A passion for growing rice in Venezuela

Oscar Alvarez on his rented rice field in Portuguesa State

Finding a way to increase rice production in the country with the largest petroleum reserves in the world—and thus ample means to pay for imports—has posed a colossal challenge for Venezuela’s farmers over the last 4 decades. Today, they produce about 1 million tons of paddy rice annually—down 300,000 tons from 8 years ago. But the country’s rice sector is working hard to regain its strength of an earlier 20-year period, when it not only met local demand but also exported its surplus to its neighboring countries.

For now, though, Venezuelan growers can supply only 65% of the rice consumed domestically— about 1.2 million tons. According to Pedro Luis Cordero, president of the National Rice Foundation (Fundarroz), the breaking point for the country's rice growers came in 2006, when the government changed the rules of the game, pushing production in both the public and private sector to the edge of the abyss.

Since then, growers have been hard pressed to obtain inputs, such as seed, fertilizer, and replacement parts for agricultural machinery, and have met with logistical obstacles in transporting harvested grain. Against this background, a resurgence of rice in Venezuela has just one thing going for it: an expanding culture of innovation.

Six steps to success

Farmer Rafael Urdaneta, though originally from the city of San Cristóbal, began growing rice 23 years ago near Calabozo in the state of Guárico, one of Venezuela's main rice-growing areas. He has decided to give new crop management practices a try on his 600 hectares, following to the letter the six key steps that Fundarroz and the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR) are promoting to boost productivity. His reward is rice yields of 8–11 tons per hectare, well above the national average of 4.27 tons.

Adjusting the planting date and density, using treated seed to ward off disease pathogens, ensuring proper weed control and fertilization, and managing water adequately are the practices that have made the difference for Mr. Urdaneta.

"The key is using exactly the right amount of inputs and planting at the optimum time to realize the full genetic potential of the improved varieties," says Mr. Urdaneta, a beneficiary of the Guárico River Irrigation System. He cites two other factors that also help account for the unprecedented rice productivity in his fields: direct seeding and his passion for what he does.

Crazy neighbors

Venezuelan farmer Venturio Cicconetti

About 500 kilometers away, near Majaguas in the state of Portuguesa, other passionate farmers are following the six points to success as well, in addition to using direct seeding in their rice fields. Eubencio Terán, Óscar Álvarez, Venturino Cicconetti, and Nicola Campo have all exchanged conventional production practices for the new approach. After several years of trial and error, they now serve as models for other farmers who visit their fields to see their secret formula.

"We started rotating rice with other crops such as maize, sugarcane, and soybean, and we’ve also adopted direct seeding and now plant in straight lines rather than in contour lines," says Mr. Cicconetti, who boosted his average rice yield from 5 tons per hectare to 9–11 tons. "We’ve gone from three rice harvests annually to two or just one, and we’re using newer machinery."

Mr. Terán is following Mr. Cicconetti's footsteps. Four years ago, he began rotating crops on his farm, La Celinera: irrigated rice in the dry season and rainfed maize in the rainy season. Mr. Terán now harvests 8 tons of rice and 5 tons of maize per hectare. But still, he has set his sights on the goal of raising the yield of both crops by 2 tons per hectare.

"Before, people called me the 'crazy neighbor.' They were convinced that the new technologies would fail," says Mr. Terán, who has been farming for 25 years. "There are still some small-scale farmers in this area who are reluctant to change, but there are also a lot more crazy neighbors like me."

Racing to close yield gaps

In Venezuela's race to raise rice productivity and close yield gaps, various organizations deserve recognition for their efforts in support of this work. FLAR, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and several national organizations—including Fundarroz, the Western Plains Association of Certified Seed Producers (Aproscello), the Venezuelan Federation of Rice Producers’ Associations (Fevearroz), the Danac Foundation, and other public and private sector actors—have joined forces, using their respective experiences with innovation in technology development, genetic improvement, and marketing to restore the country’s self-sufficiency in rice.

Daniel Brito, a Fundarroz agronomist and extension officer, is in charge of the program for technology transfer in the state of Portuguesa. Every week, he visits farmers in the region who are following the six steps as well as those who haven’t yet decided to take the technological leap. "The idea is to increase the number of rice growers to learn about successful experiences and to adopt innovative practices on their farms," says Mr. Brito.

According to Fuaz Kassen, the president of Fevearroz, Venezuela's rice growers can satisfy local demand and cater to Central America and the Caribbean markets. "The future of rice in Venezuela lies outside the country," he says. "We need more capital investment to expand production into new areas and the adoption of new technologies with state support."

Apart from giving Venezuela plenty of "black gold," nature has provided it with other riches as well, including fertile land, abundant water, and an ideal climate. These, together with new technologies, should suffice to allow innovative rice growers to regain control of the nation’s food security, win back former clients, and open new pathways toward rice exports.

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Ms. Varón Molina is communications coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean at CIAT.