Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes

by Self-Help International
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Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers' Nutrition & Incomes
Corn farmers in Nicaragua.
Corn farmers in Nicaragua.

Ever since Self-Help International (Self-Help) began working to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in Nicaragua, promoting the production of high-protein corn has been a high priority.  Corn is a staple crop in Nicaragua, and the majority is used for human consumption.  Many people suffer from protein deficiency. Introducing corn varieties that are higher in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan than the traditional varieties – known as “Quality Protein Maize” (QPM) – is an effective and affordable way of improving diets.

Improved Seed

Foundation QPM seed was obtained from the International Center for Improvement of Corn and Wheat (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, where Dr. Norman Borlaug did much of his work that resulted in the Green Revolution.  From the original foundation seed, Self-Help produced registered seed on its test plots.  The registered seed is then sold to leading farmers in the community who produce certified seed, under strict protocols overseen by the Nicaraguan government.  This certified seed is sold to agricultural input dealers who in turn sell it to small-holder farmers.  The farmers’ production is used for family consumption, and the excess is sold in local markets for other families to utilize.

Better Technology

Improved seed is only one piece of the puzzle, however.  QPM not only has higher protein content than traditional corn varieties planted in Nicaragua, it has increased yield potential, as well.  However, farmers must adopt improved production practices to unlock this potential.  Between 2016 and 2020, Self-Help presented over 108 workshops on corn production to an average of 14 farmers per training.  In addition, small bags of seed are donated to farmers who are willing to plant demonstration plots so that their neighbors can observe the results from QPM genetics first-hand.

Self-Help’s trainings help farmers take advantage of the superior QPM geneticsby increasing plant population on the same amount of land they typically cultivate.  Traditionally, farmers in Nicaragua plant about 12,000 kernels per acre.  For QPM seed the goal is 36,000 seeds per acre, or triple the density of the native varieties.  To achieve this higher plant population, farmers learn “double-row” technology during Self-Help training workshops.  Instead of planting single rows of seed roughly a meter (39 inches) apart, two rows are planted about 4 inches apart, then two more rows are planted with a one-meter gap in between.  The one-meter gap is necessary to allow a person to walk between the rows for planting, weeding, applying pesticides, and harvesting.  Seeds are also planted closer together within the rows.

More plants require more nutrients.  Farmers who adopt double-row technology apply fertilizer at roughly double the rate used for the traditional single-row technology.  Other inputs are applied at about the same rates.  The table on this page compares the total costs for each technology, including land, labor and purchased inputs.  The estimated cost per acre for double-row technology is $453, compared to only $273 for the single-row option.  However, the double-row corn conservatively yields twice as much grain and double the gross income.  Profit per acre is estimated at $138 per acre, versus $22 per acre for the single-row technology.  Of course, if families provide their own labor and own their own land, the budgeted costs for those resources go back into their pockets, as well, leaving them extra income for improving their diets in other ways, investing in home improvements, and paying for their children’s education.

Access to Capital

In order to pay for the higher input costs, farmers need access to capital.  Self-Help maintains a revolving fund from which farmers can borrow enough to pay for seed, fertilizer, pesticides and land preparation, or about 43% of their total costs.  Loans are repaid after harvest, about six months later, plus interest at a rate of one percent per month.  Repayment rates are at or near 100 percent.

By providing a complete package: improved seed, better technology and access to capital, Self-Help International is able to support farmers in Nicaragua to improve their livelihoods while at the same time alleviating hunger and improving nutrition in their communities and beyond.  In 2021 Self-Help hopes to finance about 70 farmers.  Your donations can help expand our revolving funds and make it possible to serve even more producers in the future. 

Nicaragua corn farmer.
Nicaragua corn farmer.
Ears of corn.
Ears of corn.
Costs and Returns, High Protein Corn One Acre, US$
Costs and Returns, High Protein Corn One Acre, US$
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Omar.
Omar.

