[ENGLISH] 7 stories about agroecology and cooperativism in South Brazil: this is how a real sustainable food chain changes lives
This year, we faced a challenge that, as journalists, we gladly accepted: to tell seven stories about agroecology and cooperativism to feature the new website of our client Ecocitrus, a cooperative of agroecology and citrus located in South Brazil.
Spending time with these special family farmers was one of the highlights of 2020 to us, an atypically year due to a pandemic. Through each text, we aim to tell how important and life changing is to sell the crop directly to a fair market, escaping from middlemen and, especially, avoiding agrochemicals. We believe in this food chain. We experience in our work in the agency how essential it is to give the role of protagonist to the farmers.
While we took the pictures and wrote each text, we put into practice our journalistic point of view about family farming. The texts were written by me, Cândida, and the pictures were taken by my partner in business, Laís.
We share with you the long version of each text. To read each story directly on Ecocitrus website, click here.
MERCILDA TERESINHA HOFFMANN AND HER FAMILY
Mercilda Teresinha Hoffmann and Marcos Hoffmann share, with pride, that their youngest son decided to go back to the property at the age of 22, at the end of 2019. Anderson left his job in a mechanics shop in Montenegro to work with his parents, in the same city, after growing up amidst the citrus orchards. He saw in the ecological agriculture and cooperativism a profitable path and had the support to fulfill this change: he took over the family property, of 5 acres, and acquired another one, of 3 acres, with the support of his parents.
Teresinha and Marcos associated with Ecocitrus through what, at the beginning of the business, were quotas destined for certain groups. Teresinha joined in 1996, trough a quota for a group of women, formed by eight members who were associated with Harmonie Citrus – association considered a precursor of Ecocitrus. Marcos associated trough a quota of employees of Reaviva, a composting plant operated by Ecocitrus, where he worked from September 1996 to January 2015. Since 2007, he was the operational manager of the plant.
The two remember, in a mist of nostalgia and respect for their own history, that, when Teresinha went into labor to deliver Anderson, she was taken to the hospital by Marcos – who soon came back to the house to keep on harvesting oranges, only returning a little before the youngest son came into the world. “Our children grew up surrounded by organic production”, sums up Teresinha, a smiling and calm farmer, who is involved in issues that affect the participation of women in the cooperative.
The couple is a reference inside Ecocitrus when it comes to homeopathy practices. It was a provocation made by Marcos that originated the foundation of the group, in February of 2017 – which meets up every two months under the coordination of the cooperative’s agronomist, Daniel Büttenbender. Homeopathy gathers knowledge from the medicinal properties of plants and restores the health of orchards through ancient recipes using herbs and teas.
“I had the dream of harvesting all the oranges for juice. And I did it. We got there”, sums up Teresinha. With the return of their youngest son to the property and through the ancient understanding of nature, the Hoffmann family finds safety in the cooperativism and takes forward, with pride, the philosophy of agroecology. The Hoffmann family enjoys helping others and believes in knowledge – the essence that resonates in the cooperative.
Celso Luiz and Paulo André Reichert are brothers and partners in Ecocitrus since 1996. Enthusiasts of cooperativism, because it is a fairer form of group marketing, the team is part of a family of five brothers, all of whom work with agriculture. They followed their parent’s profession and cultivate, today, in cities that integrate an important producer belt of Ecocitrus: Harmonia and Pareci Novo. The wives of both are also associated: Regina Reichert and Marlise Reichert.
Each couple administers their property, where the flagship are varieties of the trio that characterizes citrus in the cooperative: orange, bergamot, and lemon. Celso and Regina, in Pareci Novo, and Paulinho and Marlise, in Harmonia.
Before joining the cooperative, Celso and Paulinho utilized pesticides in the orchards – already in a low quantity, due to their critical view -, but they saw in organic production an alternative that was profitable as well as respectful to nature. Both have an aligned speech about the importance of cooperativism: commercializing ecological production is much stronger when it is done in groups. At Ecocitrus, they also highlight the possibility of entering the international market with juices and essential oils, valuing farmers even more.
