To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 3 million people worldwide and brought some industries to a standstill. While food remains very much a necessity, the agricultural industry has not been spared.
That is to say, farmers – who toil on their soil to grow our food and agricultural commodities – are facing risks not just to their lives, but to their livelihoods as well. The virus has been indifferent to geography and economy, meaning that farmers from France and the USA are in the same basket as those in India and Nigeria.
At Earthworm, a large part of our work is helping farmers across the world become more resilient to shocks that can affect their income. While the latest strain of the coronavirus has made it more difficult, technology is helping bridge the gap left by social distancing – the new norm of our world. In this first of a series of articles, we explore how some of our field teams are continuing to reach out to farmers, defying a virus that forces us away from one another.
The Andes (Ecuador and Peru)
Ecuador and Peru have been among the most badly hit Latin American nations. This means that our field work has ground to a halt while our teams work from home.
Our teams in the Andes have frequent contact with farmers, mills and other actors through WhatsApp, as well as phone and Skype calls. This is helping maintain relationships and momentum with farmers, said Richard Vaca, who oversees our work with farmers in the region.
“In Peru, the team produced a short motivational video (see above) for farmers to highlight their importance during the pandemic; which was shared through WhatsApp,” he said.
The challenge is that not everyone has access to tools like WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype and Zoom, or even an internet connection, said Román Pinedo from our team in Peru.
“For those that do, we have five WhatsApp groups with the five producer associations that supply to one of the country’s largest palm oil producers,” he said. “We use these groups to share information on the sector and on daily events.”
Over in Ecuador, the team is helping farmers apply for credit from banks to replant their oil palm trees, Vaca said. Of late, many farmers in Ecuador have lost their palm crops to a disease called Bud Rot, which has no cure.
“Farmers don’t have the cash to invest in replacing their crops,” he said. “In this case, public banks are offering farmers a credit line and a company has agreed to facilitate credit processes.”
The team is also producing leaflets and posters to keep in touch with farmers and keep them informed, said Andrea Ayala from the team in Ecuador.
“We’ll be making posters on technical topics about palm oil, sustainability, farm plans and family economy; and sharing these through WhatsApp,” she said.
‘’The coronavirus has crashed the economy of the country, which will badly impact the life of common Indian farmers,’’ said farmer Narender Saharan.
Farmers we work with in Punjab and Haryana are struggling to sell their crops during a government-imposed lockdown, said Earthworm’s Gaurav Kaushik. They are also not sure how to practice social distancing while harvesting and loading their crops.
“They don't have much awareness about social distancing and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment),” he said. “So we will be organising online training for farmers on these subjects.”
As earnings were low during previous harvests, farmers are now worried about costs in the upcoming season. The Earthworm field team is figuring out how to help farmers in the coming season, when they will plant rice and cotton.
“Due to the coronavirus, wheat and mustard sales (from previous harvests) were affected,” said farmer Bansi Lal. “This will affect the next sowing season.”
Having dropped off his wheat crops in the market more than 10 days ago, farmer Lalchand still hasn’t received payment.
“Normally, I would be paid in two or three days,” he said.
Since they cannot visit farmers personally, the team in India is calling and messaging about 30 farmers daily; answering questions and doing surveys to find out the impact of COVID-19 and how best to help. They are also sharing knowledge on managing plantations, precautions to be taken during COVID-19 and guidelines issued by authorities.
In many ways, this is a learning phase for us too, said Earthworm’s Geeta Yadav
“We learn more in crisis than in comfort,” said Ramchandra Phadke from our field team in India. “Resilience, hope and compassion are the need of time.”
Cases in Vietnam have been fairly limited thanks to early and drastic measures taken by the government in February. In fact, an entire commune of 20,000 people was quarantined at the beginning of the outbreak. But such measures seem to be working, with cases numbering in the hundreds nationwide. Social distancing measures have been relaxed since April 23, with businesses and public transport services resuming.
In Binh Thuan province where we work, one of our field officers has travelled 400 km north to get home to his family before provincial borders closed. The other – Do Viet Hung, who lives in Son My commune, Binh Thuan – continues to work from our field office.
Limits on group gatherings mean that when Hung meets farmers, it happens one-on-one while practicing social distancing. While visiting farms, Hung has been inspecting riparian zones – areas bordering water bodies such as rivers. He has also been gathering information on whether farmers are interested in planting native trees in these areas. Using this information, Hung plans to apply for a tree-planting grant for interested farmers.
Along with helping farmers individually, our field team has formed a farmer group. This group has been helping distribute resources like factsheets to farmers, preparing them for the upcoming planting season with information on how to prepare their land and select seedlings.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Hung and the team have helped farmers order 97,000 hybrid acacia seedlings for the upcoming planting season in June. It’s essential that orders are placed early, as nurseries need three months to produce the seedlings. These hybrid seedlings are more expensive, but they increase income long-term because of a 20 percent increase in yield.
“I am thankful for the support with seedling orders and raising awareness during COVID-19,” said Nguyen Cong My, leader of the Son My farmer group.