Farmers across Colombia are frontline workers with the coronavirus pandemic, securing food for vulnerable households under quarantine as is the case of Mercados Campesinos, a farming cooperative in the department of Antioquia that harvests staples for the inhabitants of the country’s second-largest city Medellín.

With vegetables and fruits on their shoulders, farmers gather by the side of a rural road waiting for a truck that will take avocado, plantain, lemon and cherry tomatoes that started as a weekend Farmers’ Market by the Mayoralty of Medellín.

But, when the country went into lockdown on March 20 and all public gatherings were banned, the livelihood of 300 families that depended on person-to-person sales was thrown into jeopardy.

The farmers of San Sebastián de Palmitas, Altavista, Santa Elena, San Antonio de Prado and San Cristóbal reinvented themselves to stay afloat during the COVID-19 emergency. “It’s a way of adapting to what is happening,” states Alejandra Bedoya of El Altico farm. “When the virus broke out, we didn’t know what we were going to live on because outdoor markets were our only income.”

As Medellín works to strengthen food distribution channels with quarantine, farmers must rely on transportation to facilitate the shipment of food. For this reason, Alejandra established with her neighbors in the Urquitá township “a help and supply network” with orders placed via WhatsApp. On Thursdays, with a notebook in hand, the young woman visits the farms in San Cristóbal to collect blackberries, tree tomatoes and lulo, in addition to going to her grandparents’ orchard to pick-up onions and coriander before assembling home delivery packages. “Last Saturday we delivered 70 markets for homes,” says Bedoya. “We have become visible [..] we went from being forgotten farmers to supply farmers because before people preferred to buy in large supermarkets.”

From WhatsApp channels created by farmers to the Purchase Local platform of the Secretariat of Economic Development of Medellín – entity in charge of the weekend Farmers’ Markets – some 250 rural families can now can sell online. According to Paola Vargas of the Secretariat, Purchase Local received 12,000 visits when it launched with quarantine and 120 packages were sold. “It becomes a vital tool to be able to sustain enterprises and producers,” believes Vargas adding that with education, farmers can embrace technology, despite the fact that the average age of campesinos in the Oriente Antioqueño is 58.

In the midst of the crisis caused by COVID-19, district authorities are fostering coordination between rural producers and private companies in order to receive food from townships to be distributed among Medellín’s most vulnerable. Yet, despite the initiative, there are farmers such as 61-year old Álvaro León Cano who cannot compensate for sales made on an average weekend. “Hopefully we will soon be able to go out to the park to sell things again,” he says, joined by his wife Ofelia Rodríguez, who from a fruit stall in the Belén neighborhood managed to sell $600,000 pesos (US$150) worth of fruits and vegetables with Mercados Campesinos. Now, much of their produce may go to waste at La Manuela farm, because even though he joins other growers standing by the side of the road, many of his clients are not internet savvy nor have access to smartphone Apps.

With 366 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Antioquia of the national total 4149, Medellín has witnessed in a lowering of cases, with 3 reported by the National Institute of Health on Tuesday. Bogotá remains the most affected city in the country with 1752, followed by the department of Valle del Cauca with 713.

On Tuesday, despite 172 new cases, the country’s health authorities processed 3259 COVID-19 tests up from previous daily figures. Of the seven deaths reported by the Ministry of Health – putting the national total at 196, five were in Cali and two in Bogotá. According to the INS, 804 infected patients have recovered from the disease.

With reporting by Jeimmy Paola Sierra/EFE