Paulinho’s passionate life for citrus was accompanied by his wife, Marlise. She was an employee in a textile industry before the wedding but was contaminated by the beauty of working in the field. She frequently shares photographs of everyday life on social media, receiving praise from friends and followers. “They have no idea of what we do here”, she says, being committed to carry forward the message of cooperativism. As she walks through the grove, she observes: “My passion is lemon”. When asked why, she does not hesitate: “Because of the smell, the color, because it is easy to handle, it is good to work with, and it is the best juice there is”.
What touches the Reichert brothers, on the other hand, is the possibility of their sons staying in the property. Their children admire the life and even say, when questioned, that they want to be farmers in the future. All members of the family see in ecological agriculture more then a subsistence activity, but a passion in which the love for what you do is combined with the guarantee of financial return above the conventional market.
With the support of cooperativism and the promotion of agroecology, the choice is no longer, as in the past, something that presumes financial difficulties. It is possible to have profit, have security and carry on the philosophy of a world in which organic food is a reality and where the farmers are valued.
Inês Cecília and Rudi Lottermann are a couple so fond and connected to agriculture that they spent their honeymoon planting orange-valence seedlings. “And 40 years later, they are still producing” says Rudi, proudly, completing the story that started to be told by his wife. “We always worked together in agriculture,” recalls Inês, with a smile that rarely fades from her face – and is especially wide when she sees her grandchildren gathered in the orchards.
The seedlings they continue to produce are precursors to a family whose energy radiates in the property and in the involvement with the cooperative. Of the five children of Inês and Rudi, two remained in agriculture: Marcos, vice-president of Ecocitrus in the 2019/2021 management, and Vilson, an enthusiast of biodynamic agriculture, homeopathy, and agroforestry systems.
Rudi explains that the transition to organic produce initiated when he participated in an event where the key-note speaker said: “Happy is he who soon feels the effects of the poison when he applies it”.
He reflected upon the sentence and migrated to a lifestyle that takes his own health into account and, by consequence, his family’s, and the planet.
Family work is the rule on the Lottermann property. Vilson works side by side with his wife, Cândida, with whom he has four children – one of which, in the photos, is still in the belly. “He was the one that led me to go back to agriculture”, she tells, pointing to Vilson. She is graduated in Physiotherapy, but no longer practices it. “And coming back was our family project”, she adds. Vilson worked for 10 years in a construction company, but always had the dream of being a farmer. He fulfilled his wish in 2012, two years after Marcos, who returned in 2010.
Marcos, like Vilson, worked for five years in a construction company. He is graduated in Business, and, tired of the stressful routine of the company, decided to return to the property. Initially, he encountered resistance from his parents, who thought that there was no real possibility of growth there. Marcos did the math and argued, with spreadsheets, that the choice was profitable.
In the first year that he became a farmer, in 2010, he produced one thousand boxes in the acres he had. He established partnerships with the neighbors, increasing the production and, in 2019, he harvested over 14.000 boxes. At the same time, he got involved in the management of Ecocitrus, putting in practice his post-graduation in Leadership Development.
The valence oranges planted on Rudi and Inês Cecília’s honeymoon are managed, today, by the couple’s children – completing a chain that, besides being profitable and being in the hands of farmers, is affective. Rudi tells, amidst laughter, that he gave up all the land he had to his children, making the trust of working with the family official. “I became their employee”, he jokes.
Fernando Götz is a young man that carries the love of agriculture since he was a kid – and that is proud to be a partner, since 2018, of a cooperative that operates in the organic market. He commercialized products in the conventional market and expects not to return to negotiating with middlemen when the transition is complete and Ecocitrus absorbs the organic citrus on its property. “I know what is like to harvest the most beautiful fruit in your orchard and then watch it being thrown away by the middleman”, he recalls. Fernando associated himself to Ecocitrus encouraged by the cooperative’s expansion program, that promotes the increase in citrus organic production in Rio Grande do Sul and the conversion of conventional producers.
