If you want to be sure the fruits and vegetables you buy are pesticide-free, show up on Sunday mornings, shopping basket in hand, at Cuenca’s Paradise Park.
It’s a good idea to get there early. According to vendors, most of the produce is gone by early afternoon.
The Cuenca-area Agro-Ecological Producers, a five-year old organization that certifies that its grower partners do not use chemicals on their crops and orchards, says demand for its products is quickly outpacing production and new producers are being certified as quickly as possible. In addition to the Paradise Park market, the organization sells its produce at several other locations in Azuay and Canar provinces.
Agro-Ecological currently has 96 producer partners and is taking applications from other farmers interested in selling organic produce through the organization’s network. According to the Producers’ president, Elvia Ponce, however, the group will not add new members without an on-site inspection to make sure the applicants’ operations are chemical free.
“We follow strict certification standards established by our technical team and it takes time to make sure that our standards are met,” Ponce says. “We have many new applications and we are working as fast as we can to certify more farmers.”
Besides being vetted by the association’s tech team, new partners are required to attend training sessions.
In addition to making sure association partners follow chemical-free practices, Ponce says the other objective of the organization is to reduce costs to the consumers by keeping marketing and sales costs low. “We sell our produce in public places. We don’t work out of the mercados or store-fronts.”
Ponce says that Agro-Ecological, is part of a larger Ecuadorian movement toward healthier agriculture. “There are as many as 2,500 producers who follow our standards in Ecuador and the number is growing. We believe we are making an investment in the health of both the earth and human beings by eliminating toxic chemicals in agricultural activities.” Ponce added: “We are also producing the best, most nutritious food available.”
Ponce says he working with several government offices to promote chemical-free food production nation-wide. “This is a major project and we realize that it will take time. What we can do now is to make sure that customers who want it can get the best food available.”
Photo caption: Plenty of customers show up Sunday mornings at the Parque del Paraiso mercado.