Nicaragua’s economy is predominantly agricultural. Arable land is approximately 6,100,000 acres, or about 21% of the country’s total land area. The planting season for most crops begins in May, immediately before the rainy season. The harvest season begins in November and lasts through January.
The main agricultural exports are coffee, cotton, sugar, and bananas. Non-traditional export crops such as honeydew melons, cantaloupe, sesame seed, onions, baby corn, asparagus, artichokes, and cut flowers are seeing increased production. Sorghum, cacao, yucca, tobacco, plantains, as well as various fruits and vegetables are produced mainly for local markets.
The agriculture industry in Nicaragua is the country’s number one employer, employing approximately 45% of the national workforce. Unfortunately it is also a seasonal employer with the majority of workers only employed while planting and harvesting.
Large-scale coffee growing began in Nicaragua in the 1850s. By 1870 coffee was Nicaragua’s principal export crop, and remained so for the next 100 years. Coffee grows only in the rich volcanic soil found on mountainous terrain, often making transportation of the crop to the market challenging. Road improvements throughout the country is helping to alleviate the transportation challenges, but many rural roads serving coffee plantations are still unpaved.
Production is centered in the northern part of the central highlands north and east of Estelí, and also in the hilly volcanic region around Jinotepe.
Cotton was a latecomer to Nicaraguan agriculture, but quickly became the nation’s second largest export crop. Cotton became feasible as an export crop in the 1950s when pesticides were developed that permitted high yields in tropical climates. Cotton soon became the crop of choice for large landowners along the central Pacific coast.
Lack of credit for planting, depressed world cotton prices, and competition from Chile discouraged cotton production in the mid 1980s. Cotton production is still a significant export crop but nowhere near what it once was.
Bananas, a native fruit of tropical Asia, were introduced to Nicaragua early in the colonial period. Small plots of the Gros Michel variety of banana were planted for export but political turmoil and transportation difficulties limited exports. Additionally, United States companies developed banana production in neighboring countries, so Nicaragua’s potential remained underdeveloped.
Politics and and outbreak of Panama disease in the 20th century kept banana production low. Panama disease is a fungus that kills the plant’s underground stem, virtually wiping out most of the banana plantations.
New plants of the Valery and Giant Cavendish variety were planted. Although Cavendish bananas yield three times the harvest of the older Gros Michel species, Cavendish bananas are more difficult to harvest and transport. They bruise easily and must be picked early and crated in the fields for transport.
Most banana production is in the Pacific lowlands, in an area extending north from Lago de Managua to the Golfo de Fonseca.
Much of lowland Nicaragua has a climate conducive to growing sugarcane. Most sugarcane is processed into whitish centrifugal sugar, the raw sugar of international commerce. Some plants further process the sugarcane into refined granulated sugar.
The first cattle were brought to Nicaragua by the Spanish in the 16th century. Drier areas on the western slopes of the central highlands were ideal for cattle raising, and by the mid-18th century, a wealthy elite whose riches were based on raising livestock, controlled León, Nicaragua’s colonial capital. In the late 20th century cattle raising was concentrated in the areas east of Lago de Managua.
Most beef animals are improved zebu strains. Smaller herds of dairy cattle, mostly Jersey, Guernsey, or Holstein breeds are found near population centers. A breed that is unique to Nicaragua is the La Reina. La Reina cattle possess genes that make them heat tolerant, a very useful breed in Nicaragua that are used for meat, dairy, and work purposes.
Tobacco and sesame are both produced for export. The first African palm oil plantations were established in the Caribbean lowlands and began production in 1990. Beans, corn, rice, and sorghum continue to be widely grown and consumed domestically.