Observations on Corn yield trends and potential: Haiti and the U.S.

Roger W. Elmore
20 Sep 2010

Two Haitian corn growers joined our shade-seeking group, evading for a few moments southwest Haiti’s intense tropical sun. It was near midday in early August 2010, and Haiti sweltered with temperatures and humidity rivaling the heart of an Iowa corn field at the height of summer. Around us, the oppressive weather conditions seemed to continue 24/7 with no break. Thunderstorms rolled through, but instead of cooling, they often only increased Haiti’s humidity even more.

In the brief shady reprieve of a cluster of Haitian fruit trees and palms, the young and old farmer discussed advantages of small-scale tractors and tillage implements in their cropping systems compared to plowing by oxen or hoeing by hand: poor comparisons, dramatic contrasts – but for an impoverished nation like Haiti, such discussions reflect the harsh realities of life.

The January 2010 earthquake devastated this country already ravaged by decades of abuse and neglect from both natural and human disasters. Interestingly, in the eighteenth century St. Dominique – what we now call Haiti – was known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” and was the richest colony in the French Empire. There is little luster in the pearl today.

Why we were there

I visited this small Caribbean island nation with Floyd Hammer, of Outreach International, in Union, Iowa, in early August 2010. Friends and Family Community Connection, a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) from San Diego, had invited us to examine the feasibility of establishing a research, demonstration and teaching farm associated with an orphanage and school in Gressier, southwest of Port-au-Prince. Another NGO, World Concern, along with Iowa-based Tractors for Haiti , provided encouragement and considerable support as we investigated the role of scale-appropriate mechanization for agriculture.

We spent many hours on Port-au-Prince streets navigating precariously, but safely, through traffic snarls and disintegrating roads to visit various NGO and government officials. Our drive from Gressier to Les Cayes, even further southwest, was almost like driving into another country.

There was a point somewhere along the three- to four-hour trip where makeshift tent cities, shacks and shanties, trash, despair, rubble and ruin, mud, ruts, foul smells, bumper to bumper traffic – following no discernable laws – and throngs of people everywhere gave way to good pavement, fewer people, well maintained houses, fruit trees, corn and cane fields, rice paddies, clean beaches, rolling hills and little trace of the devastation and chaos that hammers the senses in earthquake-torn Port-au-Prince area.

Haitian maize production

A mere 700 miles from Miami, Haiti feels a world and a half apart. Even outside the earthquake zone, Haiti contrasts starkly with the U.S. in terms of traditions, environment, and agriculture. For example, average Haitian corn yields languish at levels that our grandparents in the early twentieth century would think paltry Figure 1 & Image 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Haitian corn acreage remains relatively low but is increasing (left axis, blue diamonds and dashed line), while corn yields stabilized in the 1990s at around 12 bushels per acre (right axis, red squares and solid line). Data compiled and adapted from Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, August 8, 2010. http://faostat.fao.org/site/567/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=567#ancor

Image 1

Image 1. Corn production near Les Cayes, SW Haiti. R.W. Elmore

Simple agricultural technology and management practices could dramatically increase Haitian corn production. But no single magic bullet exists. We – at least some of us Midwesterners – think immediately of hybrids – modern genetics. But hybrids comprise only part of the answer – and even then perhaps a very small part. This is especially true in subsistence-level agriculture where seed prices inhibit hybrid adoption.

Improving Haitian corn production will take an entire array of management practices coupled with improved genetics, in addition to well developed markets and transportation systems. That is not unlike what spurred U.S. corn yields more than a half-century ago.

Historical U.S. corn yield increases

Corn yields in the U.S. stagnated from the 1860s through the mid-twentieth century between 25 and 35 bushels per acre. In the early to mid-1940s yields started and continue to climb at rates between 1 and 2 bushels per acre per year.

What drove that increase? Hybrids first come to mind and certainly were critical to the equation. But hybrids were developed and tested in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and adoption of hybrids in Iowa already neared 100 percent by 1940. Yet yield increases did not begin until the early to mid-1940s.

This increase was driven not only by hybrids, but also by dramatic advances in nitrogen fertilization, chemical weed control, insecticides, chemical seed treatments, drainage, seeding rates, and yes, mechanization: planters, tillage equipment, combines and other implements. It took the complete package to thrust our yields higher.

Higher yields are possible in Haiti

The same holds for corn in Haiti – though I am certainly not an expert on all the problems facing Haitian farmers, or for that matter, Haiti itself. However, after my 2007 trip to Haiti, a colleague there more than doubled corn yields in an experiment, simply by controlling weeds, adding nitrogen and increasing seeding rates. Yields went from about 30 to 80 bushels per acre! This all happened with “chicken corn,” an open-pollinated, flint-type variety used by seemingly everyone and most likely for decades.

