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PUEBLO LLANO, Venezuela -- In Venezuela, where hunger is rampant, a farmer recently had to abandon his entire crop. Guiding a pair of oxen, he drew a wooden plow over his field, turning over thousands of shriveled carrots.

The trucks that would pick up his harvest never arrived, he said.

A fuel shortage has been gripping the country since May, bringing the nation's already struggling agriculture industry to the brink of collapse and threatening more hunger and malnutrition in a nation where nearly half the population is eating fewer than three meals a day.

"It's all lost," the farmer, Joandry Santiago, said, pointing to the spoiled vegetables that cost him months of wasted labor.

Venezuela is an oil-rich nation. But years of mismanagement and corruption in the oil industry, worsened by U.S. sanctions, have dried up gasoline pumps. First, the shortage prevented farmers like Santiago from getting their produce to markets. Now, it is making it hard for them to sow new crops.

The New York Times interviewed dozens of Venezuelan farmers. Nearly all have slashed their planting area this year and some are leaving their fields fallow -- steps that are likely to deplete what is left of the food supply and lead even more Venezuelans to join the estimated 4 million who have fled the country.

The farmers said they have tried to produce despite scarce inputs, price controls, crime, inflation and collapsing demand.

Santiago's municipality of Pueblo Llano, in the Andes Mountains of western Venezuela, has accounted for about 60% of all the potato and carrot production in Venezuela. But this year's harvest is only half of 2018's because of the gasoline shortage and other problems such as lack of seeds and fertilizer, according to the farmers' cooperative, La Trinidad.

Venezuela's main agricultural association, Fedeagro, estimates the area planted with the country's main crops, corn and rice, will shrink about 50% this year. And the sugar output in the main producing state of Portuguesa is down to 5 million tons this year from 12 million in 2018, according to the sugar-cane growing association.

"The collapse is exponential," said Fedeagro President Aquiles Hopkins. "The only possible explanation is that the government simply doesn't care."

President Nicolas Maduro has responded to the agricultural crisis by promising $35 million in new farming credits in May -- a program Fedeagro says is small and benefits only producers close to the government.

The fuel crunch came at a time when many Venezuelans were already going hungry. In December, the month before the U.S. imposed its toughest sanctions, only 55% of Venezuelans ate three meals a day, according to Delphos, a pollster.

The impact of gas shortages in the fields is already felt in the cities. The price of carrots, potatoes and plantains has more than doubled in Caracas' main wholesale food market in the past month, overshooting even the country's runaway inflation rate -- estimated at about 26% a month -- according to market traders.

A Section on 07/07/2019

Print Headline: Venezuela's farmers giving up on crops as fuel, markets dry up

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