New Crops for the New World
by SAMUEL ZEMURRAY and JOHN TERRY
THE Japanese had just hit Pearl Harbor and the Philippines when a representative of the United States government came to see me in our Boston office of the United Fruit Company. He said: “All the Manila hemp for hawsers needed by our warships, auxiliaries, transports, and merchant vessels comes from the Far East — or did up to December 7. The supplies we have on hand will last for a while, but from now on we’ll not get any more where it has been coming from — not for a long time. You know the need. What can you do?”
The need? Liberty ships were soon to go down the ways and out to sea by the score. Our navy was tripling its pre-war size. Yet, for a century, American vessels had been wholly dependent on Far Eastern sources for Manila hemp, which makes the finest cordage. Ninety-five per cent of the supply came from the Philippine Islands and the rest from the East Indies. At the time of Pearl Harbor our supply was limited to coiled lines on ship decks or what was stored in warehouses.
Something could be done, as the government knew when its representatives came to see us. In 1925 we had worked with the United States Department of Agriculture in a ten-acre planting of abaca (the banana-like plant from which Manila hemp is produced) in the Almirante district of Panama. By 1940 we had 2000 acres planted, all on an experimental basis. There, in the Middle American Republic of Panama, was the only supply of abaca seeds in the world available for American use at the time when our normal supply was cut off by the Japanese.
On January 3, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, we entered into contract with the Defense Supplies Corporation to plant from 7000 to 30,000 acres of abaca, and to supply fiber to the government. On our own stipulation, the contract provides that we receive not a dime of profit.
Last August, Almirante was producing 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of dry abaca fiber weekly, the equivalent of six miles of eight-inch-circumference hawser. As I write, the latest weekly report shows a yield of 173,520 pounds from the same fields. Today abaca plants are growing on 29,000 acres of rich Middle American tropical soil. Plants in Guatemala came into production in August, 1944. A mill in Honduras started stripping fiber in October. By the end of the year, two plantations in Costa Rica, and one each in Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras, were producing fiber at the estimated rate of a million pounds a week.
For the first time since the early days of whaling, American ships are being moored by hawsers of all-American production, at berths from India to the docks of Cherbourg. Never again should the Americas be cut off from this vital material.
In abaca, one of the great crops has moved nearly halfway around the earth and has come to the Americas, where it will stay. What has happened with abaca can happen with many other growing things, for in the republics of Middle America and the northern part of South America are the soil, the sun, the rain, and the people to grow crops which heretofore have been the almost exclusive monopoly of the Far Eastern tropics.
I am convinced that various crops of the Asiatic tropics can grow as well or better in the American tropics. For strategic reasons they should be developed in this hemisphere, so that never again can an enemy fleet cut us off from such indispensables as rubber, quinine, and fiber for rope.
That is not all. The crops of the East, replanted in the Americas, where in many instances they originated, can offer new peacetime employment and industrial opportunities for the Americas.
What we call Middle America comprises much of Mexico and all of the six republics of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama; the three Caribbean island republics — Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; and the British possession of Jamaica, In those countries live about 40 million people, some of them our own citizens.
Such, geographically, is Middle America. But if the criterion is one of tropic climate, we should properly include in that designation lands and additional millions of people in the three northern republics of South America — Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela — and whatever tropical lands lie still farther to the south — certainly part of Brazil. The enormous agricultural importance of this region has long been overlooked. Japan’s invasion of the fertile lands of Southeast Asia has brought the American tropics into the lives of all of us. The war has made Middle America a reservoir of manpower, food, and other needs vital to our common well-being; the peace must do no less.
ABACA is only one example on a long list of commercially valuable trees and plants and grasses that grow untended in the jungles and uplands of Middle America, or are now cultivated in experimental gardens under the eyes of agricultural scientists.
Since the 1880’s the United States has imported millions of gallons of palm oil annually. By the time of Pearl Harbor, virtually all such oils used in this country came from Oceania and tropical Africa. Yet it is common knowledge that many varieties of oil-bearing palms can be grown successfully in Middle America — notably the African variety, for which the field as a new Middle American crop is almost unlimited. I predict that in ten years copra will be scarce as a result of the disease known as bud rot, which is attacking coco palms of the Pacific tropics. African palm oil is just as good as coconut oil. Such oil is required in vast bulk for chemical and industrial uses, and is critically needed in peace and war. It furnishes food for man as well as for livestock, and it makes a valuable fertilizer.