Across Nicaragua, farmers are greatly challenged by irregular crop sales prices. Many farmers depend on microfinance lending companies to finance their farming operations, but these companies charge very high interest rates. This means that in order to repay the loans, farmers are forced to sell their final products to predatory intermediaries. Since there is no pricing regulatory body for agricultural production, prices are dictated by the intermediaries, who buy up most small- and medium-sized farmers’ products for resale. These farmers often receive unfair prices for their products, and their families’ incomes are hurt in the process. 

Another challenge farmers face is a lack of improved planting systems and not relying  on their empirical farming knowledge inherited from their ancestors. Year after year, production declines due to poor agricultural techniques. This is why Self-Help International’s Agriculture Program provides training and tools (like the double-row planting technique) and technologies (high quality protein maize, or QPM, adapted to the zones and climates of Nicaragua). These allow rural families to fight hunger and improve production. Utilizing existing resources and avoiding soil contamination allow these farmers to advance their agricultural frontiers and have higher crop yields.

Omar is a farmer from Nueva Armenia, Nicaragua, about 45 kilometers from San Carlos in Rio San Juan. Omar has extensive experience in agriculture, which he started working in as a child when his father began teaching him how to produce maize, beans, tubers, and livestock. Sadly, his father - an acclaimed and hard-working farmer -  passed away two months ago. Now, Omar and two of his brothers are supporting their family using the skills their father taught them. Omar’s ten-person family lives together - Omar, his mother, his four brothers, and his four sisters. Five of his siblings are still studying in primary school, and they travel 3 km (approx. 1.9 mi) walking or on horseback to reach their school each day.

Omar is particularly adept at cultivating maize in traditional ways. He is a member of Self-Help’s Agriculture Program and has been trained with the planting system promoted by the organization. Additionally, he’s received production inputs for QPM, which is more nutritious than traditional maize.

However, when Omar entered the program, he, like many farmers, was skeptical of Self-Help’s double-row planting technique. He normally establishes up to 7,056 square meters of maize, and traditionally this one manzana (7,056 square meters) yields around 4,000 pounds of maize. But, he agreed to experiment with double-row planting. He established a 2,550 square meter plot. From this plot, he obtained a yield of 3,500 pounds.

By using the double row planting technique in a plot about a third of the size he normally plants, Omar yielded nearly what he would expect to yield using his previous methods. When Omar finished his experiment, he realized that the planting technique increases production and reduces production costs.

Surprised at the result obtained compared to his traditional planting system, Omar claims that if he had planted one full manzana, he would have yielded 9,333 pounds. This motivated him and also served as an example to other community members to apply this planting technique as well. Omar now recommends the technique to other farmers and encourages them to improve their quality of life by avoiding the problem of having to sell their products at a lower price.

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Establishing the demonstration plots.
Establishing the demonstration plots.

More than 70% of Nicaragua’s agricultural land is held by small and medium-sized farms whose farmers have made agricultural advances. However, these advances have led to deteriorated soil quality due to overexploitation, land misuse, and a lack of knowledge about best cultivation practices. Over time, the land yields less and less, and many farmers are unwilling to change their production systems and engage in different maize planting techniques. 

This is why Self-Help International’s agricultural extension team in Nicaragua works with farmers on cultivation improvement techniques to obtain better yields and guarantee protein-rich food (quality protein maize, or QPM) to rural farmers and their families.

Juan, a farmer originally from Nueva Guinea, has spent more than 20 years in the Ojo de Agua community in San Carlos, Rio San Juan. He lives with his three children and his grandson, and in addition to having worked in neighboring Costa Rica as a field laborer, Juan has extensive knowledge regarding the agricultural sector.

Juan and his family are dedicated to cultivating the land, and he is a member of the farming group which receives training from Self-Help International. In May 2019, he planted a 425 square meter demonstration plot using the double-row planting technique to plant the QPM seed variety called INTA-Nutrader. He compared this technique and variety with his traditional planting techniques and maize varieties, and he observed higher yields utilizing the new technique and QPM seed variety. 

