Saturday, December 01, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: La Cosecha (The Harvest), Part II

This is part 2 of my series on maize cultivation in Cabanaconde.

As I explained in the previous post, the main objective of the harvest is to bring the maize back into the 'corrals' which are dotted around the village, often between houses. It is transported as entire plants, in bundles of varying size, depending on whether it is carried back by truck or by donkey.

The next step is to deshojar -- literally 'remove the leaves'. Each plant will have one to three choclos or corn cobs. You extract them by peeling off the leaves -- often a nail or some other sharpish object will be used to make an initial break in the leaves near the top of the cob -- then twisting the cob to remove it. This is might seem like easy work in comparison to some of the other tasks, but it involves long hours of repetitive work, in the hot sun, with lots of bending or squatting. This task is usually done by women: as with the harvest itself, many migrant labourers come from Puno or parts of Cuzco such as Espinar looking for work. At this time of the year in Cabanaconde you will see many of these women, with their distinctive dress of a bowler hat, sweater, knee-length skirt and long woollen pants (NB: not the woman in the picture, who is very much a cabaneña).

The choclos are then laid out on sacks or blankets to dry. How long this takes depends on the level of moisture remaining in the corn, although a week in the sun is usually sufficient. The next step is to desgranar or de-grain. The grains can be worked off the cob with the fingers: once the choclo is properly dried, they come off very easily. You now have grano seco, the primary form in which the maize is stored, used or sold. People in a hurry to sell some of their maize will sometimes remove the grains and leave them to dry loose, although this makes them even more accessible to the mice and birds which are a constant menace to the stored maize.

The maize can be white, yellow, purple or multi-coloured. Although they are all mixed and matched to a certain extent, each type has its principal uses:
  • White maize is the staple type used for cancha (toasted kernels), which is easily the most common way in which maiz cabanita is consumed
  • Yellow maize is the principal ingredient for chicha, although other kinds of maize are also used
  • Purple maize is used for cancha and also in chicha morada, which is a non-alcoholic refreshment common throughout Peru

A certain proportion of the grains are retained for use as seeds. These are usually selected from the largest, most well-formed choclos and are taken from the centre of the cob.

The maize plant minus the choclo is called chala. Although the dry, spiky stalks and leaves look pretty unappealing, they are useful as animal feed during the dry season.For example, during planting season, if someone has to hire a team of  bulls to plough their fields, they're usually also required to provide a bundle of chala,which can be worth S/. 15 ($7.50 NZD). Little goes to waste.

How the maize is used will depend on the family, and can depend on the total size of their crop, where family members are living, etc. The family of a friend of mine is not untypical: they have a significant amount of land spread across many different plots throughout the campiña around Cabanaconde. She told me that approximately 5 to 10 percent was kept for seed, 10 to 20 percent was consumed, and 70 to 80 percent sold.

Many people told me that cultivating maize wasn't very profitable. "You get back about what you put in" was a frequent comment. The price for much of 2012 was S/. 4 per kilo, which is relatively good by historical standards. However, there's only one harvest per year, most people have small plots of land spread through different sectors of the countryside, and there are high fixed costs for activities like harvesting and planting. From what I was told, a one of the smaller chacras would deliver perhaps 200 kilos of dry grain, while a decent-sized one might produce 1,000 kilos. Meanwhile, some estimated that planting alone might cost  S/. 300-400. You can do the sums.

However, it wouldn't be quite correct to call it a 'subsistence' activity. First, the maize is not primarily destined for self-consumption but is largely traded and sold in the market. It is a source of security for families in that, when needed, it can provide not just food but also cash.   Second, although revenue may not exceed expenditure by any great degree, production interacts with and dynamizes other parts of the economy. Certain stages of the cultivation cycle use a considerable amount of wage labour, especially now the practice of ayni (reciprocal labour obligations) has largely disappeared.

There's lots more to write about the economy of maize in Cabanaconde: the extent to which it's consumed, traded and sold; where and for how much; and how distribtion or accumulation occur. These topics are for future posts, and perhaps for further investigation.

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