A powerful and efficient organization was operated by the Dutch in the manufacture and distribution of quinine, which is produced from the bark of cinchona, the “fever tree,” much of it on the islands of Java and Sumatra. To get quinine for the treatment of malaria, the world went to the Dutch. Early in 1942 the Japanese took over. But cinchona, a tree native to Middle America and transplanted years ago to the East Indies, can return to the land of its birth, where its systematic cultivation as a product of Middle America can free malaria sufferers everywhere from dependence on a virtual East Indian monopoly. Perhaps more than a million and a half cinchona trees are growing wild in the forests of Guatemala today. One great lesson of agricultural history, however, is this: wild crops can never compete with the same crops in farm production. Today the systematic planting of cinchona in Middle America has begun.
What Japan’s southward sweep did to our rubber supply is only too well known. By heroic effort we have developed a notable synthetic industry. But there is no doubt we shall have a continuing need for natural rubber. If the Middle Americas could supply 100,000 tons a year or better, — and there is no question that the finest rubber can be grown there, — it would seem to me that the United States could readily absorb that amount.
There are the essential oils, basic in the manufacture of menthols, perfumes, and insect sprays, produced from citronella, vetiver, and lemon grass. Thanks again to the necessity imposed by the Japanese offensive of 1942, these grasses are beginning to win an important place in the trade and agriculture of the Middle American tropics.
Many commercially valuable trees thrive in the rich tropical soil of Middle America. Among them is teak, which supplies a splendid timber used in ship construction. Heretofore our teak has come exclusively from the tropics of the Far East. Teakwood seeds have been imported from Siam and Burma, and the young trees are now thriving in experimental growths in Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
Mahogany, balsa, tropical cedar, rosewood, and lignum vitae are other tree crops that can be developed over wide areas of the Middle Americas, and can find markets in this hemisphere and in Europe. Bamboo furnishes still another example of a plant for which we have looked in the past to lands across the Pacific; yet bamboo, useful in construction of furniture, can be a worthy addition to the crops that can be grown profitably in our own tropics of the Americas.
Rotenone, a powerful insecticide produced from the root of derris and similar plants, is needed in multi-million-pound quantities to protect crops of the United States from ruinous insect enemies. Two million pounds of rotenone powders were recently allocated to our military services by the War Production Board. Derris, already growing in Middle America, is capable of great expansion.
The list could be extended indefinitely — spices historically associated with tropics other than American, the oil-bearing seed of the manaca palm and the tung tree, fruits, and a vast array of commercial and subsistence crops, among them the soybean. The Middle Americas are fast becoming the food laboratory of the world.
In realization of this, the United Fruit Company recently established a Department of New Crops. The department has as its unfettered function the investigation of every possibility in the development of new crops. It is to learn what new products can be raised economically and marketed advantageously in the interest of Middle American agriculture, the people of Middle America, and consumers wherever they may profitably be reached. Promising results of experimental plantings on a 2000-mile stretch from Honduras to Ecuador are already visible. Governments of the Middle American republics and the United States are showing keen interest, and their research organizations and ours work in close coöperation.
Superior productivity of Middle American soil, shorter lines of transport to American markets, and application of advanced scientific technology are the factors which favor agriculture in our own tropics.
Under the abnormal economy of wartime it is possible to develop new crops in Middle America even at wage levels far above East Asian rates. On the other hand, the post-war restoration of competition will pose serious questions. Reasons of hemispheric security should compel the continued cultivation of the strategically valuable crops we have neglected in the past. Likewise there is need for greater crop diversification in the interest of a balanced Middle American economy. Can these objectives be retained after the war without some modification of competitive free trade? That is a question which calls for careful calculation and statesmanship.
TO GROW the new crops successfully and to maintain the old ones will require more and more technical knowledge. As one response to the need, Escuela Agricola Panamericana — the School of Pan-American Agriculture — which was formally opened on Columbus Day, October 12, 1944, has come into being. Early in 1942 the National Congress of Honduras authorized establishment of such a school in the beautiful Zamorano valley, twentyfive miles from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, on lands purchased out of an original appropriation of $500,000 by the United Fruit Company. (Since then the company has added another $300,000 and has guaranteed the permanent maintenance of the school.)
Some months later, in September of 1942, we opened the school experimentally in response to urgent needs. At that time seventy-four carefully selected students moved into the new red-tiled buildings to begin their study. They were representative of Middle America, coming from Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. We planned for a capacity enrollment of 160 students.