During the second planting season of 2020, Self-Help provided inputs to Juan’s farming group, including INTA-Nutrader corn seed, fertilizer, and liquids for pest control and seed treatment. With this, they planted 70,560 square meters of maize, 30% using the innovative new planting technique and the other 70% using traditional planting techniques. The group then compared the results. 

Juan and his group realized that, with good sowing techniques, handling, and fertilizer application, they were able to achieve better crop performance using less land. They also realized that the techniques would make larger tracts of farmland easier to manage. 

Ultimately, Juan’s farming group observed an 88.57% increase in maize yields, so Juan also decided to experiment with two pigs. He fed them exclusively INTA-Nutrader protein maize, and his 132 pound pig increased by 68 pounds while the other 105 pound pig increased by 55 pounds. He sold the pigs around Christmas 2019 and got a good price for them. 

As a result of this, Juan is confident in continuing his family’s agricultural practices as recommended by Self-Help. He no longer needs to emigrate to neighboring Costa Rica in search of job opportunities since the results he yielded allow him to plant and produce more. With the profits from his corn sales, he purchased a solar panel for his family so that his home would have electricity. Additionally, they purchased more animals to increase their livestock herd.

Establishing the demonstration plots.
Establishing the demonstration plots.
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Coop leader, Isidro, holding bushels.
Coop leader, Isidro, holding bushels.

The biofortified bean varieties, INTA-Nutritivo and Rendidor, were evaluated in various regions and climates of Nicaragua by the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA). These beans contain higher contents of iron (86 ppm) and zinc (43 ppm) than traditional bean varieties which only have 50 ppm of iron and 28 ppm of zinc. It is a seed variety that adapts to humid tropical climates, and its bushiness and short height make it ideal for Self-Help’s double-row planting technique. 

Because Self-Help promotes crops with high nutritional value, Self-Help decided to start promoting biofortified bean varieties with 30 farmers and their families. All of the farmers are members of the San Marcos and San Lucas de Los Chiles RL Cooperative because they have extensive experience in bean cultivation. Each family received 15 pounds of seeds for the establishment of plots that are 1,320 m2.

In March 2020, Agriculture Program Officer,  Rodolfo Ricardo Hernández Navas, met with a group of 10 farmers who came to the cooperative to return the 30 pounds of INTA-Nutritivo and Rendidor bean seed, and Rodolfo spoke with them about their experiences. They talked about the quality of the seed, which is excellent, although some farmers have not finished harvesting their beans completely because of the heavy rains.

A farmer named Santana from the La Rampla community harvested 100 pounds of beans. The harvest was lower than expected due to the high incidence of Meterworm (Trichoplusia ni) pests and heavy rains in the first days post-planting. Santana said he did not use any fertilizers or chemicals. He also said that if he had not used the new biofortified bean seed, he would not have harvested anything. 

Of Santana’s 100-pound harvest, he repaid Self-Help with 30 pounds of beans. The rest of his harvest will be used as seed for the next cycle in October 2020.

Another farmer named Serafín  from the community of Los Pavones N ° 2 planted 15 pounds of beans with the same double-row planting technique used on the Quality Protein Maize (QPM) crops; however, the distance between the rows was greater than Self-Help’s agriculture team typically recommends. He applied commercial chemical fertilizers and employed good agronomic practices. However, during cultivation there were attacks by pests such as the Meterworm (Trichoplusia ni) and excessive rain as winter ended. 

Serafin and his family harvested 450 pounds of beans.

“My yield would have been higher, but that worm plague attacked my crops,” Serafin said. “During the next harvest, I will be better prepared to combat the worms.”

“I am going to save 100 pounds for seed for the next harvest and 100 pounds for my family's consumption,” Serafin said.  “The rest of the 250 pounds I am going to sell in my community.”

Silverio, another farmer from the Melchora community No. 2, obtained a yield of 200 pounds. However, he did not use commercial chemical fertilizers, only organic fertilizer in foliar form (Phosphite-Frix PK). He did not do any weed or pest control. 

