Towards intelligent farming

Towards intelligent farming

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Edgar Fernández

Talking about innovation is in style. It tends to be presented as an accumulation of useful things for the market, defining it as resulting from the economy and as a matter of engineering, without responding to the question of the why and for what end these innovations have. According to the OECD (2005[i]), innovation is the “implementation of a new or significantly improved product, a new process, a new method of marketing, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace or external relations.” Something “new” emerges from questioning the old, the unjust, where the social, economic, political and cultural are embedded. In this article we talk about the why and for what end behind innovation in farming, we describe four innovations in Nicaragua, Mexico and Uruguay, and we conclude with the importance of creating favorable conditions for innovating.

The why and for what end of innovation

Europe saw the passage from farming to industry, and then from industry to technology, from peasant to worker, as something inexorable, determined by economics, and as an expression of large innovations. Central America appears to corroborate this perspective: the crops of coffee, bananas, sugar, cotton and meat generated 70% of the foreign exchange in 1978, while in 2006 it was only 11%, in that same period family remittances went from 3 to 38%, other exports outside of Central America went from 12 to 16%, free trade zone from 0 to 11%, and other services dropped from 10 to 9% (Rosa, 2008: 9)[ii]. Following these figures, inexorably farming will disappear, and if it persists, it will be through “innovations” responding to the market through agribusiness and the plantations of large companies or haciendas.

Agro-exports are not all of agriculture, nor is agriculture just farming. Even though in percentage terms agro-exports dropped, it is due more to the fact that the total amount of foreign exchange increased some four times, certainly the weight of agro-exports in the decisions was replaced by remittances and free trade zones. Nevertheless, the amount of foreign exchange generated by the agro-export crops in absolute terms increased, like non traditional agriculture that is found in “other exports outside of Central America.”; missing in that calculation is forestry products (e.g. wood), rural tourism, and the fact that the products are not just generic, like before, they have additional added value. For example, coffee is generic, specialty, organic, has different brands, and exported by various chains of actors, it is roasted, ground and packaged for the national market, and grows with the coffee shops. In this way, the inexorable disappearance of agriculture is left in doubt; agriculture is more than farming. And it is growing.

It is growing because it is mostly in the hands of small producers; they gained space even in coffee, meat and bananas, while cotton disappeared and sugar continues in the hands of large enterprises. ECLAC, FAO and IICA (2013: 173[iii]) estimate that in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) there are 17 million exploitations under family agriculture (60 million people), which represents more than 75% of all production units in nearly all the countries of the LAC.

From this reality, innovations would not be useful things that would turn 60 million people into workers and migrants. This would be dispossesion. Innovations are “something new” (OECD, 2005) to the extent that this “normal” inexorability is questioned, and to the extent that the changes are understood of an agriculture that goes beyond just merchandise (commodities).

Inspiring innovations

The following innovations are expressive of an agriculture on farms that is sustainable and belongs to a peasantry that is progressing. The first is the organization of agriculture into 5 floors, from the years of the 1970s in La Concepción, south of Masaya, Nicaragua. On the first floor are crops that are vine plants, like summer squash and pumpkin, that are close to the soil, followed by coffee, then bananas and plantains, then citrus, and on the fifth floor avocados, mangos and wood trees; currently the coffee floor is being replaced by grafted fruit trees (H. Hernández, personal communication, 6-30-2015). This innovation was due to: the peasant resistance back in 1960 to the harassment of the cattle haciendas in the plateau north of Masaya, that later became cooperatives on confiscated areas (1980s), and in the last 10 years are once again in the hands of large peanut and sugar cane enterprises; to the fact that they have soils rich in organic material, and the microclimate and biodiversity unique to that plateau, zones with elevations and seasonal rivers that flow into the Masaya laguna; and to the family organization that intensifies the small areas, reordering them into “floors” to the extent that the women go into commerce.

The second innovation is in coffee in San Juan del Río Coco (SJRC) (Nicaragua) between 1960 and 1979. First, in the 1960s the principal farmers understood that the coffee in the country was the worst in the region, that Costa Rica and El Salvador have double and triple the production of Nicaragua (Delgado, 1961)[iv]; in SJRC the Arabica coffee had low yields, which is why a group of farmers experimented with varieties, disseminating the use of Bourbon and Caturra, along with pruning and shade regulation. Secondly, they introduced beekeeping to pollinate the coffee fields, and in noticing the deficit in the supply of flowers for the bees, established gardens, did selective weeding (leaving plants with flowers), and arranged for the purchase of beehive frames from farmers in El Jícaro. Thirdly, they introduced drying kilns for drying coffee and transporting it in ”dry parchment” form to Palacagüina, and they made arrangements for bringing in coffee harvesters from Palacagüina and the Pacific side of the country. That group were students of their reality that envisioned improvements, they organized to bring in experts, they had the “real workers” learn from the experts, they reorganized their farms and expanded their social networks to Palacagüina and to El Jícaro. As a result, the coffee, honey and banana production in SJRC tripled, their biodiversity improved, their social capital expanded and their thinking was more autonomous of the Somoza government.

The third innovation is the reordering of coffee farms with beekeeping in Mexico, that emerged in reaction to the shadeless coffee haciendas that are renewed every 8-15 years and that are affecting the pollinators (Flores et al, 2006[v]). Pollination is important for coffee, also important is a coffee field with shade that is renewed every 15-30 years. These farms with coffee have a mosaic of flowering species, whose management takes into account their blooming (e.g. pruning guava plant without affecting its blossoms), and they have herbaceas with legumes. That variety of trees and herbacea bloom in a staggered fashion throughout the year, feeding the bees, who in turn pollinate the zone, improving the production of the crops and the biodiversity.

The fourth innovation is the agro-intelligence of Uruguay between 2005 and 2014 (Zamora, 2014[vi]). In this period it went from producing food for 9 million people to producing it for 28 million. Their milk production increased by 54% without deforesting. This agro is due to: 1) policies adapted to family agriculture where the key is crop rotation adapted to climate change; 2) livestock information systems through which ranchers of all sizes had access to the same commercialization channels, and where 12 million head of cattle carry a chip with which a customer in a supermarket “when he wants a cut of beef that he likes, takes out his cell phone, scans the bar code on the label, and the application tells him when the animal was slaughtered, where it was raised, what type of feed it had received, and would even provide a link to see the farm the animal was raised on”; 3) satelite information system to ensure that the producers implement their crop rotation plan to protect the soil and fight erosion; 4) state leadership in working with all the economic groups.

In conclusion, reordering the farm as a building (La Concepción), horizontally (farm and territory) (SJRC and case in México) and on a country level (Uruguay) uncovers an intelligent agriculture for the future. Organizing a learning community with small producers studying their reality, the role of the State and of research institutions would contribute to generating innovation. Because the revolution of agriculture is the basis for the development of any country.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (, associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Edgar is a collaborator of WPF.

[i] OECD-2005, Oslo Manual

[ii] Rosa, H., 2008, Perfiles y trayectorias del cambio económico en Centroamérica.

[iii] CEPAL, FAO, IICA, 2013, Perspectivas de la agricultura y desarrollo rural en las Américas.

[iv] Delgado, S., 1961, “El café en la economía nacional” en: Revista Conservadora del Pensamiento Centroamericano 3

[v] Flores, J., Guzman, M., Ricketts, T. y Vandame, R., 2006, “Café y abejas: Conservación y producción” en: Pohaln, J., Soto, L. y Barrera, J. (eds) El Cafetal del Futuro: Realidades y Visiones.

[vi] Zamora, A., 2014, “Uruguay, la revolución agro-inteligente” en: Rebelión.

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