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Advantages and Disadvantages of Farming in the Tropics

The major advantage should be obvious, 12 months of non-freezing weather.  With proper water management, the differences in the seasons is fairly negligible for most crops grown garden-style.  The seasons do present challenges for large farms and generally most crops have ´best´ seasons to grow but for gardens, you can basically run the same succession gardening techniques for 12 months.

Another important advantage regarding temperature is composting time which is considerable shorter in the tropics.  This is especially important in how it relates to cow and chicken manure which require much less monitoring and can be used on vegetable crops much faster because of the high temperatures.  With intensive gardening, this is even more important because your organic fertilizers are available quicker.  Although somewhat disturbing to some, the heat also speeds up the production of maggots from maggot buckets.  We use maggot buckets to convert chicken, fish and rabbit by-products into high-protein maggots which we then feed to our chickens and fish.

The rate at which certain ´magic´ plants grow makes feeding animals very cheap.  Moringa, Comfrey, Duckweed, Bananas and Papayas all grow so fast that it makes it fairly easy to feed a huge amount of chickens, fish and rabbits without buying food.  Comfrey and Moringa both have amino acid profiles similar to grains and pellets.  We use barley fodder ( 8-day) but will be running experiments to see if even that can be eliminated.  Other than that, the only animal food we buy is the first 2 weeks for our baby meat chickens.

The final advantage is just water supply.  There is very little risk of sporadic droughts killing your crops or needing to be stressed out about fickle changes in weather.  In general for Nicaragua there are 8 months of modest to abundant rainfall amounts and then 4 months of no rain ( which I will address later).  While this seems extreme, and it is, it also is very predictable which means you can plan ahead.  For most farmers, it is better to know that you are going to have 4 months of no rain rather than be surprised by one month of no rain in the middle of summer.

So to get into the disadvantages of farming in the tropics, the first is  the four months of no rain.  This occurs in January, February, March and April.   December and May can go either way and usually rain stops mid-December and then starts again the first week of May.  Because this affects everyone, water tanks are readily available and cheap and rainwater collection systems are a normal part of life.  While we don´t collect enough rain to last all four months, our collection system does allow us to stagger our water consumption throughout the dry season resulting in negligible water bills.  And of course it is possible to expand the amount of water tanks should it become economically prudent to do so.

The second major disadvantage of tropical farming compared to North America or Europe is insect populations.  Many people do not realize it, but a cold, frozen winter does a huge amount to cause a ´reset´ in the populations of many pest insects.  This does not happen in the tropics so many insects such as ants are a huge issue and trying to farm like you would in the USA would lead to 100% vegetable loss for most crops. So while we don´t have to battle against an early frost, insect control, especially on an organic farm is a major issue that must be addressed before you put anything in the ground.  As for other pests, birds and lizards are also more of an issue, but rodents seem to be less of an issue.  Birds and insects are such a issue that you need to be proactive when dealing with them or risk losing your entire crop.

Another disadvantage is shipping and product availability, especially in the first year at a new garden.  Very few seeds types are available, especially heirloom non-GMO plants that are typical in North America.  Also equipment that is aimed at backyard vegetable gardeners or small farmers is not widely available.  You can´t just go to your local big box garden center or have items shipped by Amazon, instead many things end up being like an Easter egg hunt with long travel times.  Farming in Nicaragua is all about large, mono-culture farms with heavy machinery, very little merchandise is available for backyard gardeners and seeds that are not typical to the locals are just not available.

The final issue is just information, especially here in Nicaragua.  So much of the great knowledge available on the internet, especially YouTube, just is not relevant to farming in the tropics.  At the same time, Nicaragua and most of Central America is very ´old school´ farming with only three or four staple crops grown everywhere, and nothing else.  There is also a lot of missed opportunities that we hope this website will address.  Things that are amazing for small farms and gardens in the tropics that just are not being done or talked about because small scale urban type farming is not being done here.  There are game-changing opportunities here that have just not gained traction the way small homestead or urban farms have in North America over the past decade.  One of the side goals of our women´s shelter organic farm is to increase knowledge about being self-sufficient with backyard gardens.  I personally follow about a dozen YouTubers who give great information about organic gardening, unfortunately a large chunk of the information is irrelevant, and at the same time much of what we can do here has not been fully researched or documented.  In my opinion, one of the greatest accomplishments of the internet has been the ability of small farmers to experiment and share successes and failures which has led to an almost exponential growth in productivity of small farms.  We are just getting started doing that in the tropics.

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