Nicaragua's economy is predominantly agricultural. Arable land amounted to 2,457,000 ha (6,071,000 acres), or about 20.2% of the total land area. Some 88,000 hectares (217,400 acres) were under irrigation in 1998. The harvest season begins in November and lasts through January; during the rest of the year, most rural laborers are unemployed. Plantings begin in May immediately before the wet season.
The main agricultural exports are coffee, cotton, sugar, and bananas. Nontraditional exports are growing and include: honeydew melons, cantaloupe, sesame seed, onions, baby corn, asparagus, artichokes, and cut flowers. Sorghum, cacao, yucca, tobacco, plantains, and various other fruits and vegetables are produced on a smaller scale for the local markets. Bananas were once nearly totally decimated by Panama disease. By the late 1960s, however, production had begun a slow recovery, reaching 135,000 tons in 1992 (up from 29,000 tons in 1970). Banana production in 1999, however, was just 69,000 tons. Cottonseed production has expanded from virtually zero prior to 1950 to 105,700 tons in 1985, before returning to nearly zero by 1999. During the 1980s, coffee was severely threatened by contra activities; production of 65,000 tons in 1999 was an improvement over the 28,000 tons produced in 1990. In 1999, 376,000 tons of processed sugar from 3,749,000 tons of cane were produced, largely for export. Major food crops in that year were corn, 302,000 tons; rice, 137,000 tons; sorghum, 83,000 tons; and dry beans, 94,000 tons.
During the Somoza era, most of the titled land was held by large landowners (with farms of 140 hectares/346 acres or more), who owned some 60% of the land while representing only 5% of the farming population. About 36% of the farm population controlled individual holdings of less than 3.5 hectares (8.6 acres). The Sandinista government expropriated almost one million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land, of which over twothirds became state farms and 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) were turned into peasant cooperatives. Agriculture was severely disrupted in 1979 and 1980 because of the revolution, but by 1981 it had recuperated. In May 1982, severe floods caused damages estimated at $180 million; the withdrawal of the Standard Fruit Co. in the following October caused losses of $400,000 per week in foreign exchange earnings. Bad weather continued to plague the sector through 1984. An estimated 450,000 hectares (1,111,500 acres) of land were redistributed in 1985. From 1983 to 1987, the contras sought to destabilize Nicaraguan agriculture by damaging agricultural machinery, destroying crop storage sheds, and intimidating farm workers. After eight years of steady decline, the agricultural sector grew by a modest 1–2% in 1992. During 1990–2000 the agricultural output grew by a yearly average of 5.7%. In 2001, the agricultural trade surplus was $85.2 million.