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The crops category is the largest within agriculture, but its share has fallen slightly, from 66.1 percent in 1980 to 63.3 percent in 1985. During that period, crop production was erratic, and annual growth averaged a mere 1.7 percent. The major crops and foreign exchange earners were bananas and sugar. In the 1980s, however, crop production became increasingly diversified. The production of corn, coffee, beans, and tobacco has increased, as has that of such nontraditional products as melons and flowers. Fruits (especially citrus), cacao (the bean from which cocoa is derived), plantains, vegetables, and potatoes were produced on a minor scale; nevertheless, they were important cash crops for small farms.

Bananas were the leading export item, and in 1985 accounted for 23 percent (US$78 million) of total exports. In that year, the Chiriquí Land Company, a subsidiary of United Brands (formerly United Fruit Company), produced 70 percent of all bananas, followed by private Panamanian producers (25 percent) and the state-owned Corporación Bananera del Atlántico (5 percent). The volume of bananas produced in Panama peaked in 1978 and slowly declined in the 1980s. Observers doubted that United Brands would expand its production in Panama because bananas could be produced more cheaply in Costa Rica and Ecuador.

The history of banana production in Panama virtually coincides with that of United Brands, which has been in Panama since 1899. The company built railroads, port facilities, and storage areas for the processing and export of bananas. In the 1930s, a disease seriously curtailed banana production. In the 1950s diseaseresistant plants were developed, and production increased rapidly. In the early 1970s, a "banana war" erupted when banana-producing countries disagreed among themselves and with United Brands about an export tax on bananas. Panama threatened to take over United Brands' plantations. An agreement was reached in 1976 to tax banana exports. In that year, the tax provided the government with US$10 million, nearly 4 percent of all revenues. In addition, United Brands sold all 43,000 hectares of land that it owned in Panama to the government; payment was in tax credits. The government leased back to United Brands over 15,000 hectares for banana production and export operations. Part of the excess land went to the government's newly established banana companies.

Sugar has traditionally been Panama's second largest crop in terms of production and export value. Panama consumed about half its sugar output and exported most of the rest to the United States. The production of sugar in Panama increased during the 1970s, peaked in 1982 at 260,000 tons, and fell to 165,000 tons in 1986. The dramatic decline after 1982 was because of low world prices and the rapid reduction in the United States quota from 81,200 tons in 1983 to 26,390 tons in 1987. Annual sugar exports earned an average US$40 million from 1975 through 1981 but fell steadily from US$41.3 million in 1983 to US$33 million in 1984, US$27.3 million in 1985, and US$22 million in 1986.

The state has been heavily involved in Panama's sugar production. Under the 1983-84 structural adjustment program, however, the state has privatized, closed, and tried to sell numerous sugar mills. Nonetheless, of the six major sugar mills in Panama, four were still under state control in 1987. The largest was the Corporación Azucarera La Victoria, which in 1985 accounted for 64 percent of total sugar production. Several small mills operated throughout the country, but their output was for domestic consumption only.

The production of coffee has steadily expanded, from 7,000 tons in 1981 to 11,000 tons in 1985. Coffee was Panama's third-largest crop export earner. In 1985 it earned US$15.6 million, which was 4.6 percent of total export earnings.

Rice and corn production also increased in the early 1980s. Panama imported rice in the 1970s but by the mid-1980s experienced a surplus, as a result of the expansion of production in the early 1980s, from 178,000 tons in 1982 to 200,000 tons in 1985. Panama produced 75,000 tons of corn in 1985, but in the same year it imported about 40 percent of the corn it consumed, some of which was used for poultry feed. The government granted incentives to increase corn production.

Data as of December 1987

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Panama Table of Contents