Salsa Expert Teaches Tomato Canning to Panama Villages

Mary Henkin

 “I have been making salsa since I was 6 years old, when my task for dinnertime was to peel roasted chilies,” Carmen Pacheco-Borden of Boulder, Colo said. Pacheco-Borden’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 12 years old, and she went on to obtain her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Chemical Engineering. After teaching university classes at U.C. Davis, Columbia University, and University of Colorado, and having three children, Pacheco-Borden decided it was time for a new path in life. She left her full-time job as a professor to become an Adjunct Faculty at University of Colorado and formed Carmen’s Salsa LLC, a homemade salsa company.

Partners’ Farmer-to-Farmer program was in search of a Tomato Processing and Canning Specialist to teach heads of households and women in the Ngabe-Bugle villages of Panama how to process and store tomatoes and salsa when they discovered Pacheco-Borden, and reached out to her.  

“This was an opportunity to serve a community in need,” Pacheco-Borden said, thrilled to share her passion in a rural area of Panama in her native tongue. “What I find very interesting is that I have been preparing for this assignment over the years without even knowing it.”

Filled with excitement, she headed down to start her two-week assignment on Jan. 17. The Ngabe-Bugle villages produce around 500 pounds of tomatoes a year. From that crop, around 50 percent of the tomatoes are sold, and another 10 percent are consumed by the grower’s family. The other 40 percent are wasted. And in an area where over 95 percent of the community lives in poverty, Farmer-to-Farmer wanted to create a way to empower the heads of households and women in these communities to repurpose that wasted crop, increasing the household income.

Farmer-to-Farmer partnered with Partners’ EducaFuturo program, which currently being implemented in Panama, for this project. EducaFuturo improves educational outcomes for children and adolescents involved in child labor and increases family income so that households do not need to rely on the work of children for survival. All of the Tomato Processing program participants had children enrolled in EducaFuturo. Together, Farmer-to-Farmer and EducaFuturo field staff implemented the Tomato Processing program.

Pacheco-Borden and field staff set up temporary community kitchens in the villages, and classes began.  The in-person tutorials proved very effective. “They were involved…the key for learning, for any student, is to understand the ‘real purpose’ and expected deliverables,” Pacheco-Borden said.  “Given that the communities lose half their crop of tomatoes per growing season, they were highly motivated to learn to preserve.”

Pacheco-Borden conducted four workshops during her time in the Ngabe-Bugle villages, while adapting to changing field conditions in each community. In total, her team trained 53 individuals, including 41 females and 12 males, to can four item; peeled whole tomatoes, crush tomatoes, tomato sauce, and roasted tomato-salsa. “They were the best audience in a class I have ever had,” Pacheco-Borden said. “They are so hungry for knowledge.”

“Several Ngabe people would come to me after the workshops to give me thanks for teaching them these valuable skills. I would get comments like, ‘we need more trainings like these.’ Farmer-to-Farmer programs are successful because they provide training designed for sustainability,” Pacheco-Borden said.

"The Science of Salsa" was produced by University of Colorado Boulder. View the original video here.