Most of the world’s food insecure people live in marginal rural environments. A recent study with coffee producers in northern Nicaragua’s highlands helps explain this “hungry farmer paradox.” These small-scale farmers experienced an average of three months of seasonal hunger over the year studied. Although cash income helped alleviate food scarcity, households that produced more subsistence crops, especially corn and tree fruits, reported still shorter periods of food scarcity. Meanwhile, farmers that used several commonly promoted environmentally friendly farming practices reported no discernible impacts on seasonal hunger.

In an article published in Global Environmental Change, Santa Clara University researchers, including Chris Bacon (Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences), Bill Sundstrom (Department of Economics), and two recently graduated Environmental Studies and Sciences students Ian Dougherty (now with the United Farm Workers Foundation) and Rica Santos (now with the National Council for Science and the Environment), concur with previous studies finding that several factors influence farmer food insecurity, including: (1) annual cycles of precipitation and rising maize prices during the lean months; (2) inter annual droughts and periodic storms; and (3) the long-term inability of coffee harvests and prices to provide sufficient income.

This work identifies the need for balancing coffee production with food production and improving exchange systems to protect farmers from adverse seasonal price fluctuations. It also considers a participatory initiative that uses fair trade cooperatives to increase rural food access through the re-localization of food distribution networks, sustainable agriculture training, and improved food storage. Although crop loss from coffee leaf rust contributes an additional challenge, these and other integrated strategies hold the potential to reduce threats to food security, livelihoods, and biodiversity.

Chris Bacon and Ernesto Mendez are CAN affiliate researchers; Maria Eugenia Flores Gomez is the CAN project manager for the Las Segovias project

* Bacon, C. M., Sundstrom, W. A., Flores Gómez, M. E., Ernesto Méndez, V., Santos, R., Goldoftas, B., & Dougherty, I. (2014). Explaining the ‘hungry farmer paradox’: Smallholders and fair trade cooperatives navigate seasonality and change in Nicaragua’s corn and coffee markets. Global Environmental Change, 25 (2014) 133–149

Author Affiliations

Christopher M. Bacon, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95050-4901, USA

William A. Sundstrom, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053, USA

 María Eugenia Flores Gómez, Community Agroecology Network, 595 Franklin Street, Santa Clara, CA 95050, USA

 Ernesto Méndez, Environmental Program and Plant and Soil Science Department, University of Vermont,
The Bittersweet – 153 South Prospect Street, Burlington, VT 05401, USA

 Rica Santos, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95050-4901, USA

 Barbara Goldoftas, International Development, Community, & Environment Department, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01610, USA

 Ian Dougherty, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95050-4901, USA