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Guatemala: No place like home

For the past two years, I’ve gone to Guatemala in the spring, tagging along with my nephew’s church to build simple homes for poor people in remote villages. It’s eye opening, to say the least.

Most of us only see real poverty on TV news clips. Go to a place like Guatemala (the first Central American country south of Mexico) and you’ll see it up close. It will change your perspective on poverty.

Many Guatemalan families live in houses with walls made of cornstalks. A family with five kids may live in a 100-square-foot hut and eat corn tortillas with a little bean paste three meals a day.

Guatemala is the second-poorest nation (after Haiti) in the Western Hemisphere. With a land area about the size of one Midwest state, 80% of its 13 million people live in poverty. The 50% lucky enough to have a job make about $5 a day. (A million Guatemalans live and work in the U.S.)

But sometimes you catch a glimmer of hope, even in such poverty. It happened to me last May, and that hope sprang from a little group of farmers.


I’d taken a few days off from house building to explore the agriculture of Guatemala, and I happened upon the village of Zaragosa, about an hour west of Guatemala City. I was taken there by

Rudy Navichoc, one of my hosts at the Norman Borlaug Institute, which works to enhance food production in poor nations. It’s named for the late Nobel Prize recipient, who launched the Green Revolution in the 1950s.

Zaragosa is noted for its livestock farms, a special interest of mine. Of all my time in Guatemala, I’ve never felt more at home than I did that day.

Something clicked, and those farmers adopted me.


The first farmer I meet was Jesus Guzman. In a small courtyard, he told me he was president of the local dairy farmer association. Within a few minutes, his neighbors and fellow members started arriving. One by one, they grabbed a chair, expanded the circle, and joined our discussion.

Eventually, 20 people sat in our circle. Of the 25 association members, 20 showed up to meet the farm reporter from the U.S. I’m flattered and impressed.

Three years ago, these dairy farmers were sinking individually from low production and prices. So they decided to organize and try to swim together. Several multinational dairy corporations had moved into Guatemala, and they were taking over the market. One group from Spain had 900 cows, they heard, and these Zaragosa farmers wanted to compete.

Their goal was to pool their milk and get government certification to process it, brand it, and market it as farm-fresh from Guatemalan family farmers. Individually, they couldn’t do that; but with 100 cows together, they had critical mass.

When I was there, they were a month from step one: certification. This little group of 25 farmers and 100 cows was just the beginning. They envisioned adding other nearby farmers and communities, expanding their own herds, employing over 100 people, and eventually becoming a national brand.

Ambitious, yes? Especially in this country, where ambition is easily snuffed out by tradition and poverty. They had already bought some of the equipment they needed for their fledgling business: a 2,200-liter bulk tank and a cheese vat.

Production averages 10 to 15 liters per cow per day, collectively enough to fill the tank half full. They think they could double production per cow with better breeding, feeding, and management.

Money is always an issue here, the issue, and they’ve used up available capital. Loans are hard to come by (starting at 18% interest) and milk prices are low. Right now, they get 40¢ per liter of milk. When I asked them (through Rudy) if there was any profit in that, they all said no. When they get certified and start selling dairy products through a local store, they will pay members 50% more for milk, adding to their individual bottom lines.


As we talked, I learned there is more to these people than just better milk prices and farm profits. It’s a story about raising an entire country out of its poverty, one job at a time. And it’s about keeping its young people at home. Sound familiar?

One of the farmers who joined in the discussion was a young woman, Corina Guerra. She and her husband, Francisco, have three cows. In Zaragosa, a town of 17,000 people, she said the unemployment rate is maybe 60%, although official statistics are hard to come by.

“People here like to work,” she said. “We want to work. But there aren’t many jobs, and we really worry about our young people seeing no opportunity. All they want to do is go to the U.S. All of us know lots of people working in the U.S.

“We don’t like that any better than people in the U.S. like it,” Guerra continued. “There’s no place like home, right? Those people could be here raising cows for meat or doing something else. We need someone to come teach us those things, how to do it, make us a small loan. Then our young people could stay here.”

Juan Carlos Zuleta, a young farmer in his early 30s, said he speaks only a little English. But I found it flawless. He and his wife have two children, 5 and 6 years old, and he wants to help create a Guatemala where they’ll have a future on the farm or wherever else they want to go.

He said, “We think we are trying to do something [the dairy association] that will be good for our town and the whole country by creating jobs. But we don’t get much help. And when I say help, I mean money. That’s what we need to get this thing bigger, so we can compete.

“Will someone in the U.S. loan us money for 5% to 7%?” he asked. “Will someone come teach us to improve our farms, upgrade our cows, feed and breed them better? Will someone send one or more of us to the U.S. to learn this?”

I told him I didn’t know, but I would try to find out. Rudy agreed to be my conduit to get information back to Zaragosa.

As I was leaving, Zuleta took me aside and said, “Thanks for coming to talk to us. We all want you to know, whether you can do anything to help us or not, you are always welcome back here.”

That’s why I say these are my people.


Do you have expertise to help these Guatemalan farmers upgrade herd management, enhance milk marketing and improve overall farming practices?

Contact Gene Johnston by emailing him at

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