When the workers on Juan Daniel Arzola's farm in the central Venezuelan region of Guárico started coming to work weak from hunger last year, he knew he had to make a change.
The 75-year-old farmer chose to cut back on producing food to sell in Venezuelan markets in order to feed people closer to home: his workers and his family.
"I have to make the decision between buying gallons of gas for my tractors or having enough food for my guys,” said Arzola, wearing a large-brimmed straw hat in the midday heat.
"They started to come to work so hungry they were almost fainting," he said.
In a country where hunger has become so commonplace that Venezuelans have lost an average of 11 kilos, or about 24 pounds, the idea of farmers reducing their production sounds counter-intuitive and even inhumane.
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But with Venezuela in a steep economic crisis — and no end in sight — farmers and farmworkers have found themselves making that difficult calculation as the cost of running a farm has jumped. Back in November, Arzola had to pay 80,000 bolivares — at that time, about 75 cents — for a liter of oil. Last month, the price shot to a staggering 1.6 million bolivares, or about $7. That means Arzola cannot afford to expand his business. If he does, he would not be able to feed his own workers.
If the workers are too weak to keep up the pace, Arzola's farm would yield much less. In addition, the hungry workers, in order to survive, would look for work at a different farm that would feed them.
Other farmers in Guárico have had to adopt his approach. “Most of us now pay labor with food, not money,” explained dairy farmer Julio Hernandez, 50. Every week, Hernandez gives two liters of milk to each of his 10 employees. In Venezuela, where many children are now suffering from severe malnutrition, milk can be a priceless gift.
The quality of life for the farmworkers has also been decimated by Venezuela's hyperinflation, which stands at around 2,600 percent, opposition lawmakers claim. The International Monetary Fund predicts that inflation will soar to 13,000 percent by the end of the year.
According to a recent study conducted by the Central University of Venezuela and two other universities, up to 90 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty now.
As a result, some urban Venezuelans are being drawn to rural areas in last-ditch efforts for basic survival. Food is scarce in cities.
“People are moving to the countryside because you can more or less survive if you have a small plot of land and access to your own produce,” says Phil Gunson from the International Crisis Group, a global non-governmental organization based in Caracas.
"But it doesn't resolve the healthcare situation. People can't get blood pressure checked so they die from a heart attack or a stroke. There is no chemotherapy for cancer patients. People with chronic illnesses are simply not able to get their treatments,” Gunson warned.
In Guárico, where remote farms can be reached only in the dry season, lives are especially at risk due to the lack of medicine that has also become scant under President Nicolás Maduro's rule.
Hernandez, the dairy farmer, said his 21-year-old goddaughter ran out of insulin and had to be taken to a hospital. “My goddaughter died in an ambulance after its tire went flat,” Hernandez said. "She didn't make it as there was no mechanic available nor an extra ambulance."
Stories like that are common here, as are abductions. Leydi Dorante, also a farmer, had to pay a $300,000 ransom when her oldest child was kidnapped. The 39-year-old widow with three children is in charge of a large farm in a region called Chaguaramal.
Her farm still produces enough to sell in the national market. That's something of a rarity these days in Venezuela's rural regions. The landscape between Guárico and the capital, Caracas, includes dilapidated dairy and corn farms, neglected fields taken over by weeds and roads full of potholes.
“Everywhere you go these days in Venezuela you find a similar picture. Villages with half-constructed projects, looted houses and ruins that provide shelter for drifters who try to survive," says Ruben Soffer, a geographer and writer from Caracas who has written articles about Guárico and other rural areas.
Soffer has seen significant changes in Guárico during the country's deepening economic and social crisis. Besides declining farm production and almost no cash in the region, a feeling of personal insecurity has seeped deeply into the psyches of Guárico’s people., he said. Despite the region's characteristic hospitality, wary farmers keep guns close by lately, not trusting anyone.
"If you come close to a farm and they don’t know you, the owner might shoot at you,” warned Arzola.
But many are too desperate to be deterred by armed farmers. Dorante said she constantly deals with starving people who sneak into her fields to get maize for traditional corn pancakes known as arepas. Some even come to slaughter her animals for food or to take food to sell to a market.
“I lose around 5 percent of my profit" to theft, Dorante estimated. She said big farms like hers can absorb the losses.
“But for small producers, such level of thievery is very hurtful and can kill the business,” she said.
While she loves the farm life — the work, horseback riding and nature — she does not want her 4-year-old daughter to follow in her footsteps. With kidnappings, thieves, hard-to-get farm equipment, lack of medicine and worries about the potential for government expropriation of land, Dorante says she hopes her children will find new ways to make a living.