Before participating in a study abroad, I had heard all of these sayings before: “Traveling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller!” “Adventures are the best way to learn!” “The journey is the destination!” They sounded exciting, thrilling, and had an immense call to action for me. This, accompanied with my desire to learn more about agriculture on an international level, really pushed me to apply for a travel course. Fortunately, I was accepted into a two-week program that would provide exposure to Panama’s agriculture products and international business model. I toured both family and corporation owned farms, specializing in animal production, meat processing, and crop management. It’s second nature for me to compare all of these processes to those in the U.S., and specifically Iowa while analyzing their efficiency, safety, and overall productivity given the difference in climate and soils. After returning to the states, I had an entirely new view upon international agriculture and hope to broaden your perspectives on the agriculture industry!
Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?
It’s a known fact that Iowa is great at growing and selling corn. So, it’s a given that this is the first question I asked myself. The short answer is, that while Panama does grow corn, it’s nothing compared to the yield and quality of Iowa’s maize. To obtain some reliable numbers, I used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website. In 2017, Panama produced just over 5 billion bushels of corn and Iowa produced 2.6 billion bushels. At first glance this might seem as though Panama is clearly ahead of Iowa, however, this doesn’t take into account the yield of this crop. Panama’s yield averaged 32.5 bushels per acre, compared to Iowa’s whopping 202 bu/ac. To put this huge difference of yields into perspective, if Panama could grow corn as efficiently as Iowa then their yields would be 6.2 times higher, roughly making their total production reach 31.8 million bushels.
So now that we know where Panama stands on corn production, it’s a good idea to determine what’s accounting for this huge difference from their potential yields. This is the first question I asked upon meeting a Panamanian maize grower. He said his corn normally averages 130 bu/ac, which is significantly higher than the national average. He planted corn on land with higher slopes because maize is more suitable for it than some of his other cash crops. Management practices vary a lot from the U.S., the two biggest differences being that they plant non-GMO crops and use minimal chemical application. Most farmers we encountered were certified organic, and make minimal to no post-emergence applications. One downside is the lack of protection against pest damage. Even though this management practice yields much lower than alternatives, the farm is able to stay financially stable thanks to the organic premium received upon selling the crop. Another key factor affecting their corn yields is knowing that the soil has a high percentage of clay. This could be beneficial during droughts but can be detrimental during tropical storms with high rainfall accumulation. I believe that if the soils were more of a loam and had more water drainage qualities, this would help boost the yield and production of maize in this country. It’s also important to realize that because of Panama’s tropical climate, this area is much more suitable for effectively producing other crops.
Agroforestry – what is it?
Agroforestry is an uncommon term in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, but is more well-known in countries like Panama. Simply put: agroforestry is the incorporation of trees and shrub-like plants into a crop and/or animal production system, usually reaping benefits from economic and environmental aspects. The most impressionable agroforestry production I visited was a cacao plantation grown and managed by a Panamanian indigenous tribe. On the side of a steep hill underneath the canopy of a forest, there were crops grown for consumption, fiber materials, and various other plants that fall under the realm of subsistence farming. An interesting fact about the cacao tree is that it actually grows best in a partially to fully shaded area! This, and the need for a tropical climate, are the two main reasons why cacao cannot be commercially produced in Iowa. The Ngobe Bugle tribe’s lifestyle and family traditions revolve around the cacao tree. The chocolate plant not only provides the main source of income for the community, but it also holds together their culture and traditions. The trees normally produce three crops throughout the year, and the entire first crop is used for tribal activities and festivities. The remaining harvest is sold internationally through an organic cooperative. Since the Ngobe Bugle people consider themselves to be one with the land, they choose not to apply pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers to their crop. There is a downside to this production method, which is the susceptibility and infestation of pests and diseases.
Cacao trees start the reproductive growth phase with many flowers emerging from its branches. These flowers can only be pollinated by tiny insects and flies because they are simply too small for bees or other pollinators to pollinate. Of these flowers, about 60% are killed by a virus. This virus could be minimized and prevented with modern technology and chemicals, however, this would conflict with and disrupt the Ngobe Bugle’s lifestyle. Of the remaining 40% of flowers that are pollinated and start producing a pod, only 20% successfully make it to harvest. The rest are lost to crickets, fungi, worms, and severe weather events. This means that the cacao trees are only yielding at 20% of their potential.
While I’m looking at this from an agronomist’s perspective and classifying it as a major problem, the indigenous tribe sees no issues with their production system. They make just enough money to break even with the organic premium they receive when selling with the cooperative. At first, this ideology was difficult for me to comprehend. In all areas of agriculture production in the U.S., the producers and growers are striving to improve in the upcoming year’s production and quality. If yield remains stagnant or decreases, that’s typically reason for producers to reevaluate some of their management choices. If there’s ever a new tactic for improvement or an increase in yield, there’s a high likelihood the producer is willing to try it. This idea of becoming more efficient and productive is not present in the Ngobe Bugle people, since they’re subsistence farmers. They only grow what they need, and have no reason to produce excess. This is just another difference and aspect of the global agriculture industry that many never have the chance to see.
It’s easy to be caught up with learning more about the agriculture industry in Iowa, and the Midwest in general, but it’s important to take a step back and look at it with a wider scope. It’s quite interesting to see and be able to visualize how the sole state of Iowa is able to help produce, and compete in yields, on a global scale. One must also realize why Iowa is an ideal location for corn production, and on the other hand appreciate why some crops are better grown in varying areas. So I encourage you to go out and learn about a foreign agriculture product that you’re interested in and/or are confused with how it’s grown! Our goal of becoming more agriculturally literate doesn’t stop with corn and livestock production in Iowa, it fits into a much larger scheme of things!