Hesperian Health Guides

Marketing Farm Products

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 15: Sustainable Farming > Marketing Farm Products

To sell their products, farmers need reliable roads, transportation to markets, and fair prices. Changing government policies to support small farmers may take a long time. But there are many ways farmers can organize for fair prices, while working to gain more government support.

Local markets and international markets

Small farmers often sell to a middle buyer and get very little money for their product. Governments may offer support to stop growing traditional crops like maize and rice, and instead grow cash crops like sugar, coffee, or cacao for international markets. But the earnings from cash crops are uncertain. If the international price drops, you may have no money and nothing to eat.

For many farmers, producing food crops for local and regional markets can offer a steady source of income.

Cooperative marketing

People load produce into boxes and onto a truck.
Marketing associations share the labor and expense of getting produce to consumers, and lower costs for all members.

One way to make sure there are good prices and food security is to form a cooperative or a marketing association with other farmers. When farmers sell their products together, they can better control the prices they get for their crops, and reduce the costs of transportation and marketing. Most countries have rules about how to form a cooperative or association.

It is important to work with people you trust to make sure everyone carries out her or his responsibilities. It is also important to agree on rules that give everyone a voice in making decisions and a fair share of the earnings.

Value-added products

Companies that process foods and farm products make a lot of money that could be made by farmers instead. When farmers process crops into products for sale, such as dried fruit, dried and packaged plant medicines, jams and jellies, honey, cheese, baskets, furniture, and so on, this is called value-added production because you are adding value to the crops you have grown.

Buying the equipment needed to process foods and finding a market for value-added products can be difficult. A cooperative can make this easier.

Specialty products and certification

Large farm corporations are able to keep prices low and still earn a profit because they produce so much and often get support from the government. But farmers who grow on smaller plots of land can also benefit from programs that promote products grown using certain methods.

Several certification programs help farmers earn better prices for their products. A certification program lets the buyer know crops were grown without chemicals, or that the farmer gets a fair price. Two programs for the international market are organic certification and fair trade certification. Before making the decision to seek certification, consider the changes you will need to make in how your farm is organized. Think about how much time and money it will take to make the changes, if there is a market for the certified products you will produce, and what you will gain from having your crops certified.

Organic certification

Organic products are grown using sustainable methods, without chemicals or GE seeds. Organic certification also requires that after harvest, the products are kept separately from foods grown with chemicals. Every country has different rules for certification. Most require farmers to keep records of how they grew their crops.

A bag labelled "Coffee. Certified Organic."
Organic and fair trade certifications help farmers earn more money.

Fair trade certification

Fair trade certification is given to farm cooperatives or to farm workers who belong to unions. To be fair trade certified, farmer groups show that they use fair labor practices (no forced labor, no child labor, and fair wages for workers) and promote good environmental practices. To stay certified, the group needs to show that labor and environmental conditions improve over time. There are scholarships for farmer groups who cannot afford the cost of certification.

Fair trade certification is currently provided for small producers of coffee, tea, cacao, bananas and other fresh fruit, and may include other crops by the time you read this book. (To learn about organic and fair trade certification programs, see Other Nutrition, Food, and Farming Resources.)

Farmers market products cooperatively
 Women standing at tables pack boxes of cacao.

Farmers in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica grow cacao beneath the shade of banana and other fruit trees. In the past, they sold their bananas and fruit at local markets. When they realized they could earn more money by selling cacao on the international market, many farmers decided to work together to do that.

They formed a cooperative, the Association of Small Producers of Talamanca (APPTA). At first they had trouble finding buyers for their cacao. A few buyers paid prices that covered the costs of production, but did not cover the costs of processing and transporting the cacao. APPTA needed money to build a cacao processing plant.

After several visits to the city to talk to cacao buyers, the farmers learned about fair trade and organic certification programs that would bring higher prices for their crops. Because they were a cooperative of smallholder farmers, they were already eligible for fair trade certification. If they also had organic certification, they could raise their prices enough to generate funds to build a processing plant. But even though they did not use chemicals, none of them could afford to have their land certified.

APPTA negotiated with the organic certification organizations of Europe and the United States to suggest they certify the whole cooperative. The cooperative made sure that no chemicals were used and that each farm followed the same standards for quality and health. Several cooperative members were trained to visit each cacao farm and report on their standards. The cooperative paid only 1 fee for certification, checked the farmers’ records themselves, and then filled out just 1 report for each of the certification organizations.

Once the cooperative was certified organic and fair trade, they received better prices. They got a loan to build a cacao processing plant. Soon they were selling organic bananas and other fruit for very good prices, both locally and internationally, and making organic chocolate to sell in the city.

By forming a cooperative, the farmers and their families not only gained better prices for their products, they also gained more control over their work and more possibilities for their futures.