Thursday, September 8, 2016

'Big Ag' in Nicaragua: A Volunteer's Perspective

Mike Doherty serves as Illinois Farm Bureau senior economist and policy analyst. He spent two weeks as a F2F volunteer in Nicaragua with Partners of the Americas. Below are his reflections: 

Mike Doherty in the field
Nearly all the growth in demand for Illinois’ agricultural production is in developing countries, also known as “emerging markets.” As the U.S. Grains Council has noted, the cattle-producing areas of southern Mexico and Central America represent a significant potential market for distiller’s dried grains from Illinois ethanol plants as well as other feed grain products. Most of this new demand will be from households that are generating income sufficient to afford daily meat consumption for the first time.

I had an opportunity to learn something about that process of rural income generation, and hopefully help accelerate it, via a Farmer to Farmer (F2F) volunteer assignment in Nicaragua last year. Although I felt well prepared and supported (thanks to the Partners of the Americas (POA) specialists I had met in the capital city of Managua and via reports from their Washington, D.C. office), I was excited to be exploring the real backcountry with another F2F volunteer from Illinois and a local POA-contracted guide.

Touring dairy plant - far left, F2F volunteer Michael Lofstrom,
center, GRINSA's agricultural engineers,
far right, F2F volunteer Mike Doherty
Tucked away in the upland farm town of Jinotega, our first project involved a dairy plant and its well-motivated sales and production staff, and managers. Standing proudly before their line of cheeses and yogurts, they gave us a tour of their operation. Later that week, after meeting a second time with the office managers, followed by a Skype call with the owners of the plant, they were open to our recommendations on strategic planning and marketing. They recognized they were facing a fast-changing value chain in an increasingly global world. I was glad to have had the opportunity to apply 30 years of agribusiness experience in creating a list of recommendations for them to implement, so that they might absorb and respond to the rapid changes they were facing in a competitive marketplace.

A second F2F Nicaragua project awaited me in the town of Chichigalpa, located at the foot of the dramatic San Cristobal Volcano. Famous for its Flor de Cana rum factory, this bustling farm town is centered in a broad valley, backed by the smoldering summit of the volcano. I gave a presentation on strategic planning to a group from the Chichigalpa chapter of Nicaragua’s national business development association, called INDE. We had a robust question and answer session that morning, which revolved around agricultural development. On the way out of town, I noted a few tractor dealerships along the main road and a few tractors being driven out to the fields. It reminded me of a vibrant and diversified farm economy in the U.S. rather than a post-revolutionary Central American socialist country!

Cacao drying 
Nicaragua offered a lot in terms of agricultural diversity: an impressive array of high-value industries that process specialty crops like cacao, coffee, sugar cane, and products from beef and dairy cattle, all of which are rapidly evolving. Nicaragua is known as tourist friendly, but it’s also the “Big Ag” breadbasket for the entire region of Central America.

Nicaragua’s retail is also developing quickly, and not just in the form of new, gleaming, modern supermarkets and shopping malls in Managua, but also in the form of intermediate-sized “country” grocery stores in the smaller towns and cities. In all of these stores, one sees an increasing presence of “made in Nicaragua” agricultural products such as roasted coffee, chocolate bars, rum, flavored yogurts, various cheeses and more.

Assuming their country’s development stays on track, Nicaragua can be safely added to the list of up-and-coming emerging markets. I promised myself I would be return someday, not only to see that progress for myself, but perhaps to build even stronger relationships.

This article was previously published under the title "Nicaragua: 'Big Ag' in Central America" on the Illinois Farm Bureau's FarmWeekNow blog and in FarmWeek's hardcopy edition. 

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