Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tropical-Farm Trash And Commodities

While seeing some trash in the streets of the big cities of Colombia isn't really surprising, I was surprised to see so much of it while driving through the coffee and banana farming areas. There was trash everywhere I turned...or so I thought. Look at this photo to see what I mean:

Yep, there's blue trash bags floating around those banana plants. I wondered why the farmers wouldn't clean up the trash when the rest of the area seemed super clean. It wasn't until I was closer that I noticed that each banana plant had exactly one bag. It turns out that farmers WANT the bags there.

The bags are placed on the young flowers of the banana plants by farmers to protect the fruit from things like diseases, insects, and, if you can believe it, sunburn! I've literally seen thousands of banana plants on large hillsides each with their own blue bag like this one:

What I originally thought was sloppy housekeeping is actually a crafty solution by the farmers to protect their crops!

Another interesting thing that I observed/learned was that many former coffee growers have switched to growing bananas over the years. This is due to to many factors that I can appreciate being an engineer type. You need to constantly maintain the coffee trees and keep the growing areas super clean. One large storm can destroy a great deal of your crops. When the coffee's ready to be picked, it can't and won't wait. You need to find, train, and deploy a large number of workers in a short amount of time to pick the coffee by hand. Finally, add in the fact that coffee's a commodity product and the prices can rise and fall fast. The whole process is a lot of work and fraught with risks.

Contrast this with growing bananas. Bananas, with the right temperature and amount of rainfall will flourish. The farmer only needs a few people to maintain the plants, bag the fruit, and pick the fruit when it's ready. It's steady, year-round work for a core-staff of folks--far fewer people to hire, train, and then lay off each season. As a bonus, banana prices, I was told, are more consistent. Overall, there's less money in growing bananas but I'd imagine that the farmers are trading giant headaches for improved lives. Don't worry about the future of coffee though, prices have rebounded in the last couple of years and farmers are now growing both in the same fields as the plants provide mutual benefits.

So, what have we learned today? What looks like trash in the fields makes for happy bananas and bananas are less of a headache to grow than coffee but not as lucrative. Chalk one up to learning something new every day!

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