Trenia Arana speaks of the knot she feels in the back of her neck, caused by the tension of trying to figure out what to do about her family’s situation in the midst of a drought dragging through its second year in western Nicaragua. For the past decade, Arana has been farming full time, but six months ago she went to work as a housekeeper in the nearby town of Jinotepe.
“When I saw how things were going with the drought, I had to go to work,” she says. Now, her 11-year-old son tends the family’s gardens before he goes to school each day at noon. A neighbour stops in to check on the farm when he can.
On the day I meet Arana, she’s home with her nine-year-old daughter. She’d asked for the day off from her employer to meet with me. Her husband has worked in neighbouring Costa Rica for the past 18 years, returning home once every month or two. So it’s up to Arana to prepare, seed, weed and harvest the family’s seven acres of land. Most of it is dedicated to corn, beans and sorghum, but for the past number of years she’s also been growing fruit trees — coconut, mango, orange, lemon, papaya and passion fruit.
Arana tells me that it’s been two years since she’s harvested anything, due to the drought. She can count on one hand the number of rains in the past year, none of which were significant. She lives an hour’s drive south of the capital city Managua, in what’s known as Central America’s “Dry Corridor.”
Traditionally, farmers in Nicaragua depended on two rainy seasons in the year. Rain would start in early May, and the crops would be planted. A three- to four-week dry window in August allowed the crops to be harvested before the rains began again in early September and the second planting. The first crop cycle is the smaller of the two, but having a harvest is vital for food and to produce seed for the second planting. The second cycle is in the hurricane season when more rain is expected and, in turn, a bigger harvest.
But, that was before. Their agricultural calendar is in disorder now, and scientists blame climate change. The rain has become less predictable, and when it does come, there isn’t enough, and it has been made worse by El Niño.
“Before, the rainy seasons were a lot better,” Arana says. “We’d get 25 to 30 hundred-pound bags of corn, 20 to 25 bags of beans and 20 to 30 bags of sorghum.”
Arana was able to plant in both cycles in each of the last two years, but says that she got next to nothing for her efforts. “We wasted our money,” she says. “We’re in debt because of the drought. I don’t know how we’re going to pay it off. We have enough for food and to send the kids to school and that’s it.”
Arana’s story isn’t unique among smallholder farmers in central Nicaragua. Of the 13 farmers I met during my recent trip to Nicaragua, nearly all spoke of having to purchase food, reducing their meal sizes or cutting out foods that were no longer affordable to them, and needing to search for work off the farm. In recognition of the severity of the drought, the government of Nicaragua, with help from the World Food Programme, increased school meals for children from one to two a day.
The United States Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) issued a food security alert for Central America and Haiti last fall, calling the drought in the region one of the worst in recent decades. Total rainfall between January 1 and September 10 of 2015 was the lowest in the past 35 years. The alert from FEWS, stating that approximately 2.5 million people in the region were already in need of urgent food assistance, was released on October 16, World Food Day, an annual day to raise awareness of issues of hunger and food insecurity.
High altitude farming
Drought is on the mind of every farmer I meet. But, like anywhere in the world, there are always some who are able to escape the worst of what the climate throws at them. At 49, coffee farmer Felipe Pastrana is one of these, and to thank for that is his farm’s location at 1,600 metres above sea level, near the community of Monzonte, close to Ocotal in Nicaragua’s northwest. “We’re at high altitude so we always get shade and rain,” he says.
Pastrana is temporarily immobile when we meet. A motorcycle accident led to a broken leg, a cast and crutches. We sit in rocking chairs inside the coolness of his house. Music carries in from the next room. I presume if it wasn’t for his bad luck I wouldn’t have been able to meet him. He gives the impression of a man who doesn’t sit still for long.
Pastrana owns about 78 acres of land. He’s recently given just under nine acres to each of his three adult children who manage their portions on top of day jobs. Of the 52 acres he has left, seven are in coffee. Pastrana says that coffee farming has become more technical and better managed in the years since he took over from his parents. He has a field that was planted 17 years ago that is still in production, but the plants are normally renewed every 12 years as yields start to decrease.
“Where I have my farm, it’s cool, so we start the harvest in February and we go through April. We’re the last ones to harvest here because we’re at the highest elevation.” Harvest on coffee farms at lower altitude will start in November and finish in January. Pastrana has four full-time workers and hires 20 more for the harvest season. The temporary workers are also farmers, but at a smaller scale, who have already finished their own harvest before going to work on the larger farms.
There are essentially three harvests, with the coffee being picked at different maturities. First is the select harvest, followed by the main harvest and then finally a clear-cut harvest, where everything is taken including the green berries. Each takes about three weeks.
A typical harvest for Pastrana is 100 bags of 100 pounds each from his seven acres. His export quality beans are sold to a business in Ocotal. The beans are delivered de-pulped and dried. At the plant they are re-dried and prepared for roasting.