The course covers three years of intensive study, with a fourth year of specialization for students who have displayed outstanding proficiency. No tuition is charged, and classroom and laboratory equipment, lodging, and other necessities are supplied without cost.
A Pan-American faculty has outlined a course of study designed to develop native agrarian leadership in whatever fields of agriculture the students may choose — independent farming or agricultural extension service. The school is entirely divorced from any personnel requirements of our company and is recognized as a Middle American institution serving Middle America’s students. Its curriculum includes modern training in soil analysis, land survey, the building of roads, irrigation and drainage systems; physiology and hygiene, with emphasis on treatment of common tropical diseases; forestry, crop rotation, animal husbandry, blacksmithing, practical farm engineering, carpentry, orchard culture, and marketing.
Dr. Wilson Popenoe, whose reputation in the field of tropical agriculture is international, is the head of the school and its professor of horticulture.
Dairy barns, stables, plant propagation sheds, greenhouses, a creamery, a splendidly equipped carpenter shop, together with classroom buildings, a dormitory, faculty residences, an emergency hospital, and a dental clinic, have been built. Work in the classroom is matched by farm work in the field. The school will also publish information of value to farmers everywhere in Middle America, on new crops that can be grown for cash income, on improved methods of cultivating the old crops, on public health, on producing better and more varied foods for home consumption.
Education in the past has too often had the effect of separating the ablest Middle American youth from the soil. But it is from the land that the strength and the ultimate well-being of the people must come.
Commenting on the development of new crops in Middle America and the establishment of Escuela Agricola Panamericana, Vice President Henry A. Wallace recently said: “The United Fruit Company in the future intends to bring to bear even more than in the past the full force of modern technology on the production of crops which will diversify the agriculture and improve the standards of living of tropical America. Above everything, the school in Honduras interests me. Would that every corporation had such precise plans for expanding its activities in terms of the welfare of the common man and his children!”
THROUGH a gap in the Montaña del Mico Quemada — the Burnt Monkey Mountains — the Comayagua River flows out to join a larger stream, the Ulua, which, as it meanders toward the sea, forms the 65-mile Ulua valley of Honduras. In October the heavy rains of the tropics drench the watershed, swelling the Comayagua and Ulua to flood. Through winter months the rains continue; and for decades past, the Ulua has swept through the valley, destroying planted fields and discharging its excess waters into pestilential swamps and jungles characteristic of much of the Middle American lowland.
Some twenty years ago our engineers sought to tame the Ulua. They began with swamp drainage, a task which called for flood control. Permanent spillways and levees were built, holding the river in check here, guiding its floodwaters there, in channels that spared the cultivated fields.
When the Ulua is in flood, it carries perhaps 20 per cent silt in suspension. It occurred to us that, valuable as drainage and flood control had proved in the preservation of existing agricultural enterprise, these two processes could be utilized to accomplish a third result: the building of new land where crops had never grown before. So the waters that poured over the spillways in the rainy season were deliberately swung back and forth across the western side of the valley, and the silt gradually settled over the drained swamps year after year, in depths ranging from six inches to ten feet. No richer soil exists on earth.
Conservative estimates indicate that more than 15,000 acres of land have been built up in this fashion. With the extension of this program to the eastern side of the valley, we believe another 35,000 acres will become available in time. Similar methods were employed by the Egyptians along the Nile, but the process is new in Middle America, where the ancient Mayans moved to new land when old land gave out.
I mention the Ulua River development because, while silting itself is an exceptional process that can be utilized in few areas, the making of new land is characteristic of the banana industry in Middle America. Bananas are not planted on lands which the natives have developed; rather the plantations have been developed on soil that had literally been created from jungle and swamp. As the new lands have come into productive use, diseases have been fought back by specialists in tropical medicine, and healthful, productive plantations flourish in regions once given over to malarial swamps.
The fight against pestilence has meant the expenditure of enormous sums, and science has not always won. For instance, Panama disease, known as the wilt, has attacked several of our plantations where the Gros Michel banana once flourished.
