Venezuela Table of Contents

Food Crops

Despite gains in the production of some grains and cereals, urbanization and changing dietary patterns increased Venezuela's dependence on imports of basic foods during the 1980s. The migration of farmers to urban areas reduced the output of traditional food crops such as yucca (cassava), potatoes, and other inexpensive tubers; higher wheat imports compensated for this decline. The growing popularity of wheat products in Venezuela drove imports steadily higher because the country's warm climate was not conducive to the cultivation of wheat.

Corn was the country's major domestic food crop. Most of Venezuela's corn crop came from the central plains, particularly the states of Portuguesa, Barinas, and Guárico. A traditional staple, corn surpassed coffee as the nation's leading crop in the 1960s; by 1988 farmers cultivated corn on some 642,000 hectares. Total production was 1.28 million tons in that year. After declining in the 1970s, corn production flourished in the 1980s, largely because of the agricultural policies of the mid-1980s that provided import protection and stimulated greater food selfsufficiency . Despite the gains of corn producers, however, the costs of corn production remained relatively high, which indicated that domestic production would be vulnerable to the effects of external competition under the market-oriented reforms initiated by the government in the early 1990s.

Sorghum became a major grain in the mid-1970s. A droughtresistant crop, it was introduced to Venezuela because it could tolerate the country's unpredictable precipitation pattern. Sorghum, like corn, was grown nationwide and sorghum production enjoyed rapid growth during the 1980s. In 1988 sorghum covered some 392,000 hectares, which yielded approximately 820,000 tons of grain. The popularity of sorghum in the 1980s was closely linked with the quick expansion of the national pork and poultry industries, which used sorghum as their major feed grain. Although domestic production increased, however, it could not keep pace with demand. Consequently, imports of sorghum also climbed throughout the decade.

Rice was another major grain. Rice production doubled during the 1970s, mainly because of the increased use of irrigation. In the 1980s, however, rice production fell rapidly. Weather variations accounted for some fluctuations in production, but the central cause of the decline was poor technical expertise in both cultivation and irrigation techniques. Rice paddies covered some 116,500 hectares of land and yielded 383 tons of rice in 1988; at its peak in 1981, rice grew on some 243,000 hectares and yielded 681,000 tons. Frustrated by the inadequacy of available technology, many rice farmers had switched to other crops by the late 1980s. Many of these producers had complained about the inadequate levels of credit available from the government, as well as the low prices the government paid for their crops.

Farmers grew rice throughout the country, with the exceptions of the extreme west and south. Farmers who cultivated irrigated rice, especially those in Portuguesa and Guárico, yielded as many as 2.5 crops a year, whereas dry rice farmers brought in only one crop, during the rainy season (May-November).

Farmers also cultivated a wide variety of tubers, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and spices. Principal tuber crops consisted of yucca, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yautia. In some areas, peasants milled cassava for use as a flour. Legumes included yellow, black, and white beans, as well as a local pulse called quinchoncho. Vegetables included tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, cucumber, beets, and peas. The more moderate regions of Venezuela were also suitable for a wide variety of fruits. Depending on the seasonal crop, the country exported small amounts of tropical fruits.

Cash Crops

Cocoa and coffee provided most of Venezuela's export revenues before they entered a period of prolonged decline in the 1900s. Jesuits introduced coffee in the 1740s, and by the 1800s Venezuela was the world's third largest coffee producer. By the 1980s, however, the coffee industry was in a decline. In 1988 coffee trees occupied 273,200 hectares and produced only 71,000 tons of coffee, one of the lowest yields in the world. The value of coffee exports, mainly to the United States and Europe, was about US$24 million in 1988. Coffee was primarily a peasant crop, grown largely on farms of under twenty hectares in mountainous areas. Low profits prevented most farmers from taking steps, such as the planting of newer coffee bushes, that could improve yields. Worse still, Venezuelan coffee in the 1990s faced the impending introduction of plant diseases from the neighboring coffee crops of Colombia and Brazil.

Cocoa was also characterized by extremely low yields, in part as a result of aged trees and general deterioration in the crop. Once Venezuela's leading cash crop, by 1988 cacao plants covered only about 59,000 hectares and yielded a mere 13,500 tons of cocoa beans. As with coffee, most farmers sold their cocoa through government marketing boards for use domestically and internationally. Exports of cocoa beans and products exceeded US$17 million in 1988, ranking it as the third leading agricultural export (after coffee and tobacco), mainly to Belgium, the United States, and Japan.

Tobacco appeared to be one of the country's few dynamic cash crops in the late 1980s. Although tobacco generally stagnated in the 1970s and early 1980s, output expanded notably in the late 1980s as the industry turned to export markets in the Caribbean. In 1988 farmers in the west-central plains planted about 9,100 hectares of both dark and light tobacco, producing about 15,300 tons of leaf. In 1988 the cigarette industry exported upwards of US$20 million of cigarettes to the Caribbean, ranking tobacco as the second largest export crop.

Other leading cash crops included sugarcane, oilseeds, and cotton. Once a net exporter of sugar, Venezuela by the mid-1970s became a net importer, and in 1988 the country was only 71 percent self-sufficient in sugar. Sugarcane grew on 117,000 hectares in 1988 and produced 8.33 million tons of raw sugar, but annual output fluctuated according to weather conditions, management practices, price changes, and currency devaluations. Many farmers plowed under their cane fields in the 1980s in order to plant more lucrative crops, and the nation's sixteen sugar mills faced ongoing technical obstacles.

Oilseeds, such as sesame, sunflower, coconut, peanut, and cotton, faced a fate similar to other cash crops, and in 1988 the nation was only 21 percent self-sufficient in edible oils. Although Venezuela was once one of the world's leading producers of sesame oil, the industry declined as a result of a deterioration of the genetic content of the country's sesame plants and low market prices. Sesame plants, however, still extended over 148,700 hectares and yielded 68,300 tons in 1988. By the 1980s, Venezuela imported large amounts of soybean oil.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress