Farmers in the country’s main bean-producing provinces of Salta and Jujuy battle the region’s worst dry spell in 70 years.

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Even if you’ve never set foot onto a bean field, it’s easy to tell when one is suffering from severe drought. The land appears parched and lifeless, with minimal plant growth save for a few scattered weeds and shriveled pods. For bean growers who depend on the health of their crop to obtain consistent yields, this image spells disaster.

Such images of scorched fields showing significant—in many cases total—crop damage have become the norm this year in the Argentine provinces of Salta and Jujuy, the country’s main bean producing region. What began as concern over crop yields in February has become a regional crisis with national implications. The total losses caused by the drought, the worst in 70 years, are worth an estimated 3.2 billion pesos (roughly US$ 608 million).

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Dry edible beans, along with soybeans, corn, peanuts and chia, are among the most severely damaged crops, with average yield losses of 30%. In the driest areas, average losses are as much as 70%, and many growers are simply not bothering to harvest their crop this year. In Salta, an unprecedented 20,000 hectares normally dedicated to agricultural production were left unseeded due to lack of rain during the planting season.

Production levels for soybean and corn, vital cash crops for the region and the country as a whole, demonstrate the level of destruction. Only 300,000 MT of soybeans will be harvested, down from a yearly average of 1.8 million MT. The average annual yield for corn is around 900,000 MT, and this year that number will barely reach 200,000 MT. Bean production was hit particularly hard, with total production at 30,000 MT down from the 300,000 MT average.

Figures aside, the drought has generated widespread desperation and uncertainty in the region, where thousands of migrant and low-income workers depend on the harvest for their livelihood. All ten of the companies surveyed by Salta’s El Tribuno were forced to layoff employees, in most cases about 50% of their staff. Suffice it to say, the socio-economic effects of the drought have been devastating.

Cumulative Drought

Adding salt to the wound is the fact that last year’s drought, though less severe, left producers in a state of recovery hoping that 2013 would be different. After nearly a decade of growth, particularly in the area of soybean production, Argentina’s northern provinces experienced their worst drought in 40 years, resulting in huge losses. Soybean and corn were the hardest hit crops.

“Last year’s drought was one fifth of this year’s. The cumulative effect is financial, as many were hit hard by last year’s poor results,” explained Matias Mecera of Desdelsur, one of the country’s main pulse and grain exporters.

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Alarm bells first went off in January 2012, when the normally wet central plains region, which includes Santa Fe, Cordoba, La Pampa and Buenos Aires provinces, experienced unusually dry conditions and flash fires. Rain eventually fell in these areas, but the drought continued to affect producers in Salta, Chaco and Santiago Del Estero until as late as April. Many farms in the north reported significant crop damage as a result of last year’s drought.

Not surprisingly, growers were apprehensive about this year’s situation, but scattered early rains provided enough reason to risk planting. Mecera says this was a gamble that proved fatal as the climatic reality began to set in.

“The producers were prepared to go ahead and plant the largest possible area banking on the small amount of rain that had fallen. They risked seeding despite the low moisture profile hoping it would rain, which obviously it never did,” he said.

Dry Beans: A Lost Cause?

Bean farmers in the region can be broken down into two categories: those who waited and those who did not. When all was said and done, however, those who decided to plant earlier or later in the season both witnessed similar outcomes: significant or total crop failure. Even in the best of cases where enough bean was present to warrant harvesting, quality issues have discouraged this from happening.

Black beans and alubia beans fared particularly badly, with typical (potential) yields of less than 100 pounds per acre and 300 pounds per acre respectively. Some fields suffered from drought early on, received moderate rainfall and then dried up again, resulting in immature or malformed plants. The lack of moisture also reduced the effectiveness of herbicides, resulting in excess weeds that in turn competed with bean plants for moisture.

Light red kidney beans fared relatively better, though quality was certainly compromised because of the adverse weather. Potential yield for one light red kidney plot was estimated at around 400 pounds per acre, though discoloration and stunted growth were observed.

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Repercussions

With many companies expecting little or no income between now and May 2014, the socio-economic impacts of the drought are widespread and varied. As with any natural disaster, those with the least undoubtedly suffer most. Recently dozens of laid-off workers gathered in the town square of Embarcación, a small agrarian town in Salta, to solicit help and raise awareness.

“We want to work to stop living in poverty. It’s not welfare plans we’re after, but work, which is what can give us a better quality of life,” said Ariel, the group’s representative. “Most of those who are here used to work in the fields and today they don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Without a bean harvest to speak of, the roughly 15,000 migrant workers who would normally tend the fields have been told there’s no work for them. Most processing plants, of which there are 36 in Salta alone, are also huge sources of employment for low-skilled workers in the region. Many didn’t even bother opening their doors this year.

A maximum of 500,000 pesos in bank credits have been promised to producers, but many feel this is inadequate to bear the weight of two years’ drought. A few larger companies like Desdelsur have the financial resources to bounce back, but they are anomalies.

“Alternatives for big companies like ours are available. We are currently negotiating planting in wet areas such as Buenos Aires, betting on crops like peas. If we lacked the structure and financial backing that we have, we’d be in trouble because all you can really do is wait until next year,” Mecera explained.

When asked whether he believed the government was taking the necessary actions to support the industry, Mecera expressed doubts:

“The local government is doing practically nothing. I suppose we may see some sort of tax break, but so far nothing concrete. In general the Argentine government is a partner in the profits of the land but not in the losses.”