Posted by Joe Smith
30/07/2014

beans-unstable-staple

In a recent entry, I looked at how beans – as well as rice and corn – dominate the rural Nicaraguan diet, often at the expense of almost everything else. Despite its ubiquity, producing this staple is not without its problems.

Nicaraguan subsistence farmers on the slopes of the Telica Volcano tend to favour beans over all other crops. Only maize is given anywhere near the same amount of time, energy and investment. Unfortunately, despite the fertile volcanic soils, making a living from the humble bean is far from simple.

Nuevas Esperanzas has long been concerned with the negative effect of deforestation on crop yields. Farmers fell trees to make space for arable land. But increased erosion and surface-run off wash the nutrients from the once-rich volcanic soils. If farmers do not plough sufficient fertilizer back in, the earth’s natural nutrients alone will not guarantee a successful harvest.

The pressures are not only manmade. Slight meteorological variation can lead to a big percentage fall in yields. Every year farmers rely on the rains relenting temporarily for the ‘mini summer’ between July and August. If there is no let up, their beans simply rot in the ground. Should the winds change and the volcano’s acidic smoke billow over farmland, acid rain can decimate an entire harvest.

Agricultural engineer, Enrique Bolaños, surveyed a random selection of farmers in the hillside community of El Ojochal to better understand how these pressures affect them. One of those surveyed, Marlon Alaniz, explained how he recently planted three manzanas (0.7 hectares each) of beans. From the first he harvested 16 quintales (each weighing 100 lbs), significantly above the community average. The second manzana produced a reasonable 12 quintales, and the third a very modest three. Even within a single year, the average yield fluctuated wildly between those farms surveyed.

Beyond the environmental pressures there is a series of economic ones too. In the planting season, farmers are forced to take out expensive loans to buy the pesticides and fertilizers they need to maximize their chances of success. When harvesting, they must invest in labour or risk their crop going bad underground. At market, price fluctuations can turn even a successful harvest into a tiny profit. Throughout the year, this labour intensive crop also has an untold cost as it monopolizes a farmer’s time at the expense of all other tasks.

Over the last decade, prices have changed dramatically, partly due to the loss of the market in El Salvador which used to pay a good price for Nicaraguan beans. Ten years ago, one quintal could have earned a farmer between $40 and $50. Since then, average prices dropped to $29 in 2006 and shot up to $63 in 2007. Even within a given year the price is not stable and it can fluctuate almost as wildly as crop yields. It drops at harvest time when supply is high and producers are selling, and rises again later when most have nothing. On a bad day a few months ago, one quintal may have fetched under $20. More recently, prices peaked at $97.

In El Ojochal, Mercedes Tercero planted 3 manzanas of beans in 2012, spending roughly $360 on pesticides and fertilizers. She kept two thirds of her harvest for her family to eat and sold the final third, making a net loss. Even if she sold her entire crop she would have only made a modest $45 profit. That is before she factored in the cost of labour during the planting and harvesting months which would have set her back at least $4 and three meals a day for between four and six workers. To be able to keep some beans for herself and to repay her creditor, Mercedes had to sell an ox.

Heavy losses are not uncommon. Frequently farmers migrate in search of work to pay back loans and subsidise this increasingly unstable rural existence. So familiar are they with this process that many families have well-established links with construction firms in Costa Rica whom they can rely on for work in the ‘dead season’ between January and April. Four months away from home could easily earn one labourer in excess of $1500.

Increasing a smallholder’s available arable land does not necessarily reduce their vulnerability. Often the more land they use, the more labourers and fertilizers they need, the greater their investment, and the bigger their fall when it all goes wrong.

By contrast, the most modest farms can sometimes be the safest. Edwin Pérez planted just one manzana in 2012. A good harvest and a favourable price at market left him with a profit of about $250 and a third of his beans left over for him and his family to eat. He was able to pay back his loan of approximately $60 and the interest accrued.

Even though the dice fell in Edwin’s favour, his farm still registered a very modest profit. With environmental pressures only set to increase, and price volatility uncertain, smallholder farmers need viable alternatives. This does not necessarily mean turning their backs on bean production entirely and should definitely not mean migrating permanently. But to mitigate the risks, they must hedge their bets with a diversified crop and income portfolio.