After the Start:
Where Smallholders Stand Nearly a Year Into the Pandemic
It’s never been easy. For these Mexican smallholders, farming is about love of their fields and communities. The pandemic punctuated livelihoods already shaped by isolation, climate change and unreliable markets. Could strategic assistance at a key moment help them change their stories?

This story is an update from our COVID-19 and Smallholders news series.

Zaachila is a remote and beautiful place.

Nestled in a large valley surrounded by mountains, this village in Oaxaca, Mexico is so small that its markets struggle to support the surrounding farming community. And climate change has taken a heavy toll, resulting in persistent drought. Nevertheless, Irene Pérez Coronel and her mother Filomena have farmed there for decades, coaxing a living out of the dry earth. 




Between Survival and Success

When Covid-19 rocked the world in early 2020, no one was harder hit than smallholder farmers—and the communities that rely on them for food. 


The Bayer team wanted to help. Joining forces with several partners, they coordinated a massive distribution of growing supplies all over the world, delivering Better Life Farming care packages to up to 2 million smallholders.


The goal was to help smallholders withstand the immediate impacts of the pandemic through the assurance of a good crop. But that wasn’t all. 


Maybe they could totally restart. If farmers could gain a slight edge in income, it might set them up for a better season next year. And the next, in the process laying the groundwork for a food system able to stand up to shocks like the pandemic.


Six months in, the question is: did it work? Are the packages making a difference? We spoke with four smallholders who received care packages earlier this year to find out.


About their farm: 

  • This mother and daughter sow three hectares each, growing maize, beans, chickpeas, alfalfa and walnuts. 

  • Their crops are mainly for consumption by their family of four, though they do sell any excess at market on Thursdays. 

  • They practice crop rotation and are each able to irrigate one hectare of their plots. 

  • They received one bag of hybrid yellow maize each.

Knowing that globally, 40% of smallholders are women, the care package initiative made it a point to include them specifically. As caretakers not only of their land but also of their families and communities, they carry a unique potential to bolster food security across the globe. 


Filomena has been farming her land for 40 years, and Irene still leans on her mother’s knowledge. Over her lifetime, Filomena has witnessed drastic effects of climate change, so scarce rainfall and unpredictable weather like hail are a constant concern. 


In addition, fungus is a dire threat to maize in their region. Planting must be timed exactly right to prevent young plants succumbing. This was one of the big challenges around the care packages, which arrived later in the season than is typical for sowing. Irene was hesitant, but decided to take the risk. 


One bag of seed is enough for about half a hectare. Because hybrid plants are more durable in the face of adverse conditions, that’s plenty to make a major difference in yield. As of right now, Irene and Filomena’s corn is thriving, and they’re hopeful for a healthy harvest to keep their family fed through the winter. 


About her farm: 

  • Rosalía grows primarily maize on her farm, Paraje La Labor de Natividad, and sells her crops by fulfilling pre-orders within her community.

  • Her greatest resources are internet access to help make farming decisions and hired workers for field help. 

  • As president of a local irrigation unit, she is able to fully irrigate her fields. 

  • She received one bag of hybrid yellow maize.



In the same village, Rosalía Chacón López and her husband Miguel Tomás Martínez work to grow their own small farming business. Like Irene and Filomena, they find the weather and fungus challenging. 


But as their livelihood revolves around finding buyers for their crops, their biggest obstacle before and during the pandemic is unpredictable demand at market. They will actually time their harvests so that they’re not selling at the same time as their neighbors, a necessary grassroots effort to regulate supply. 


When the news came that Bayer was sending help, Rosalía saw skepticism amongst fellow farmers. Aid is so rare in their area that they had a hard time believing it. Once they realized it was legitimate, they were overjoyed. 


Typically, reports Rosalía, “an improved seed bag, even when cheap, costs around 1,200-1,500 pesos.” 


For farmers like her, it’s cost-prohibitive, or nearly so, to use improved seed for every sowing. A less expensive alternative is criollo, but it doesn’t perform as well in the field. Seed from Bayer helped her save money at a crucial time. It’s also likely to help with market fluctuation.

Rosalia Headshot
Hybrid maize has much better yield both in grain and fodder. If we were to turn it into silage, I think it has twice the yield of criollo maize. And there's a much better market for these cobs than for criollo cobs.
Rosalía Chacón López
Smallholder farmer

Ready for a New Story

These supplies represent a major aid at a dire moment, and the project is nowhere near complete. Care packages are still being distributed in more countries, and many of the concerns of the pandemic are still with us. But agriculture doesn’t stop, and in a larger sense, the necessity of lifting up smallholders has never been more urgent. 


The truth is that, at least for Irene, Filomena, Rosalía and Miguel, it’s not just that they couldn’t access what they needed this year. They’ve never been able to. 


Many of the recipients of care packages are being connected to the larger agricultural network for the very first time, and it’s not just supplies that are needed. Both Irene and Rosalía point out that one of the most meaningful aspects of receiving their care packages was the attention and advice offered by Bayer representatives when they visited. 


Maybe 2020, for all its attendant struggles, can be a turning point, not just for these farmers, but for smallholders everywhere. That’s the hope and intention of Bayer and our Better Life Farming partners as we build on the momentum of this year’s efforts. 


Smallholders are ready and waiting. As Rosalía puts it, “What we hope for here as a result of sowing the maize is to always have a bit of a profit, so that we can dedicate ourselves to farming and to sowing crop after crop—just that. We get a profit from this land, and we invest it in other land, in the next crop, in the next step.”


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