“I didn’t manage the beans well, but those beans are good. The land didn’t help, because it was full of weeds and bush. The bush was too big when I finally decided to apply a herbicide,” Silverio said. “Despite all of that, I still yielded 200 pounds. This bean is good because it is bulky and bushy. If it had been the normal Creole bean, I wouldn’t have harvested anything at all."

Silverio is planning to save about 50 pounds to sow in November. His family has already experimented with using the beans in soup. The taste of beans in cooking is critical to rural farming families accepting a new bean variety into their diets. They liked the beans, and the family decided that the remaining 120 pounds will be consumed at home instead of selling it like they normally do with surplus crops. 

Coop leader, Isidro, is from the San Agustín community. He harvested 300 pounds from his initial 10 pounds of seed (he gave the other 5 pounds of seed to his neighbor, who ultimately didn’t plant it because it was too late in the season). Due to the heavy rains, Isidro’s batch of beans failed because of flooding and rotted seed. Isidro applied a 20-pound mixture of fertilizer 15-15-15 + Ammonium Sulfate + Potassium Muriate 0-0-60, as well as organic fertilizer Phosphite-Frix PK, in the form Foliar. This product is an inducer and fixer of bean flowers and has fungicidal properties and provides good results. Isidro would have obtained a harvest similar to Serafín’s if there hadn’t been heavy rains.

“The quality of the beans and the soup is very good even though red bean varieties are normally disliked for their taste and how thick they make the soups,” Isidro said. “This nutritious variety surprised me because it is very good, soft, and it cooks quickly. My whole family liked it.” 

Isidro will sow 150 pounds in November and will save 100 pounds to consume with his family.

Bean crop.
Bean crop.
Farming family's bean crop.
Farming family's bean crop.

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Jorge Campos inspects the five sacks of beans.
Jorge Campos inspects the five sacks of beans.

By Jorge Campos Solis, Country Director, Self-Help Nicaragua and Jerry Perkins, member of the board of directors, Self-Help International.

Los Chiles, Nicaragua– Self-Help International Nicaragua began a new chapter in its agricultural development program in November 2019 when, for the first time, 450 pounds of beans that have been bio-fortified with extra iron and zinc were distributed to 30 farmers in the Los Chiles region in southeastern Nicaragua. Harvest of the beans is expected to begin in March.

Another 50 pounds of the bio-fortified beans, which are named “Rendidor” in Spanish, have been planted on two Self-Help demonstration and experimental plots.

The Rendidor bio-fortified beans represent the first new crop introduced by Self-Help Nicaragua since 1999, when Self-Help began working in Nicaragua with the planting of Quality Protein Maize (QPM), a high-protein corn variety that was developed at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

QPM was brought to Nicaragua by Self-Help soon after Hurricane Mitch decimated much of Central America’s agricultural infrastructure between Oct. 22 and Nov. 9, 1998, when it became the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

 

The Benefits of Bio-fortified

This year, Self-Help will distribute bio-fortified rice to its cooperating farmers to strengthen its mission of addressing hunger and malnutrition among the most vulnerable people living in both urban and rural areas. Especially affected by the scarcity in the quantity and quality of food are women, children, and the elderly who do not receive the micro-nutrients they need to lead healthy and productive lives.

QPM was introduced by Self-Help because it has a higher level of protein than conventional corn varieties that have traditionally been grown in Nicaragua. Numerous studies have shown that the higher protein level of QPM improves the physical and mental development of children and young people, which makes them more productive in adulthood.

It has 90% of the protein found in skim milk, which makes it an ideal way for people, especially children, to get a higher intake of protein when they consume tortillas and other corn-based food products made from QPM. QPM also yields more per acre and people say they like its taste.

The new bio-fortified bean seeds that have been distributed by Self-Help will expand the organization’s mission to provide farmers and consumers with an improved diet. Rendidor beans contain 60% more iron (86 parts per million, or ppm) and 50% more zinc (43 ppm) compared to the traditional bean varieties (frijoles criollos) grown in Nicaragua. The improved nutritional content of the bio-fortified beans has been confirmed in nutritional studies, according to the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA).

