Thursday, August 22, 2013

Guatemala # 3: Feeding the World One Farm at a Time

This is 1,200 words.  We're looking to see how change takes place at the small farmer level. 

Today we are in the field with Don Juan and Bernabe Alezano, two farmer-scientists.  If their example could be multiplied the world would be better fed. 
Here’s the larger picture:

Guatemala farmers live so close to the edge--so close to being wiped out by a drought, hurricane or crop failure--that changing any part of how they’ve survived is risky.   It’s long been so. Yet as soils have slowly degraded and yields sometimes declined, staying put won’t work either.  Population grows.

Semilla Nueva exists to build a better life for small-plot farmers and their families.  It believes farmers who make changes successfully are the best agents of change to convince other farmers to follow.   The “farmer to farmer” concept is one of the three pillars upon which Semilla Nueva has been built.  In doing so it is standing on the back of a “compesino y compesino” movement that goes back at least 40 years in Central America, often at great cost and against great resistance.

So precisely what would cause a large number of farmers to take a chance and change for the better?  A veteran of that earlier movement says farmer to farmer will take hold fast if farmers can see a 30 percent improvement in their income.  That’s the magic threshold. 

The average farm income on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala is $1,000 or so.  Consequently, a farmer must see prospects for an improvement of about $300 dollars a year.   What a small amount of money that is to us!

This can be accomplished in two ways, of course:  decreasing costs or increasing income.  A farm’s five input costs are labor, fertilizer, land preparation, seed and herbicides and pesticides, in that order.  Commercial fertilizer is the largest single cash expense and runs into hundreds of pounds an acre.  Substitute organic fertilizer in whole or in part and, over time, income could go up 30 percent or more.  This strategy may get a boost pretty soon.  Guatemala's new president, Perez Molina, has said his government will no longer subsidize fertilizer as Guatemala has done for years but will instead expand the number of extension agents from 100 (a woefully small number for a country of 13 million) to 1,000 (still small given the number of farmers).  Semilla Nueva has participated in the training of the new agents on the Pacific Coast. 

Finding a way to reduce the cost of preparing the land will also add to income.  It can be as simple and traditional as using a tractor, the cost cooperatively shared.

Income also goes up if yields on existing crops can be increased, of course.  The principal crop in Guatemala is corn and the national average yield on an acre of is 30 bushels and about 50 on the Pacific Coast.  Corn is planted in April and grows up to 12 feet high.  
Here you can see the volcano Santo Maria in the background and corn in the foreground which has been doubled over.
In July, farmers cut the stock in half with a machete, doubling it over in such a way that the single ear of corn is at the same level, which I had never seen before.  They leave it this way until harvest in September.

 For Semilla Nueva, the ideal would be 100 bushels an acre, achieved through a variety of strategies. 

The other Pacific Coast cash crop is sesame seed which is planted in between rows of corn. 
It is shrub-like and can get five feet tall.  That little green row between the corn is sesame.  At harvest in December it is pulled out of the ground, inverted and allowed to dry. Then the seeds are shaken out and collected.  It is a very small seed so you can imagine how much must be collected to make a pound.  Sesame had been in the ground about ten days when we were there. 

On average, corn brings in $500 a year and sesame $500.  That’s a family’s entire income. 

The most likely way to jump farmer’s income 30 percent and gain wide adoption is to find a new source of income.  Two years ago, Semilla Nueva fixed on the pigeonpea as that likely new source.  It has been grown for over 4,000 years, principally in India.  When you eat dal in an Indian restaurant, that’s toor dal, the ancient food.  However although India grows 80 percent of the world supply, production there has been declining because farmers have found more attractive crops.  Here is a field of free-standing pigeonpea at SN's new research and training center.

Today, 44 million pounds of pigeonpeas are grown around the world, very little in the Western Hemisphere.  In the last 10 or so years it has become a big cash crop in East Africa which is now supplying India and Europe.  Tanzania farms one crop of pigeon peas a year on about 200,000 acres with a cash value of about $100 million.  With its abundant rain, Guatemala could potentially harvest two crops a year.  By one estimation there is room in the world market for Guatemala to make at least $30 million a year in the world pigeonpea market. 

To understand how research is applied on the ground, on a beautiful, sunny day in August, 2013, we visited two Pacific Coast farmers, Don Juan and Bernabe, who farm about five acres apiece, side by side.  Don Juan, on the left, is 66, gregarious and full of good will.  His children help him farm but want him to keep the income.  Bernabe, on the right,  is younger, quiet and has an inventive mind.   He was one of 11 children raised in a one-bedroom shack in the village of Santa Fe whose family could not afford to educate him beyond elementary school. 

Working with Trinidad Recino, SN’s field supervisor, both have increased their income, both by decreasing expenses and making more on their crops.  Whereas almost all farmers burn their corn and sesame stalks after harvest, these two farmers have plowed them under with a special plow.  They have tried various combinations of fertilizer volumes, harvest and planting times, seed spacing and other changes, each time keeping careful records.

Although he has tried most things Trini has suggested, Bernabe tells us the most important change has been something he has stopped doing:  burning and plowing his fields.  Yields have gone up while costs have gone down with “no till.”  "My soil used to be black but now it is the color of clay," he says.  "No till" is beginning to bring black back into his soil, a sign of fertility.

Semilla Nueva believes farmers shouldn’t be encourage to take chances based on what someone told them but rather that they should make small tests of new practices on a small portion of their land.  SN promotes test plots of 70 square meters.  The reason is that 70 meters times 100 equal a mansana, the standard unit of measurement in Guatemala, equal to about 1.5 acres, which can be consistently compared.
Trinidad Recino measures a test plot on Don Juan's land in August, 2013.

Farmers try a new hybrid corn seed, varying amounts of fertilizer, different times to plant and harvest, organic fertilizer from their own plants, planting new crops, etc.  Don Juan and Barnebe have been doing this in the same way as an agricultural research station in the United States. 
They measure with a tape measure.  They color code each plot.  They record the results in a journal.  All this information is uploaded into a Semilla Nueva data base and shared.   Bernabe hit 112 bushels per acre recently, nearly four times the national average. 

We walk the fields with Don Juan, a man with an easy smile and sense of contentment.  Bernabe has employed Mynor, a day laborer seen below, who is planting sesame between rows of corn while we are there. 
We look in on a plot which uses 25 percent less fertilizer.  Bernabe says it seems to be better than with more fertilizer.

Bernabe has already planted pigeonpeas quickly with one of his several inventions.


This is a large can mounted between two wheels into which two holes have been punched.  As he rolls the device over the ground, a punch inserted into one of the holes makes an indention.  Next hole is left empty and a seed drops through it into the indentation.  Then the can rolls along, covering in the indentation.

After harvest, Bernabe determined he would be better off planting fewer seeds further apart.  Now he will make a new, wider-spaced planter.

As the morning unfolds and Bernabe us tells about his work, a wide smile

emerges.  In a little ceremony at the end he says he doesn’t know what role Julia and I play in SN but he thanks us for the moral support.  It’s a privilege to be with these guys. 





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