Jaime Espinosa . . .Adapting Panamanian Agriculture

Adapting Panamanian Agriculture to the “New Normal” of Climate Extremes

In the US, El Niño has been greeted with a mixture of hope and relief:  finally drought relief in the West!  But for much of the globe, El Niño is only causing more problems.  The periodic climate phenomenon is characterized by warmer than average temperatures along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. While these anomalies have led to higher precipitation in the American West, they have intensified droughts in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and Malawi leading to millions of acres of forest fires and failed crops.

For the last two years in Panama, the Central American country sandwiched between Costa Rica and Colombia, the government has declared a state of emergency for certain regions where parched farmland is unable to sustain crops and livestock.  The largest coral bleaching event in 20 years is occurring on Panama’s pacific coast and the Panama Canal, the man-made water body that connects trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, has had to limit ship size due to low water levels.  In 2015, in the Azuero region of Panama, 700 bovine have already died due to lack of forage, water and heat stress.

Jaime Espinosa, a native Panamanian, has traveled 3,700 miles to Iowa to learn about adapting Panamanian agriculture to the increasingly prevalent climate extremes.  His is participating in the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program which is sponsored by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.  But he laughs and says, “you can call it the Borlaug Fellowship Program.”  The program allows Jaime to spend two months in Ames meeting with researchers, using Iowa State’s research facilities, attending classes and training sessions.

He has teamed up with Dr. Russell Mullen, Agronomy professor at Iowa State, who will act as his mentor during the program. “The good thing,” says Jaime, “is that Russ know Panama.  He has been there before and he understands subsistence agriculture in Panama.”  Dr. Mullen received a Fulbright specialists’ project to go to Panama in 2014, and he has been leading ISU study abroad classes to Panama since 1999.

Jaime is from the Azuero peninsula of Panama, where the majority of farmers raise dairy cattle. “Livestock farming is the main occupation of the rural people,” he says.  “It gives them a steady income.”  Farmers can sell their milk products daily rather than waiting all year for one crop harvest.  But lately, the consistent income from dairy production has not been so consistent.  Cattle in Panama rely on grazing as their primary food source, very few farmers choose or are able to supplement this with silage.  Because of the recent erratic rainfall in Panama, and particularly in the sandy Azuero region, the grasslands have dried up for large stretches of time and left cattle without a food source.  And when the rain finally does come, the bare, unprotected topsoil is easily washed away by erosion.


Jaime’s Borlaug Fellowship research proposal is “Adaptability of milk production systems to the effects of global climate change in the Azuero Region of Panama.”  The Azuero region is also referred to as Arco Seco, the Dry Arch.  Much of the land here is degraded and it is at high risk for desertification because of climate change and exposed soil.  Jaime wants to work on introducing grass varieties and dairy cattle breeds to Panama that are better adapted to drought conditions.  He also wants to improve soil conservation measures and water harvesting so that farmers can more effectively use the sparse precipitation.

At Iowa State, Jaime is attending classes ranging from genomics to agricultural economics.  He is “interviewing experts and getting advice from them” on cattle forages.  And he is doing literature reviews and other documentary research in the library, which has impressed him greatly.  “You have a great library.  I did my Masters at CATIE (in Costa Rica) and I used to say, what a great library.  But this, this is amazing.”  In October, he was able to participate in the Agriculture and Biodiversity Conference, hosted by CALS Global Programs at Iowa State. “I was able to gain contacts from South Korea and Japan.  Not only professional links, but friendly ones.”

In October, Jaime also attended the “Borlaug Dialogue” International Symposium and World Food Prize celebrations in Des Moines.  He presented his work on improving the sustainability of dairy production in Panama to an international group of scholars, and was able to meet other researchers interested in climate adaptation. 

Jaime will return home in mid-November and continue his work with the Agricultural Institute of Panama.  The institute is focused on smallholder farmers in Panama and he appreciates research where he can work with farmers on a daily basis.  Jaime will take the advice he’s gained from experts at Iowa State and at the Borlaug Dialogue, and work with landowners to adapt them to the “new normal” of climate extremes.  “If we talk about climate change it’s in the long term.” It’s not something that we have the luxury to be surprised by, “we must be prepared for it.”