Tasters at the processing plant will drink a cup of coffee made from his beans and score it out of 100 points to determine what price he will be paid. The highest Pastrana has been able to achieve is 93. “To get good points you have to harvest the coffee when it’s not fully red, but when it’s turning red. If you harvest coffee and it’s mixed, if you have under-ripe beans mixed with over-ripe beans, they lower your points,” he explains.
“We’ve had three consecutive years of receiving the prize for highest quality in Nicaragua, but when it comes time to sell, they give us the same price as local market coffee,” Pastrana says. “They make a huge profit off of us.”
Despite the uncertainty, the company he sells to offers a better price than he’d get elsewhere in the area. Other businesses will only pay a flat rate for beans, Pastrana says, then separate the best coffee from the lower quality, market it and keep the profit.
The trade-off is that he doesn’t get paid up front, but only when the coffee is exported. He delivered his beans to the plant in April and when I met him in September he still hadn’t been paid. In 2015 he earned US$305 per hundred-pound bag, before taking out US$50 for taxes, transport, customs fees and insurance.
“Here the businesses will pay me $255 for a hundred-pound bag. But in Japan they resold it for $800 for the same market quality. If you look at the margin of profit they are making, most goes to the business. We are just left with a very small profit,” Pastrana says.
Pastrana keeps a portion of his harvest to sell roasted and ground to those in town. He sells it for five cordoba a bag (C$0.25), which makes eight cups of coffee.
While his high altitude coffee plants have been largely spared from the effects of the drought, he says the lack of rain is “a big problem” on his land at a lower elevation where he grows beans and corn. “Those are things we use in order to feed our workers and now we have to buy them because we can’t produce it.”
Head 150 km southwest and you’ll arrive where Guillarmina Castro farms in Pavón, close to Somotillo. Here, Castro and her husband Hector Guevaro are facing problems similar to other farmers working in the country’s Dry Corridor — they cite the lack of rain as their No. 1 challenge — and yet, something different was happening on their approximately 38-acre farm.
Castro lived through the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and is now watching as another climate event plagues her community. She says that they’d only had two really good rains in the previous eight months. Nearby rivers that once flooded regularly have gone dry. Despite the hardships, a new way of farming has provided hope.
For the past three years Castro has been adopting conservation agricultural practices, with support from local and international aid groups, including the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The three main practices — minimal disturbance of the soil, crop rotation, and soil cover — are seen as particularly useful in dry areas, trapping what precipitation does fall.
“We get better yields and can produce with less rain,” Castro says.
Castro’s husband Hector readily admits that it’s his wife who is the motor behind the farm and proudly shows off what she’s accomplished. On a tour of their garden (interrupted by a too-curious and hungry neighbour’s pig that had to be chased away), I’m shown the rich soil, mulch and planting stations with three corn plants in each. It was easy to forget how little rain there had been as we walked through the farm. There were no telltale signs of drought that I had seen in other farmers’ fields.
It is through donations to the Foodgrains Bank, primarily from rural Canada, that this work in Nicaragua is able to happen. “Growing Projects” across Canada see a group of farmers setting aside a piece of land, and planting and harvesting it as a community or a group of churches working together. Proceeds from the sale of the harvest are donated to the Foodgrains Bank and in turn are funnelled into work overseas, such as projects teaching conservation agriculture in Pavón. In 2015 there were 260 “Growing Projects” and other fundraising events across the country. Each project is unique, with some donating the proceeds of wheat and others pumpkins. It is farmers helping farmers.
Agronomists currently work with 187 farmers in the region to help them adopt conservation agriculture practices. While the amount of land each owns differs, by any measure, the farmers are small-scale and wholly dependent on the climate. Farmers are encouraged to first try the method with a portion of their corn or bean crop, but Castro has embraced the concept. In addition to corn, she’s growing pole beans, cassava, watermelons, tomatoes, and green peppers using the three conservation agriculture principles. So far she’s converted just under half an acre of her farm, with plans to increase it to three and a half acres.
“It’s more work. I can’t convert it all in one year. The hard part is making the planting stations,” Castro says. Previously, she would scatter seed on the land. She is now more deliberate, planting three seeds in evenly spaced stations.
As climate change causes an increase in extreme weather events, what was traditionally known as subsistence agriculture is fast turning into survival agriculture in some parts of the world, including Nicaragua. Farmers like Castro have had to adjust to an increasingly arid climate and try new practices. In an imperfect situation, she is adapting and finding reason to be hopeful.
When I ask what her neighbours think of what she is doing, Castro says, “Some laugh at you. Some like it.” But as soon as she learned about it she could see the advantages. In what appears to be the new normal in Nicaragua’s climate, she sees it in her own terms: “the only option for survival.”
This article was originally published as “A world in flux” in the February 16, 2016, issue of Country Guide
Stephanie McDonald is a senior policy advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. She visited Haiti and Nicaragua in September to study the impact of climate change.