Corn Harvest: Lost & Postponed

In El Salvador, corn seeds are sown in early May – in the winter, or so it’s called here. This winter began in the normal way: suddenly the rain began. April warmed up, making us uncomfortably sticky during the day and sigh with relief when we enter a bank or supermarket or other similarly over-air conditioned location. When the rains began, although it put a damper on our outside activities, we welcomed the rain because it meant the humidity would be lifted. Subsistence and commercial farmers also breathed easier when they saw the start of winter, the start of the growing season. It had been a long dry season and the parched countryside burst into green. Farmers took their seeds to their plots of land, that had been previously prepared by burning last year’s crop waste. And they sowed their seeds. But after a week of daily rains – suddenly, there was none. And for the past two weeks, the skies have only held empty clouds; not a drop of water has hit the soil in many zones of the country and the corn seeds that had begun to germinate have died.

Corn seedling – succumbing to the lack of rain. (Photo credit: University of Wisconsin, IPCM – http://www.ipcm.wisc.edu)

The majority of farmers in El Salvador (most of whom are subsistence farmers) rely solely on the rain to provide their water. They often live in areas where there are no rivers or wells – or if there are rivers, at this point in the year, they are still dried up. Water that is not captured for free from nature is very expensive, especially to people who make only a few dollars (or less) per day. So when a dry air mass sweeps into the country’s atmosphere and holds the rain at bay – they are at its mercy. Some farmers did not sow their seeds with the others in early May. Perhaps they were just a bit behind schedule, or maybe they didn’t trust the rains would last. So their lands still sit idle, waiting to be sown. Luckily, they still have their seeds, but at this point, the corn harvest now seems like it will be in October instead of late August, as it normally is. Farmers who did sow in early May and then lost their plants may or may not be able to obtain more seeds for a second try. This will have long-term consequences on the price of corn later this year. If the harvest is later and smaller than normal, prices will rise, as we have seen in the past several years with beans.

This is also not a promising outlook for the current administration. El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, had assured that this year’s harvest will be 25% greater than last year’s – and took steps to ensure more farmers had access to seeds and other materials necessary for cultivation. So while he is learning that he too is at the mercy of mother nature, he is also making promises about greater seed distribution for the second sowing. Although corn is perhaps the crop that has suffered the most, that is only because it is the most widely planted at this time of year. Other crops lost include: beans, radishes, blackberries, and a wide variety of other annual fruits and vegetables that are consumed in their own houses, and sold or traded to their neighbors.

In my opinion, this seems to be less an issue of obtaining seeds and more an issue of improving infrastructure that would help keep the country’s farmers from being pushed to their knees by nature. Micro-hydro irrigation and other water-catchment systems would be an example of practical technology that could have longer term ramifications for the country’s farmers than constantly handing out seed packets.

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