 

The Where, Why, and How of it All

Nicaraguan families typically consume a diet of rice, beans, and corn (in the form of tortillas and other corn-based foods like tamales and nacatamales). In Nicaragua, a popular saying is “Full stomach, happy heart.” But there is also a hidden problem of malnutrition in people who are overweight because of their excessive consumption of carbohydrates, fats, and table salt that stomachs, but that doesn’t mean they are properly nourished.

Because Self-Help is adding bio-fortified rice and beans to the QPM corn on Nicaraguans’ plates, people who have not be able to have an adequately nutritious diet will now have food that is rich in protein, fiber, and essential micro-nutrients.

The bio-fortified beans have been developed at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT is the acronym for its name in Spanish) in Colombia, a non-profit organization that conducts agricultural research as one of CGIAR’s 15 center members. CGIAR is the world’s largest partnership of agricultural research-for-development organizations.

Also involved in the project is HarvestPlus, which is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). HarvestPlus is a Washington, DC-based organization that seeks to improve nutrition and public health by developing and promoting bio-fortified food crops. HarvestPlus also supports INTA, which sold the 500 pounds of Rendidor bean seed to Self-Help.

On Nov. 12, 2019, Self-Help distributed the Rendidor bio-fortified beans to the farmer-members of the Cooperativa Agrícola Multisectorial Productores Unidos de Los Chiles “San Marcos and San Lucas.” 

Co-op members are community leaders and have had great experiences in bean production. In addition, they also have had more than 18 years experience working with the Los Chiles Bean Seed Bank run by the Catholic Church.

The Rendidor bean variety has a red color, which is similar to the native bean varieties that Nicaraguan farmers are accustomed to growing and eating and have been bred to flourish in the humid tropical climate found in southeastern Nicaragua. To help the beans resist fungal diseases, the architecture of the plants grown from Rendidor seeds is open to allow the entry of light and ventilation among the foliage. The plant’s architecture also permits the control of weeds as well as pests and diseases.

Another important feature is the thick pod that contains the beans, which makes the pod impermeable to heavy rains so that the beans inside the pod aren’t damaged by fungi, nor do they germinate inside the pod. This helps maintain high yields and bean quality.

 

Getting Down to the Farming

Farmers still need to practice excellent agronomic management by treating the seeds; planting them in a timely manner; applying fertilization at each physiological stage; control weeds, pests, and diseases; and apply proper and careful harvest techniques. Self-Help provides agricultural advice to its cooperating farmers, which ensures that the new bean variety will respond with its maximum yield potential.

It is expected that the 15 pounds of Rendidor beans given to each cooperating farmer will produce an average total yield of 700 pounds. Farmers who received the Rendidor seeds agreed to return 30 pounds of seeds to Self-Help, so the bio-fortified bean seeds can be distributed to more farmers in 2020.

If the 700 pounds of beans are, in fact, harvested, each family will be to keep 300 pounds of beans, which is enough to feed a family of six for a year.

In addition, farmers will have 200 pounds of beans for the next planting cycle in November, which will leave 170 pounds of beans for marketing.

Isidro, president of the Los Chiles Cooperative, said of the bio-fortified beans: “It is a good opportunity to sow a nutritious food for our families. The yields will vary depending on the care and management that each farmer gives his crop. In my case, my family consumes 200 pounds of beans a year. There are four of us living in our home and sometimes my other children visit us on the weekend. I also will save some seed for planting in 2020. I want to try this bean to see if we like it. If the soup that is made from the Rendidor beans is good it will stay in my house and we will consume it. Everything will depend if we all like it.”

Rendidor beans.
Rendidor beans.
Jorge Campos hands out sacks to women farmers.
Jorge Campos hands out sacks to women farmers.

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Organization Information

Self-Help International

Location: Waverly, IA - USA
Website:
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Twitter: @SelfHelpIntl
Project Leader:
Katie Seifert
Waverly, IA United States
$3,810 raised of $7,020 goal
 
61 donations
$3,210 to go
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