The critical view towards the use of pesticides does not come exclusively from knowing that the final price of the fruit box will be higher but takes in consideration a health hazard. Fernando got intoxicated when he needed to use pesticides to make the fruits match the aesthetic pattern of the conventional market: “I have a blood problem until today because of that”, he tells.
Fernando has a partnership with the farmer Lucas Colling, with whom he works since 2016 in the city of Maratá, located in Vale do Caí. They are neighbors and know each other since they were little when Lucas used to spend his vacations in the countryside with his family. He is from Estância Velha, a city located in the metropolitan region of Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul. He decided to stay in the country when he had to move, temporarily, to take care of his grandmother.
When Fernando got intoxicated, Lucas was tasked with applying the pesticides. “Then I said that, if I had to keep doing that, I would quit too,” says Lucas. “It is a horrible sensation. Even with the protective equipment, you get dizzy”, he explains.
The decision to be part of Ecocitrus was taken by both, and they are initiating the implementation of an agroforestry system and participate in meetings of the cooperative’s biodynamic agriculture group. The desire to do a lot is so big that they do not rule out the possibility of, one day, investing in rural tourism, as a way of spreading the importance of agroecology and their love for horses.
The team speaks affectionately about the participation in a cooperative, understanding Ecocitrus as a fairer commercialization market. For them, it is also important to see the decisions being made together, which feeds the feeling of belonging and listening. In addition to no longer having to apply pesticides, they negotiate directly with other farmers who know the reality they live in and who, like them, value a better world.
Adilson Schultz was born in Colatina, a city located in the Vale do Rio Doce, in the state of Espírito Santo. He grew up surrounded by agriculture, in a family where every generation worked in farming. He came to Rio Grande do Sul to attend college, when he met his wife, Anete Roese. Later, the two lived for more than a decade in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais, where they were university professors.
In their travels, it was in the mountainous geography of Linha São João, in Salvador do Sul where Anete grew up, that the couple settled in 2014. Both, over 40 years old and with solid careers – he in Sociology and Theology, she in Psychology and in Human Rights -, moved to the countryside not only to develop a healthier lifestyle, but to be ecological farmers, in a region that has a growing number of Ecocitrus associates.
The capixaba discovered Ecocitrus in Belo Horizonte, when the cooperative still marketed mandarin orange juice at retail. In Salvador do Sul, the opportunity to become a partner came from the entity’s expansion program. Participative in group meetings promoted by Ecocitrus, Adilson believes that cooperativism adds value through trust. “There is guaranteed sale, as well as group work. You always learn something”, he points out.
The philosophy of agroecology resonates in Adilson, who found in country life a way to develop his spiritual and sociological knowledge. When he changed his life, Adilson knew that he wanted to follow the ecological tenets of Ana Primavesi – whose work is exposed in a living room furniture, next to an armchair and close to a wood stove.
Less than a decade working with agriculture, Adilson and Anete’s property is already certified by the Environment Department of Rio Grande do Sul as an Agroforestry System, and acquired the Demeter seal, which attests to biodynamic management. “It is the result of a responsible attitude in the production of citrus, working in harmony with all living beings”, concludes Adilson.
“My life and the life of my family are intertwined with the history of Ecocitrus”, summarizes Maique Kochenborger, president of the entity in the 2019/2021 management. The cooperative was founded when Maique was 13 years old. “I grew up with it”, he concludes. In the Kochenborger family, there are three partners: Maique, Irineu and Darvin, who cultivate in the city of Montenegro – RS.
“We got involved in ordered to be able to leave pesticides behind”, explains Irineu Kochenborger, father of Maique and one for the 15 founding partners of the entity. He recalls that the trust of the founders in the cause was so great that they even mortgaged their lands as collateral for financing.
Irineu got very involved in the creation of Reaviva, composting plant operated by Ecocitrus and founded in 1995. The intention was to generate organic fertilizer for application in the partners’ organic orchards. At the time, one of the difficulties for associated farmers was to find supplies that did not contain chemicals. “I kept working and then Maique grew up and took my place”, he says, signaling that the process was natural.
