Ernesto Velez, a U.C. Davis graduate in agronomy is president of Asocolflores’ Board of Directors and his wife, Lucie Velez, an Australian born nurse by training are the owners of Suasuque S.A., a flower farm in the Bogotá region. They have created a model for positive change in the area of labor standards and integrated pest management (IPM). Ernesto’s interest in IPM can be traced back to a 1993 conference in sustainable development that took place in Asilomar, California. Although his participation was scheduled at the last minute, when another speaker had to bow out, the conference resulted in the gradual transformation of his farming practices that is still ongoing. Due to her nursing background, Lucie has a longstanding interest in health issues and has worked to develop programs that improve their employees’ living standard.
The Velez family credits their academic backgrounds and their willingness to experiment and take risks as key factors in Suasuque’s achievements. According to Ernesto, the process has been very rewarding, but it has taken a lot of time, work and effort. The first phase in this transformation included very rudimentary forms of insect and pest monitoring, aided by a university student conducting her thesis research on insect populations and native plants. Today Ernesto is able to identify, select, and reproduce beneficial insects for biological control purposes. He also uses some native plants as natural barriers for pest control and others to attract beneficial insects. In his farm, reliance on ground water was also reduced by recycling water and collecting rain water in reservoirs. In part, this was all made possible by the selection of particular flowers to grow, with Suasuque focusing on varieties that are in demand, yet more robust. Compared even to other growers producing the same varieties, though, Suasuque has a stellar record.
Since 1993, Suasuque S.A. has been gradually applying biological control methods for cut flower production and the results in some areas have been outstanding. For instance, from an industry average use of active chemicals of 150 kilograms per hectare per year, in 2003, Suasuque S.A., reduced its application level to 3 kilograms per hectare per year. This astounding reduction in the application of agrochemicals means lower production costs and reduced health hazards and environmental degradation. According to Ernesto, IPM can be very effective in flower production as long as growers make a strong commitment to and abide by IPM practices.
In regard to workers’ issues, Lucie has been at the forefront of a major industry initiative – Cultivemos Paz en Familia (CPF – Cultivating Peace in the Family). That program was created to train employees in alternative conflict resolution techniques. Colombia is unfortunately a country marked by heavy violence and that has seemed to transfer to the home environment and in some cases, to the workplace. CPF is a system of worker training that includes expert moderated sessions at work and items to take home, such as a conflict resolution coloring book, and work through with family members. The program is now sponsored by Asocolflores and has been spreading throughout the industry, with more than 20,000 workers trained.