Large-scale coffee growing began in Nicaragua in the 1850s, and by 1870 coffee was the principal export crop, a position it held for the next century. Coffee is a demanding crop, however, because coffee trees require several years to produce a harvest, and the entire production process requires a greater commitment of capital, labor, and land than do many other crops. Coffee also grows only in the rich volcanic soil found on mountainous terrain, making transportation of the crop to the market difficult.
In 1992 more land was planted in coffee than in any other crop. The actual amount of land devoted to coffee varies somewhat from year to year, but averaged 210,000 hectares in the 1980s. Production is centered in the northern part of the central highlands north and east of Estelí, and also in the hilly volcanic region around Jinotepe. Although production of coffee dropped somewhat in the late 1980s, the 1989 crop was still 42,000 tons. Nicaragua's poor transportation system and ecological concerns over the amount of land devoted to growing crops on volcanic slopes in the Pacific region limit further expansion of coffee cultivation. These limitations have led growers to explore planting other crops in undeveloped areas of the country.
Cotton was Nicaragua's second biggest export earner in the 1980s. A latecomer to Nicaraguan agriculture, cotton became feasible as an export crop only in the 1950s, when pesticides were developed that permitted high yields in tropical climates. Cotton soon became the crop of choice for large landowners along the central Pacific coast. As the amount of land under cultivation grew, however, erosion and pollution from the heavy use of pesticides became serious problems. Lack of credit for planting, a drop in world cotton prices, and competition from Chile discouraged cotton production in the mid-1980s. Production of cotton dropped significantly in the 1980s, and the 1989 crop of 22,000 tons was less than a third of that produced in 1985.
Unlike in other Central American countries, political squabbles over who would control the plantations and shipment of the crop prevented bananas from becoming the major export earner in Nicaragua. Bananas, a native fruit of tropical Asia, were introduced to Nicaragua early in the colonial period. Initially, until a market for them appeared in the United States in the 1860s, bananas, like other fruit, were destined mostly for local consumption. Small plots of the Gros Michael variety of banana were planted for export, but political turmoil and difficulties in establishing secure transportation routes hampered export. Because United States companies developed banana production in neighboring countries, Nicaragua's large potential for this crop remained underdeveloped.
Politics and outbreaks of disease in the 1900s kept banana production low. During their time in power, the Somoza family, who had discovered that coffee and cattle were more profitable, than bananas, refused to give United States banana companies the free rein that they enjoyed throughout the rest of Central America. In addition, an outbreak of Panama disease, a fungus that kills the plant's underground stem, wiped out most of the banana plantations in the early 1900s. New plants of the Valery and Giant Cavendish variety were planted, but constant use of fungicides was required to control black sigatoka disease. Although Cavendish bananas yield three times the harvest of the older Gros Michael type, Cavendish bananas are more difficult to harvest and transport, Cavendish bananas, for example, bruise easily and must be picked at an earlier stage and crated in the fields for transport. Most banana production is in the Pacific lowlands, in a region extending north from Lago de Managua to the Golfo de Fonseca. In 1989, banana production amounted to 132,000 tons.
Although much of lowland Nicaragua has a climate conducive to growing sugarcane, poor transportation has limited production to roughly the same area in northwest Nicaragua where bananas are grown. Most sugarcane is processed into whitish centrifugal sugar, the raw sugar of international commerce. Some plants further process the sugarcane into refined granulated sugar. Demand for sugar remained comparatively low until the United States-imposed embargo on Cuban sugar began in 1960. Demand then soared, and sugar production tripled over in the next two decades. Like all other agricultural products, sugar production was severely hit by the United States trade embargo on Nicaraguan products from 1985 to 1990. Production of raw sugarcane stood at 2,300 tons in 1989.
In the early 1990s, the government attempted to diversify agriculture, but had limited results. Tobacco and sesame are both produced for export. The first African palm oil plantations, which were established in the Caribbean lowlands, began production in 1990. Beans, corn, rice, and sorghum continue to be widely grown and consumed domestically.
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