Cooperatives supporting fruit farmers in northern Patagonia
Herminio Antonio Urrutia is 61 years old and has been a member of the fruit-growers’ cooperative Primera Cooperativa Frutícola in Argentina’s northern Patagonia for over 20 years, or as he puts it: “Ever since I started my own business!”
Herminio started working on his family’s farm as a 14-year-old, helping out with the grape harvest. He first heard about the 'Frutícola' cooperative as an 18-year-old employee on a fruit farm whose owner was a member. Herminio dreamed of starting a business of his own and in 1995 he bought his first plot of land – a total of six hectares on which he grew vegetables. Later on, he decided to switch to growing fruit – after all, the region is known for its suitability to fruit production, particularly apples and pears.
The cooperative’s support has enabled him to grow steadily over the years. He bought and rented ever larger plots of land on which to farm, and now owns an area which covers 20 hectares. He rents a larger area of land on which to grow his apples and pears – altogether 62 hectares, with the total production of fruit amounting to 1,200 tons a year.
Herminio’s story is similar to other fruit growers in the region, in that the support provided by a cooperative has proved timely and important, enabling him to expand his business. Over the years the cooperative has provided financing and working capital for his business as well as training and guidance in efficient farming techniques.
Size matters in a competitive industry
'Primera Cooperativa Frutícola’ is a member of the Productores Argentinos Integrados (PAI) consortium. PAI is a fresh-fruit export consortium of 12 fruit-packaging companies and cooperatives in Argentina’s Rio Negro and Neuquén provinces. Oikocredit became partners with PAI in 2015 as it recognised the impact that PAI’s operations have on the local economy. PAI trades fruit (mainly apples and pears) grown by around 280 small and medium-scale fruit growers. The fresh-fruit market is highly competitive and in the hands of a few large multinational companies so it is very difficult for small-scale fruit growers to commercialise their produce independently. PAI’s structure, financial support and economies of scale enable the fruit growers to obtain fair and transparent prices for their produce. PAI also offers the joint purchasing of supplies and packing materials which increases farmers’ bargaining power with suppliers.
Developing farmers’ skills and expertise
PAI plays a key role in providing farmers with the skills and expertise they need to improve production methods and increase their output. The federation supports training programmes delivered by its member organisations and provides guidance on pruning, thinning, harvesting, irrigation, nutrition and protecting the environment. It has set up joint programmes with international certification companies aimed at good agricultural and manufacturing practices.
Organic production on the rise
PAI is one of Latin America’s largest fruit exporters, exporting its products to over 40 countries. Of particular interest is PAI’s role in supporting organic fruit production: PAI is one of the largest exporters of organic fruit, a segment which continues to grow in importance. Indeed, organic products now make up 20% of PAI’s exports.
On Herminio’s 62 hectares of farmland, 18 hectares are devoted to organic production while the rest of the land is in transition to organic. Herminio’s fruit-growing business continues to grow steadily, and during the harvest season the number of workers he employs triples to 18. Herminio’s membership of the cooperative can confidently be described as a fruitful association!