Celso Fantinel takes a corncob, plucks a grain of corn white and bites it. “In 10 days we can already harvest,” says this farmer who grows the main ingredient of the arepa, a food that is never lacking on the table of the Venezuelan.
The Fantinel plantation is out of sight. There are 600 hectares of the 200,000 that were planted throughout the country in 2021.
The total is almost 30% more than the previous year, but insufficient to satisfy the demand of the industry to manufacture the flour with which this traditional roasted or fried round dough is prepared, which forces the importation of corn, mainly from Mexico.
This year alone, 70% of the white corn used in the manufacture of flour was imported and the rest national. The projections for the 2021-2022 cycle are more favorable with 50% imports and 50% local products.
“We managed to stop the fall,” explains this 58-year-old producer, in the middle of the cornfields of his farm “El Loro”, in Taguay, Aragua, about 170 km south of Caracas.
On his farm, Fantinel has planted larger areas, up to 1,000 hectares of corn. But also much less because of the crisis.
This sector has been hit hard by insecurity, lack of fuel, hyperinflation that triggers production costs and limits credit, as well as a state monopoly for the sale of inputs, which ended up collapsing between corruption and smuggling.
For 14 years, Venezuelan agriculture has not been able to satisfy the total demand for white corn.
“If we had financing, the security of having the inputs and we began to produce seeds and (with) some agrochemicals here in Venezuela, in five years we will supply 100% of the white corn and a good part of the yellow corn,” insists Fantinel, who chairs the association of agricultural producers (Fedeagro).
“It really is not easy to produce in Venezuela,” he launches while taking another ear, sown 20 days late, which ended up full of worms. “Look at me, they don’t even have grain!”
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
The arepa is the food par excellence in Venezuela, a country of almost 30 million inhabitants. At breakfast, at dinner, to accompany lunch … a night of partying ends with an arepa with fillings as diverse as white cheese or meat, including beans or a mixture of avocado, chicken and mayonnaise called ” Pepiada queen ”.
Demand is high: the industry produces about 62,000 tons of precooked corn flour per month for the domestic market. Of the total, 30,000 are manufactured in two plants of the private giant Alimentos Polar.
After he harvests his crop, Fantinel will take the corn to one of the plants in Turmero, about 150 km from his farm.
“Our process is suitable for national corn,” explains José Francisco Bolívar, manager of the Turmero plant. “Historically we have given priority to national production because we are a national company.”
But the reality is that as long as the deficit of white corn remains, it is necessary to import. And Polar has asked that the 15% tariff on the purchase of corn abroad be waived “to avoid putting the replacement of raw material at risk, affecting the supply chain and harming the final consumer through higher prices,” he warned. Manuel Larrazábal, director of Alimentos Polar, in a recent statement.
The Venezuelan government has promoted a policy of exemption from import taxes on thousands of products, especially intermediate and finished products, and the liberation of their prices to alleviate the shortage that plagues this country, which is going through its eighth year in recession.
But domestic producers do not look favorably on an exemption from the tariff, which serves as a kind of insurance for their raw materials by containing the import.
Polar insists that it promotes a policy of “competitive prices” in which it pays the national producer the equivalent of the CIF price, which includes freight and insurance costs.
It also helps that the industry has begun to pay in dollars, the currency that prevails in all transactions in the country due to the chronic devaluation of the local bolivar.
“It gives us a little more calm, we see what we are going to invest it in, without haste,” says Fantinel, who has been in this activity for 40 years.
But he worries, because the next sowing is coming, still without credits and with inflation on the prowl. The planted area increased in part because there were surplus supplies from 2020, an atypical year due to the pandemic.
Still, the bet stands. “There are producers who are reaching into their pockets to buy supplies for the year 2022 and have not yet bought their harvest,” he warns.