Maique has held various positions within the organization: truck driver, assisting in the classification of agribusiness fruits, marketer, tractor driver, member of the Fiscal Council, treasurer… In the 2019/2021 management, he became president, a position that offers a comprehensive view of the needs of the cooperative.
In the management of the properties of the Kochenborger family, there is another member that participates, defining himself as a curios partner: Darvin, Mavin’s brother, who joined in 2009, five years after his older brother. Darvin attributes the choice to remain in rural activity to Ecocitrus: “If it weren’t for the cooperative, I wouldn’t see a very promising future in planting citrus”.
It is not infrequent to see Maique and Darvin joking with people around them, making environments – even if serious – a little lighter. When questioned about a word that defines Ecocitrus, they do not hesitate and fire away – each being interviewed separately and without knowing each other’s previous answer: “passion”. If it depends on the Kochenborger family, Ecocitrus is maintained, too, by feelings – and not just by numbers that show that cooperativism and ecological citrus plantation are a viable combination.
Recalling the history of the cooperative he helped build, Cláudio Laux, over 80 years old – in 2020, the oldest partner at Ecocitrus – did not hold back his tears: “In the beginning, we were few. But then another partner came, then another, and that’s how it went”. He remembers, with teary eyes, the first meetings, held at the Fink Hall, in Harmonia, and the friendships he made in over more than 25 years in the business. He is the patriarch of the Laux family, which has three partners at Ecocitrus: himself, his son Luís Carlos and his daughter Carla.
Cláudio was the forerunner of an ecological vision in the citrus industry of Vale do Caí and the first farmer in the region to buy a brush cutter, going against the prevailing idea of leaving the soil uncovered. This practice imitates the model used in temperate agriculture, but disregards that, in a tropical climate and following the precepts of agroecology, the soil must have good vegetation cover.
Even with his old age, Cláudio is very active. He accompanies groups on walks with ease and talks to everyone. He is a founding partner of Ecocitrus, along with 14 other people who lead the cooperatives’ foundation – among them, his son Luís Carlos.
With restrained gestures and a constant voice when reporting the early days of Ecocitrus, Luís sums up that, for him, the cooperative has always been linked to the word “knowledge”, as it allows meetings and gatherings in which one learns together – and a knowledge that permeates the life, not just agricultural technique. He remembers that, in the beginning, Ecocitrus citrus farmers took a stand against a movement already consolidated in Brazilian agriculture, which started in the 1960s with the so-called Green Revolution. Back then, the farmers were largely encouraged by the government to use pesticides, in a model that combined ready-made packages and financial subsidies to purchase them. Agroecology was not as widespread, much less within the citrus culture, and was called “alternative agriculture”.
It is easy to find out what Luís has already achieved when you talk to the other partners in the cooperative, who quote ideas, reference experiences and share knowledge that he has taught them. He was one of the first farmers associated to Ecocitrus to participate in an biodynamic agriculture course, in 1998, in Botucatu – SP. Since biodynamic practices need to be made in groups, it took at least another three years before other members knew the model and could then apply this type of agriculture, created by the Austrian Rudolf Steiner and passed on in a series of conferences in 1924 .
Currently, the Laux Family has three properties certified by the Demeter seal – which attests biodynamic management – with agroforestry systems implemented and consolidated. Beyond that, Luís is active in the management of the entity, having been president and acting as secretary to the Administrative Council in the period 2019/2021.
In contrast to her father and brother’s calmness, Carla is quick and talkative. She joined Ecocitrus in 2009. “I grew up hearing my father and Luís talking about the cooperative, about ecology and the environment. It was quite natural to become a partner after them”, she explains. She proudly walks in the orchards that she cultivates. In the beginning, she did not want to work with agriculture, but accompanied the family because she did not want to go to college either. With time, she became passionate about the activity.
The three of them are a complementary family that carries, in its essence, the philosophy of Ecocitrus. More than cultivating fruit, they reinforce the cooperative system, which is already present in nature, and value what is best for the group, taking ecological agriculture forward.