to diversify in these times.”
Doña Fran has been experimenting in the kitchen with all of her new produce. “As part of the organic gardening workshops, we had classes about cooking and nutrition for the family.” A group of 25 women came to her house to attend the workshops. “We learned how to make jams and marmalades. People here never thought you could make jam out of vegetables, but we made some with beets and tomatoes. We made chard tamales, too.”
One of the best desserts I’ve had in Guatemala was her popsicle made with jocote, an acidic orange fruit in the cashew family. “The most surprising thing was when they made us a drink with loquat and cucumber,” she says. “It was actually really good! Now we incorporate these recipes with the fresh produce into our kitchens.”
“It has been because of economic need that I’ve started all of these projects. Just because I am poor doesn’t mean I am not going to sweep my house or bathe my kids. I realized that I had to start working harder to support my family. If I don’t work, who will provide for us?”
*Name changed at interviewee’s request.
Anika Rice is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee, conducting research with women coffee producers in Guatemala and Nicaragua. She is documenting crop diversification and out-migration patterns in communities where people’s livelihoods are being affected by crop disease and climate change.