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Farmers Hit by Drought in 2015 – And How You Can Help!


“It makes me sad just to look at it because of everything I’ve invested in it,” Wilson Reyes tells us as we take in his dry corn field. “I’ve invested around 10,000 Quetzales in this land: in seeds, fertilizer, labor, insecticides… but I’m not going to be able to get it back.” That’s roughly $1,400 USD and no small chunk of change for a rural Guatemalan farmer. Legal minimum wage for agricultural work in Guatemala is roughly $3,600 per year (MAGA), but an independent corn farmer’s work is seasonal and unpredictable, usually leading to real wages of far less than that. 

Reyes is one of the hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers affected by the drought of 2015. Making matters worse, this is the second year in a row of drought in Guatemala. For farmers, this means two years in a row of lost investment and two years of insufficient food supplies.

Hugo shows us how the drought has affected his corn crops this year.

Farmers often take out loans to plant their crops each year, paying them back with the subsequent harvest. An insufficient harvest due to drought means an inability to pay back this debt, leading to what is often an inescapable cycle. A bad year can be the tipping point that pushes family members to travel illegally to the United States in hopes of finding better opportunities or ways to pay off growing debts. A Hunger Without Borders study found that as a result of the drought of 2014, 12% of Guatemalan households had one or more family members migrate to urban areas – or internationally – from their rural homes to cope with the crisis. 

Beyond debt there is an even more immediate issue – in many cases, the drought has been so bad that farmers cannot even harvest enough corn to feed their families. According to Guatemala’s Ministry of Health, in 2014, 605 cases of acute child malnutrition were reported in the Suchitepéquez region – where 15 of our 25 communities are located. Only 1 in 3 households in the affected rural departments reported having food reserves in 2014, and as the drought continues this year, the number of households with food reserves is dropping even lower. Brazil has agreed to donate 9,000 metric tons of beans, corn, and fortified flour to Guatemala to help in this state of emergency.

When we asked farmers if they thought the situation would change, many of them shrugged and told us, “Only God knows” – but generally the consensus was no. When pressed about their plans for next year, many of our farmers seemed without answers except for one: they will certainly continue to plant corn. A vital part of the Guatemalan culture and economy, corn has survived colonization, modernization, and is now weathering climate change – it’s here to stay.

5-year-old Justin proudly shows off the corn he helped his father plant.

Semilla Nueva is no stranger to the importance of corn in Guatemala, nor the realities facing smallholder farmers here. We continue to invest in practices like conservation agriculture and crops like pigeonpea to build farmers’ long-term resilience to problems like climate change. But these technologies don’t yet answer the question on many farmers’ minds right now: what do I do now to make sure my crop produces enough next year?

One possible answer might just be a third technology we’ve worked with since 2011: QPM. QPM, or Quality Protein Maize, is a type of corn bred naturally to contain higher quality protein than conventional varieties. A heavy dietary reliance on corn – naturally low in protein and other nutrients – is a huge factor in the frightening rates of malnutrition in Guatemala, and with this in mind, we focused on testing QPM with our farmers.

Overall, farmers approved of the nutritional benefits and the taste of QPM, however many were disappointed by the low yields of the crop. In response, we have been investigating multiple QPM varieties with support from the Guatemalan government and other development organizations. In 2015 we tested seven new varieties of QPM alongside the most popular commercial (non-QPM) varieties in the southern coast of Guatemala. Our field technicians just wrapped up harvests earlier this month and some surprising results are starting to trickle in.

We expected our tests to be devastated by the drought like most farmers’ fields, but we were thrilled to see that one of the seven varieties tested not only held up well to the harsh drought conditions, but also had yields roughly equivalent to the leading conventional seed! Even more exciting, this particular seed is an “open pollinated variety” – meaning that farmers can save and replant the seed year after year, rather than purchasing new seed annually like they do with the conventional hybrid varieties.

Cirilo shows us another ear of corn from Hugo's field, but this is our new QPM variety!

Cirilo shows us another ear of corn from Hugo’s field – our new QPM variety!

With these results in mind, we’re excited to announce the launch of this year’s annual campaign: Strong Seeds: Protein-Packed Corn that Beats the Heat! Beginning November 17, we need your help to make sure that 4,000 farmers across the southern coast of Guatemala can have access to this potentially life-changing seed before the planting season starts next year. The campaign will raise $20,000 to support the production, processing, transportation and delivery of 40,000 pounds of QPM seed to farmers. As part of this effort, we’ll also be training farmers on how to plant and properly save the seed after harvest – meaning that this campaign will not only have an impact on next year’s planting and harvest cycle, but each year thereafter. As soon as May of 2016, 4,000 farmers can begin planting corn that is highly nutritious and provides sufficient income for their families – even if Guatemala is struck by a third year of drought. 

And there’s more exciting news: a matching grant of $40,000 has been pledged if we meet our goal! Will you help us get there?

There are many ways to get involved in the campaign. We’re not just looking for donors – though we need those too! We’re also looking for “Ambassadors”, or people who can help us spread the word and share the campaign with their friends in family. It could be as simple as having coffee with a friend and telling them what we’re up to – or it could mean participating in one of the four fun “challenges” we’ll be having throughout the campaign. How will you do your part?

Please fill out this form and let us know how you will participate! We will send you all the information you need before we officially launch on November 17th. Supporters like you are crucial to making sure that we can bring these powerful little seeds to farmers who desperately need solutions for their fields and families today – so please get involved!

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