Some Haitian farmers buy chicken corn grain for seed. Others save seed from one season to the next, like my grandpa did before he recognized the value of hybrids. Genetics of open-pollinated varieties sold and traded this way likely include genes from tens if not hundreds of tropical flint varieties. Seed quality almost certainly varies nearly as much. Hybrids could probably increase the yield my Haitian colleague received by another 30 to 45 bushels.

So, why aren’t Haitian corn yields higher? Certainly the land is capable, especially with better soil management practices. Fertilizers, although in short supply, could be obtained and weeds managed by hand or more expensive herbicides. Insecticides could be employed if necessary. Interestingly, prior to 1980, Haiti reportedly exported food.

Why the low maize productivity in Haiti?

The sun set on a gently rolling plain of several hundred acres near Gressier, just west of the quake’s epicenter. Perhaps half the fields that afternoon had corn, sugarcane, vegetables, bananas and other fruit trees. Cattle grazed lazily, staked on abandoned, overgrazed fields with eroded ridges from previous crops, casting interesting shadows. Abandoned fields intermingled with cultivated fields. Tent villages perched on the nearby hillsides.

I asked how long the fields had been abandoned. The answer surprised me: “Ten years…farmers can make more money selling water in Port-au-Prince than by farming.” Selling water in clear plastic, pint-sized bags to car and tap-tap (pickup taxis) passengers ensnared in the city’s traffic jams is apparently more lucrative than farming.

Our shade-seeking group in southwest Haiti stood near a mature, but unharvested field of chicken corn. We asked why it wasn’t harvested yet. “The price is too low,” the older farmer responded, saying perhaps they would harvest it if the price went up.

We asked how they felt about the enormous influx of foreign aid following the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Both agreed it was a good thing: the earthquake unequivocally decimated this already poor and destitute country.

So the question remained: Why are prices low?

Foreign aid helps and hampers

There is no question that without foreign aid – food, water, shelter, sanitation, medical supplies and relief workers – following January’s earthquake, thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands more would have perished, adding to the staggering 200,000 to 300,000 people already lost. Short-term humanitarian aid was critical.

But the problem is continued reliance on emergency relief food aid which depresses local corn, rice and bean prices and reduces any lingering incentive for farmers to produce crops. Unfortunately, influxes of U.S. foreign food “aid” beginning two decades ago were partly responsible for the downturn in Haitian agricultural productivity.

Many people now understand this. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton – now U.N. special envoy to Haiti – publicly apologized for promoting U.S. foreign aid policies that destroyed Haiti’s rice production (Figure 2 and Image 2). In the mid-1990s, he encouraged Haiti to dramatically cut tariffs on imported U.S. rice.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Haitian rice acreage leveled off in the 1990s in part due to U.S. foreign trade policy. It remains relatively low (left axis, blue diamonds and dashed line). Rice yields peaked in the 1980s but fell off rapidly in the 1990s and have stabilized at less than one ton per acre (right axis, red squares and solid line). Data compiled and adapted from Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, August 8, 2010. http://faostat.fao.org/site/567/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=567#ancor

Image 2

Image 2. Irrigated rice production area near Les Cayes, SW Haiti. R. W. Elmore

In March, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, while “it may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, it has not worked. It was a mistake.” Clinton said he has had to live daily with the consequences of his actions while in office – of Haiti’s loss of capacity to produce a rice crop, and thus, the loss of its ability to feed its people.

Downstream Questions – Upstream answers?

A California pediatrician waited patiently in the airport departure lounge. During her two-week stay in Haiti, the clinic in which she served moved from a tent to a plywood shelter – painstakingly slow progress seven months after the earthquake. With more than a hint of frustration, she said, “We saw so many things that could have been easily taken care of earlier.”

It reminded her of an old public health story: A stranger noticed a man pulling bodies out of a river, one after another. After a period of time, the stranger asked the man, if he had thought of going upstream to find out why they were falling in the river. The stranger understood that to solve the problem, it had to be addressed at its root cause.

There is no simple answer to the agricultural situation Haitians face. Agronomic solutions appear simple, and focused work will improve productivity. But the root causes run far deeper than agronomics. Dramatic changes in our foreign aid philosophy and our government policy, as well as that of the Haitian government, are necessary. We must go far upriver; we may likely find part of the solution in our own backyard.

Text written 20 Sep 2010 for the ISU Corn Production website (Corn Production).