Because the wilt has forced banana plantations to move to uninfested areas, some critics have jumped to the conclusion that banana culture robs the soil of its fertility. Inasmuch as the banana industry is of tremendous importance in the economy of Middle America and in our relations with these republics, I will quote — with utmost emphasis — one of the most respected authorities on tropical agriculture, Dr. Lewis Knudson, professor of botany at Cornell University, who says: —
“Panama disease (wilt of the banana) is caused by a specific fungus which will live in the soil for many years after the land is no longer used for the production of bananas. Such an area replanted to bananas will not be productive of bananas because Panama disease reoccurs. The fungus causing the disease is specific for the Gros Michel variety and various other species of bananas but does not cause disease in other crops. Since Panama disease may occur in very fertile soil the question arises, can such land be reutilized for crops other than bananas? The answer is definitely yes, for the organism causing Panama disease in no way decreases the fertility of the soil.”
The United Fruit Company has not surrendered without a fight. Obviously we are reluctant to abandon any producing properties brought to bearing after much time and expense. For many years we have conducted the most thorough research in the hope of combating the disease, which, nevertheless, remains the great unsolved mystery of banana agriculture. If we find the answer, the cure will be made known to every agricultural company and every individual Middle American who grows the Gros Michel for sale or for his own consumption. That we have already done in the case of another banana blight, the Sigatoka disease.
If the hope of conquering Panama disease is not realized, however, the company is determined to use its resources and organization to help work out methods whereby lands which can no longer produce bananas successfully may be planted with other crops on a commercially profitable basis.
For all other crops the fertility of the deep alluvial soil remains unimpaired. The infested areas total only a minute fraction of Middle America — approximately 100,000 acres for the United Fruit Company. At least 68,000 acres of that land are now growing healthy crops of cacao and abaca. Perhaps another 100,000 acres cultivated by other companies or private farmers may be unavailable for bananas because of Panama disease. We see the problem not as a lack of fertile soil but as one of getting more of it into production for the benefit of more people. Our thoughts have not been directed exclusively or especially to lands suitable for banana cultivation, but rather to all productive soils.
ON THE afternoon of June 2, 1944, a rising wind blew in from the Pacific over the west coast of Guatemala. As it mounted to gale proportions, banana plants loosely rooted in rain-sodden soil started to fall. The top-heavy weight of hundredpound stems of bananas pushed against the nearest plants, and these fell in turn, pushing against the next row. So, like collapsing cards, the plants went down. After one afternoon and night of such wind, we surveyed the damage at our Tiquisate division.
Nearly a million and a half “available” banana plants (those with fruit at or nearing the harvest) were destroyed. Another 2.3 million, not yet “available,” were down. Strewn like green straws over 18,000 acres of plantation lay a total of 3.7 million plants, either bearing or soon to bear a valuable food product.
Unusual? Not at all. Banana cultivation not only faces natural enemies such as wilt, but is subject to all the hazards of agriculture. Drought, flood, hurricane, or even a fairly high wind can wipe out whole sections, as I have just related, while plantations elsewhere go unscathed. So far it has never happened that all our crops have been destroyed in any one year.
I mention this because it has a bearing on the size of companies engaged in the banana industry of Middle America. Limited to a single division such as Tiquisate, a producer would be wiped out by a blowdown like that of June 2. If disaster comes to one producing region, there must be others to make up the deficiency. If ships cannot load in one country or can obtain but a partial cargo, there must be others where they can load or fill out the cargo in order to maintain the economic flow of supplies.
Our fruit is consumed in the United States, Canada, the British Isles, and normally in continental Europe, as well as in Middle and South America. Transportation to a world market of a tropical food product such as bananas requires a fleet of fast, specially designed, refrigerated ships. Distributing this fruit calls for an organization that can handle a perishable commodity in any kind of weather.
Some figures may be helpful at this point. In normal times we operate a fleet, of about a hundred merchant ships, plying between the important harbors of Middle America, eighteen ports in the United States and Canada and others in the British Isles and Europe. At the moment, of course, practically all these vessels are in government war service.
Keeping our farms in effective operation requires the maintenance of 1425 miles of railroad built and financed by the company. Our various operations require a quarter of a million acres of improved land, bearing the year around. The normal complement of employees totals 70,000 persons, 90 per cent of them residents of Middle America. The greater part of the proceeds from the sale throughout the world of bananas, sugar, and cacao, returns to the countries of production, in the form of taxes, payrolls, and the purchase of native commodities. In the past ten years our operations have left for such purposes the total sum of $385,160,000 in the lands of Middle America as compared with net earnings of $125,904,000 from all operations within the same period — an average return of approximately 5 1/2 per cent on amounts invested.
