The world has its eyes on Colombian agriculture.
Home of some of the most fertile land on Earth, the country still underperforms when it comes to the ag sector.
But all that is about to change. Colombian agriculture is poised for an explosion not unlike those experienced by regional neighbors such as Peru and Chile.
The reason is simple: Colombia’s infrastructural capacity is on the cusp of a massive transformation. By the end of the decade, ongoing infrastructure projects will connect the country’s most productive lands with both Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
But which areas stand to benefit the most? After all, Colombia is a staggeringly diverse country with an enormous variety of climate conditions, altitudes, soil profiles, and agricultural traditions.
All Roads Lead to Profit
For a relatively small country, Colombia possesses a dizzying variety of climates, altitudes, and geographies. From row crops like corn and soy to high-value tropical fruits like pineapple and mango, Colombia can grow just about anything.
Oscar Baracaldo, the ubiquitous COO of Farmfolio, clues us in on why he’s been bullish on Colombian agriculture for over five years.
“Colombia is number-one for rainfall in the world. In the heart of the Equatorial region, there’s enough sunlight to produce just about anything all year-round.”
That’s a key advantage when you consider the variable harvest seasons of neighboring countries, like Mexico.
The problem lies in bringing goods to market. And to solve that problem, the country needs roads.
Enter the 4G Roads Program. The project has set aside $17 billion to construct 4,400 miles of new roadways, 141 tunnels, and 1,300 viaducts.
Private Infrastructure Investment in Roadways, 2011-2017. These figures have continued to increase.
The 4G Program will link the Caribbean Sea with Medellin and complement the completion of Antioquia’s port in the Gulf of Urabá on the Atlantic coast. A second development, the mostly completed Transversal de Las Americas, will drastically reduce travel times between Antioquia and Córdoba.
“It’s all about shelf life in the food and ag industry,” says Oscar. “Take Europe for instance. Transit from Cartenaga to Rotterdam takes at least 16 days. Cutting down travel time by any amount makes a difference.”
Fresher produce on international shelves means satisfied customers, and that’s more profits for farms.
While there is much to be said about Colombia’s other regions, two departments above all stand to benefit: Antioquia and Córdoba.
Disrupting Agriculture in Córdoba
Most agricultural activity in the Córdoba department (population 1.82 million as of 2020) happens along the Sinu valley and the coast. These lush, coastal lowlands are ideal for a variety of purposes, but at present are overly focused on two activities: cattle and banana.
Cattle in Córdoba is a deep-seated tradition. The region accounts for 8.7% of Colombian livestock, and is dominated by a quasi-feudal class of wealthy landowners supported by poor rural laborers.
The value of Colombian beef exports has declined.
This land-intensive activity has serious drawbacks. The punishing heat leads to a high rate of cattle mortality, and the industry’s small labor requirements contribute heavily to generational poverty.
“Córdoba is very focused on cattle,” says Oscar, “but the low margins and social impact are poor for farmers. Cattle ranching keeps the farmers in an endless cycle of poverty.”
One option for Córdoba is to diversify with more sustainable crops like coconut and Hass avocado, especially in coastal areas unsuitable for cattle. Also, areas previously used for livestock grazing are often ideal for tropical timbers like teak.
Oscar adds, “You’re not adding any long-term value with livestock, as over time it’ll deplete the soil and you’re left with nothing but grass. By comparison, plantations appreciate the land’s value. Permanent crops like teak are great replacements for land previously used for cattle.”
“The entire northern region of Colombia suffers from deforestation because of the intensive cattle operations. Recently, global health trends have created an opening for farmers to diversify into other crops, like coconuts.”
The region’s soil is rich and diverse, fed by the mountains, coastal areas, and alluvial plains. Soils near the coastal areas are silty, providing drainage that is beneficial for permanent crops like coconut and lime.
“People have known about the Sinú River Valley’s potential for thousands of years,” Oscar says. “It’s home to the Zenú people, who settled in the region for the land’s fertility. It’s one of the most fertile valleys in Colombia, due to regular floods and a seasonal climate.”
High rainfall, which can reach 4000mm per year in some areas, also favors tree crops in the region.
Much of Colombia receives high levels of rainfall.
Which leads us to the banana tree. Representing over a third of all permanent cultivations in the region, the banana is a well-established, highly industrialized crop.
In some sense, this is a problem. Banana is the most consumed fruit on Earth, and Colombia is the world’s number three exporter of bananas. With over 50,000 hectares for export production, there doesn’t seem to be much room for growth.
As Colombia’s ag sector grows, look for Córdoba to make better use of its rich, fertile soil and high levels of sunlight and rainfall by diversifying into a wider range of permanent crops. Although technically not in Cordoba, the forthcoming Port of Antioquia will allow a wider basket of goods to reach international markets.
Antioquia, Colombia’s Ag Powerhouse
Antioquia (population 6.67 million in 2020) is known for its high economic output and is considered the most developed Colombian region.
As a whole, Antioquia makes up 15% of the country’s GDP, the largest external market in Colombia, the second-largest domestic market, and has the most significant national share of non-traditional exports. Antioquia is also the seat of Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia, which features a burgeoning tech sector and a large labor market.
“Antioquia is the agricultural powerhouse of Colombia,” says Oscar. “Its mountainous regions have a mild, temperate climate that’s ideal for many different crops. The locals maintain that anything put in the ground will grow, and judging by the sheer variety of Antioquia’s agricultural output, that certainly seems to be the case.”
The region is the country’s top producer of both coffee, banana, and Hass avocado in the country. Tahiti lime production is also increasing, in response to a sharp rise in demand for this juicier variety in western countries.
Unlike Mexico, which exports the majority of the world’s limes, the higher-altitude, wetter regions of Antioquia offer year-round production of Tahiti limes. These have thicker skin that preserves shelf life during long-distance transport.
The region is also known for its widespread floriculture, exporting over $1 billion worth of flowers in 2016. Although this market has been hit hard by COVID, it remains a staple of the region’s ag industry. Avocados are a rising player, and last year’s World Avocado Congress was held in Medellín.
Colombia’s avocado export volumes are increasing.
For Antioquia, logistics is a major concern. Goods being moved to the coast must pass through a winding, narrow series of roads to reach the lowlands, and long traffic stops are often unavoidable.
The 4G project will have an especially strong impact on this region. Transportation times will be cut in half in some cases, and the volume of goods shipped to the coast will drastically increase.
“Today it takes up to 15 hours through winding mountain roads to reach the Port of Buenaventura from Medellin,” says Oscar. “Within two years, the 4G project will cut that down to as low as five hours on modern, paved roads. Easier coastal access means higher-quality produce for export.”
Antioquia is a land of eternal spring. Sunny, temperate weather with a high amount of rainfall makes the region ideal for producing a range of high-value goods. Once infrastructure improvements are completed, the sky’s the limit for this high-altitude region.
Colombian agriculture is due for an industry-wide scale-up. The country can easily access markets in the US, Asia, and Europe, and has land capable of producing virtually any crop. With Colombia’s infrastructure set to massively improve, look for Colombia to become a major player in the global ag industry in the very near future.