An Uncertain Harvest: Understanding Constraints to a Profitable Peanut Season for Small-Holder Haitian Farmers

From MFK Agriculture Research and Extension Program Specialist Ben Wiseman 

Photo: MFK Agronomists accompany a peanut farmer in North-East Haiti on a visit to his field. This farmer did not have money for seeds during planting season, so instead of planting new peanuts, he relied on stray peanut seeds left in the field from the previous year to crop his field. Relying on “volunteer” peanut plants results in uneven plant spacing and limits productivity. Farming peanuts is a business endeavor for small farmers in Haiti, and as part of MFK’s farmer training program, farmer participants learn ways to manage their farms with business tools. Various constraints affect the extent to which a farmer is able to make a profit on his or her peanut harvest, and MFK seeks to help farmers understand where they can manipulate their farming business plans to improve their profits.

One activity in the farmer-training business curriculum is creating sample ledgers. In this activity, farmer participants make a list of their peanut-related expenses and revenues on a poster in front of the class in order to analyze cash-flow and brainstorm improvements for profitability of their peanut production.

When this activity was completed in a recent training program, the examples showed a large discrepancy in the profitability of growing peanuts between farmers in the same region. One farmer made a 50% profit, while another barely broke even.

The discrepancy was a reminder that each of the farmers in our program faces a unique set of challenges. After a discussion with the farmers, the following constraints emerged as barriers to profitability.

  • Hillside farming is common in the region. Without the use of soil and water conservation methods, topsoil washes away with rain water.  Farmers with a hillside garden are prone to have a smaller and lower-quality harvest compared with their peers farming on flat land.
  • In some households, cash is not available when it is needed. When a farmer does not have money during the planting season to invest in seeds, the farmer plants fewer seeds at a low density.  Growing peanuts at low-density leads to more costly weed control and reduced harvest. .  Unfortunately, farmers in this situation often fall into a cyclical trap associated with their peanut production.  The same farmers that do not have money for seeds during planting season are often indebted during harvest season and must immediately sell their peanuts in order to repay debt instead of saving seeds for next year’s planting or waiting to sell at a more profitable price when the market price rises.
  • Peanut cultivation requires labor. Time availability, physical fitness, and social capital determine whether or not a farmer will have to hire labor to complete basic farming tasks.  Some farmers are able to tend their farms by themselves; others have relationships with friends where they help each other with farm labor.  However, many farmers must hire teams of workers to prepare the soil, weed, and harvest the peanuts.  These farmers have increased production costs and reduced profits.
  • Small-holder farmers operate on a small scale. A wealthy small-holder peanut farmer may gross $1,500 USD from a peanut season, while a farmer with less possibility may gross less than $200 USD in the same season.  With such small revenue from sales, even a small unexpected expense can push the farmer into a deficit for the season.

This year MFK moved the business curriculum from the final weeks of farmer training to the first few weeks. Moving the business training to the beginning of the program allows farmers to more intentionally consider the financial implications of other farm-improvement methods presented in the program.  Ideally, farmers will make each farming decision with their farming business in mind. For example, which is cheaper hiring a tractor for 2 hours or a work party for 2 days? Does spraying fungicide pay for itself at harvest time?  Throughout the program, the MFK agronomist and farmer participants consider questions like these in order to understand how improved financial management of farming activities can improve farmers’ prospects at making a profitable peanut harvest.