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It’s Bean Season!

February 22, 2011

It’s summertime here in Panama (Jan-April), which only means one thing…. Beans! Planted in November to absorb water during the last part of the rainy season, beans are ready to harvest a mere three months later in Jan-Feb. Around these parts three types of beans predominate: Guandu (pigeon peas), porotos (kidney beans), and frijoles de bejuco (red beans). They are among the few agricultural products that people around here sell to outside markets, and, therefore, are an essential component of their income.

Photo Caption: Guandu, or Pigeon Peas, are the delight of January. Peeled fresh (as shown) these suckers catch $2.00/lbs in the national agricultural market (read: hella dollas!).

The growing season reflects the climate of the region. People expect dry weather to begin in December, without any rain until the end of March or April. Diverging from the pattern, it rained quite a lot in December and several times in January. Because beans require a period without water, any change in weather affects production and can have a significant impact on yields. Several weeks ago, during one of these downpours, my host dad sat quietly at the table, staring out the window. Knowing that he was thinking about his bean crop, I asked how the rain affects it. He explained that since it is close to harvest time, the pods have already developed and the rain causes the plants’ leaves to wilt and fall, covering the pods. It then cuts them off from sunshine and causes the bean inside to mold.

Our planet’s ensuing climate change dictates that summers in Panama will be rainier and less predictable (does anybody remember hearing about the record flooding in Panama City and Darien in December?). In some areas of Panama, summers will be longer and more severe. Farmers can no longer depend on a nine month rainy season followed by three months of dry season. Many farmers that I’ve spoken with have expressed disappointment that their yields are lower this year. How can farmers overcome this? I’m glad that you asked.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the national agricultural development agency (MIDA = Ministry of Agro Development) have partnered to sponsor projects for farmers to begin using genetically modified seeds, enhanced to better withstand changes in climate. A pilot project for improved kidney beans happens to be the beans that my host father, with a group of five other producers, planted and waited anxiously to see the results.

Photo Caption: The farm where the beans were harvested. The bean plants were left in the sun a few days to dry before being removed from the shell.

In November, they planted 300 pounds of beans in about 1.5 hectares of land. While the bulk of the investment was shared by MIDA and FAO to supply seeds, herbicide, and fertilizer, the group had to also invest to pay for labor and devote their own time to take care of the crop. None of the farmers had previous experience working in a group or on a large scale. While their personal risk was minimized by support from outside agencies, the project has potential to be very profitable for the group in the long-term.

The second week of February was time to harvest! The process requires plucking the whole plant out of the ground, laying it out the sun to dry, and returning within a few days to thresh (remove beans from the pod) by banging a handful of plants with a stick until all the beans fall out. The group members depended on help from all of their family members (including myself) and had to purchase sacks and tarp. By the end of a long week, they harvested 2,700 pounds (27 sacks) of beans. This was about 3,000 pounds less than what they initially estimated. Additionally, the quality of the bean was questionable because they are smaller and wrinklier than beans that are sold in market. The farmers complained that they didn’t receive the fertilizer in time in order to apply it properly. However, where many farmers kidney bean crop failed altogether, the group was pleased to have produced enough to take 100 pounds each and sell the remaining 21 sacks.

Photo Caption: Dora and Albania (bottom) demonstrate the most effective way to thresh beans from the pod: banging with a stick so that the dried pod bursts open.

But does the return validate the investment? Is the project viable for the future once the funding from FAO runs out? Let’s analyze.

They can sell the beans locally for $0.90/lb, or $90/sack of 100 lbs. Store-bought beans sell for $1.15/pound, so pricing is competitive. If they sell all 21 sacks, they will earn $1,890. The total costs amounted to about $750, so the profit is $1,140. Thus, each farmer (there are six total) will earn $190. Since they all took one sack each for their families, it adds $90 to each farmers earnings, for an effective income of $280. For the typical Comarca farmer that earns an average income of $500/year, that represents a 56% increase. However, for my host father, who is a teacher and earns about $6,000 per year, it represents a 4.7% increase. Was it worth all the additional time and money spent? I think he would say it does and explain that he values providing food for his family, and therefore, the extra investment was worth it because it meant improved food security.

What percent increase in income is needed to justify any given innovation? Once the group has to assume the cost of fertilizer and herbicide, and set aside seeds for the following growing season, profitability could decrease. On the other hand, as they improve their farming techniques and increase production, many of these costs could be offset by higher yields. As with any development project, the answer is always it depends, and it will take time until it is understood whether the risks are worth the reward.

What’s my role in all of this? Besides crunching numbers to illustrate advantages and disadvantages, I’m working with the group on basic management skills. I’ve been working with the folks at MIDA to program business management seminars for small farming groups like this. In April we have a seminar scheduled to learn why and how to maintain records of production and sales.

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