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Corn, Corn the Magical Grain!

‘A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine.’ Anne Bronte


At Semilla Nueva, we work with white corn farmers on the coast of Guatemala to bring sustainable technologies that can increase yields, decrease dependency on external inputs, and decrease the negative effect of agriculture on the environment.  To truly understand the impact of our work, the distinctive nature of corn cultivation in this region must be understood.  

But with rumors of NAFTA destruction circling the speedways and sustainability becoming an equivocating buzzword, it is difficult to distinguish just what a globalized world means for poor farmers in their individual context. In fact, there are thousands of corn hybrids all over the world grown in very different climates, by farmers under very different economic conditions, and for a myriad of purposes ranging from chemicals to animal feed to home consumption. The farmers we work with are extraordinary in their individual context, playing a key role in Guatemala’s food security and national culture. Without further ado, we bring you five of the most interesting (and perhaps suprising) facts of Corn production in Guatemala:
1.    Guatemalan corn farmers provide an equilibrium between production and consumption within the country
As many of you may know, corn is a staple crop here in Guatemala serving as the key ingredient to the one thing everyone eats three times a day: tortillas.  As you wander the streets of Xela or peruse the walkways of the communities we work with, you will find women making tortillas pretty much any time of day.  And local, domestic Guatemalans are providing a sufficient quantity of corn to supply that market everyday.
2.     Guatemalan farmers can get a good price for their corn, the problem is growing enough.
As the principal buyer is the local consumer, price is not the major problem facing Guatemalan farmers.  However, yields per acre suffer tremendously for a variety of reasons including soil degradation, climate change, lack of irrigation, and bad fertilizers.  The average yield in Guatemala of white corn is 30 bushels/acre; even this year in the face of extreme drought the average US yield will be 123 bushels/acre – more than four times the average Guatemalan yield.  Semilla Nueva’s technologies like green manures aim to help farmers increase their yields and gain economic independence by receiving more money from their land.
3.    Guatemalan corn farmers are not being outsold by American corn!
A lot of people think that American corn floods the market of every developing country in the world.  In fact, Central America is under a special trade agreement called CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), and for many of the participating countries CAFTA puts high tariffs on imported corn.  In other words, for the most part Guatemala’s corn is from Guatemala.  While the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into agreement in 1994, CAFTA was ratified officially in 2006.  The countries of Central America had more than a decade to assess the impacts of NAFTA on countries like Mexico, and make specific provisions to protect themselves from negative consequences of opening their borders to the US powerhouse.
4.     The most pressing food security issue for corn farmers is when supplies diminish between harvests.
Beginning about mid-March and lasting until Mid-August, across the country corn farmers experience their highest levels of food insecurity because they are waiting for the next corn harvest. This high level of food insecurity during  these months is when agricultural development programs like Semilla Nueva are needed the most to help farmers diversify their crops and provide alternative options for consumption in these months.  For example, our latest green manure campaign is promoting pigeonpea, a bean crop that is harvested between February and May and can provide essential nutrients to local diets in between corn harvests.
5.    There is no GMO corn in Guatemala!
To many people’s surprise genetically modified organisms are illegal in Guatemala.
In order to truly understand and appreciate the work of Semilla Nueva, the unique, remarkable nature of white corn and the Guatemalan campesinos that cultivate it must be understood.  Hopefully these five interesting facts have enlightened the context in which Semilla Nueva works, and highlighted the reasoning behind employing the technologies we do.  Also, we hope this contextual understanding lets everyone know, more than anything, that Guatemalan corn farmers are here to stay.  They are not being outsold by US imports, they can produce enough for their country, and with technologies like Semilla Nueva is promoting they will be growing on their land for centuries to come.  

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