Such operations require extensive housing and a dozen hospitals to care for employees, their families, and other people living in the neighborhood of the plantations. Out of our medical activities have come important results in the field of tropical medicine. The incidence of malaria has been drastically reduced. In the year 1925 at our hospital at Banes, Cuba, a sugar-growing district, 2924 patients wore admitted after primary diagnosis of that fever, a ratio of 523 employees out of every 1000. In 1942 the admission for malaria at Banes had dropped to 10 in the entire year, or one employee in each 1000.
Just as our agricultural research staff and experiment stations work in constant coöperation with the United States Department of Agriculture and similar agencies of the Middle American republics, so our medical organization works with other private and government agencies in the field of tropical medicine, including the medical staffs of the United States Army and Navy.
Modern tropical agriculture is a major undertaking. To conduct it on a scale adequate to grow and transport food products to great markets, to pay good wages, to banish deadly human disease, to conduct research in the never ending war against plant enemies, to carve new’ land from jungles and swamps, to develop new crops for the betterment of farmers big and small, requires sizable enterprise.
MORE than earnings are involved today when major business activities move back and forth across the boundary lines of nations. The time was when my thinking was concentrated mainly on United Fruit Company profits and prosperity. Even though I believe in profits and prosperity, I nevertheless thought we were headed for trouble, but I did not see the answer then. I did not see it until war proved what should have been obvious all the time: that the great tropical crops that grow on the other side of the world can and must grow in our own tropics, to provide a balanced economy for Middle America and to free the New World from dependence on the East for strategic materials.
The economic and social evils of a oneor twocrop economy must not be fastened on Middle America. The lessons of World War II point to the path of agricultural variety and abundance, not only in cash crops which the farmers of Middle America can sell, but in subsistence crops for their own food, freeing them in considerable degree from the worst effects of fluctuations in world markets. Should the price of palm oil drop, those same plants can furnish rich edible fats which the farmer can eat until the market is restored. So it can be with other crops.
It is worth noting that the old crops of Middle America and the new ones which can be introduced are not suited to the climate of the United States and Canada and therefore present no competition with agricultural production in the United States and Canada. Furthermore, where Middle America is essentially agricultural, we of the north are in large measure industrial. Fortunately for relations between Middle and North America, each of us produces what the other needs and does not produce.
In the past, when Panama disease infested one of our plantations and wilted the bananas, we moved out. We tore up the railroads. Behind us we left fertile land clawed out of the jungle. We moved out, and the people left the land and followed us.
I felt guilty about it. We should have had the sense to say, “Hell, we’re staying here,” and to have replanted those fields in new crops for the New World. We are doing that now. To our employees who are interested and qualified we are prepared to say, “We will help you to become established as independent farmers. Here is land for you to cultivate while you are still in our employ. Because it takes capital and scientific training to grow crops well, we will get you established. It may take five to ten years for you to make a go of it on your own, with mature crops to sell and with subsistence crops for your own family. We will buy your crops or you can sell them elsewhere.”
Details of this plan have been entrusted to our Department of New Crops, which will determine how large these independent farms should be. Forty acres may prove to be the most advantageous size, or thirty or fifty.
In 1942 the directors of the United Fruit Company adopted a statement of policy which gave formal expression to the program of utilizing the company organization and tropical resources to assist the native population in growing diversified food products “without expectation other than good will from friendly neighbors” in the interest of a balanced Middle American economy based on a contented, prosperous agricultural population.
To recognize the necessity of growing new crops in the American tropics is not to forget the East Asian tropics, with whose peoples we must live and trade in this shrinking world. Surely no sane program of crop migration can envisage the enrichment of one hemisphere to the lasting injury of another, nor can it be permitted to foster demoralizing competition between agricultural regions. Actually, rigid limitation of crops to a few similar varieties can produce the most ravaging sort of competition, whereas a wider diversification reduces the chance of head-on collision.
It would be foolish to expect miracles in a program of new cropping. There will be setbacks and disappointments, and the overall progress may be slow. This sort of thing will not just happen: it requires work, thinking, planning, large-scale organization and small, and farsighted coöperative effort between private companies and government agencies. Granting the inevitable delays, a place is left for imagination; indeed, an essential place. It is a great thing, this that we are looking at, and it can be a historic thing. For it is nothing less than the deliberate intercontinental transfer of the grea t tropical crops, directed by man, for man.