Stories are the bloodveins of culture. We tell them, we hear them, we share them, we make them everyday in our cultures. No culture can be defined by one story – a culture is rather a culmination of thousands of beautiful threads of stories that are sewed into a people’s existence. In efforts to help our supporters understand the context of our work better, we want to share a story that is one of the brightest, longest and strongest threads in the culture of Guatemala.
This blog is the first of a three part series that will unfold the tale of the country’s most lucrative crop, its most abundant foodstuff, its sacred vestige: Corn. Its that time of the year, so we found it most appropriate to begin with the Harvest.
Driving through the bumpy roads of coastal Guatemala in August you can experience a fascinating sight not akin to many places in the world: rows upon rows of corn turned over, fields of corn stalks bowing in reverence to man, the ultimate steward.
Treating the corn in this fashion essentially stops the growth of the stalk and commences the drying of the grain. As the husks remain hanging on the stalks, they provide an eco-friendly home for all the kernels to dry above ground, making them less susceptible to rot and pest damage. Furthermore, turning the corn over allows more light into the soil in addition to creating windbreaks, promoting the growth of fragile sesame seedlings that are traditionally planted in between corn stalks around the same time.
September 15th is usually the date used to commence the harvest season, although the process can last well into December. Farmers, their families and hired hands line up along seemingly endless rows of corn, machetes strapped to their sides and grain sacks tied to their waist. These crews of campesinos walk the length of each row, harvest and de-husk every piece of corn by hand and toss it into their bags. When the grain bag becomes unbearable to pull along (they can get up to 100 pounds), it is dragged to the street and the process begins anew. In the heat of the tropical lowlands, hundreds of hands spend endless hours reaping thousands of seeds sown, unwrapping the husks of their future.
At the side the road hundreds of bags wait to be degrained. Most families degrain at least some of the corn (most likely the corn that will be consumed in the household) by hand. A survival skill for these families, but a theatrical work of art for a gringa, fingers work ferociously pushing individual kernels off in record timing. As with all modern agriculture, this tedious, timely process has been transformed into a mere few minutes of mechanization – that is, if you are lucky enough to have access to the machine. Most farmers subcontract the degraining to a neighbor with access to a degrainer. Thousands of corn cobs are tossed in the machine and millions of kernels are tossed out straight into sacks within minutes.
Shoulder to shoulder thousands of farmers stand in the symbolic waiting room of the corn harvest, eagerly awaiting a rusty old truck to come tumbling down the dirt road toting the coyote (middleman) who will offer a price – a generally non-negotiable price. The only negotiation space for these rural farmers is in their choice of when to harvest. The great thing about corn is that its a grain which Mother Nature has done an exceptional job of protecting with the evolution of the husk. Farmers can leave their precious commodity hanging in those protective barriers for weeks, keeping a watchful eye on the price and an entrepreneur’s ear on the market supply. The final sale can occur anywhere between September 15th through December, depending on how much the farmer can afford to wait. Unfortunately, the majority of corn farmers have invested their meager savings in that harvest and when September 15throlls around there is no option but to sell and sell quickly – daughters need their tuition, wives need their medicine, farmers need their food.
What does this mean for the farmer?
It is almost impossible for us to understand the giant leap of faith required in this context. These people live off the land, it is their saving grace and their Achilles heel all in one. Campesinos will bend to grab a handful of precious soil, reverently boasting its qualities (or lack thereof) like an ancient relic of a fabled faith. The corn harvest is a time of hope and anxiety, ardently waiting to see if all your manual labor on your most prized possession has paid off. All those hundreds of hands unraveling thousands of corn husks like fortune cookie forecasts of their future. Did we make a profit? How much should we sell, and when should we sell it? Are we in debt?
We have this picture engrained in our imaginations – our Guatemalan sister dressed in her brightly embroidered dress with bountiful produce overflowing her wicker basket. What that image lacks is the desperation of our Central American sister, her complete dependency on corn, on chemicals, and on the capricious generosity of a globalized world.
A story for the future…
Yields are low and harvests are risky, but farmers depend on them and are generally unwilling to risk losing that meager harvest by trying a different technique than what they already know. Semilla Nueva is helping campesinos imagine a different future for themselves and for their land so that this cultural story can become one of empowerment, opportunity, and growth. We encourage experimentation, helping farmers try out new growing techniques on small parcels of their land and compare the results on yields. We also make economic analysis a priority, helping farmers keep track of their investments in labor, inputs, and seeds to better understand where they have the space to make changes within this limited context.
Corn is a central thread of the story of Guatemala, a powerful symbol of livelihood, culture and community, yet also one of grave poverty and desperation. Semilla Nueva is working with farmers to grow a new story, a different story. This story is rooting itself and taking hold, one farmer, one sustainable technology, and one corn harvest at a time.