Four Ways Mexico’s Indigenous Farmers Are Practicing the Agriculture of the Future

How can we get the most out of our farmland without harming the planet? I traveled to rural Mexico to learn from indigenous farmers.
Local maize varieties. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.

Local maize varieties harvested from the farm of Josefino Martinez. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.

Affectionately called “Professor” by his neighbors, Josefino Martinez is a well-respected indigenous farmer and community organizer from the remote town of Chicahuaxtla, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He watched with patient attention as I showed him photographs of Soul Fire Farm, my family’s organic farm in the mountains of upstate New York.

Western agronomists would have us believe that Triqui farming practices are irrelevant today.

I tried to convince Martinez that our farms had a lot in common. “Like you, we have marginal mountain soils and steep slopes, and we’ve worked for years to build up the fertility,” I explained.

Martinez finished his simple breakfast of fresh corn tortillas with black beans. Then he rose, donned his baseball cap and undersized school backpack, and took me out to see the land he cultivates. I quickly came to understand that my idea of “marginal soils” and “steep slopes” were naive, if not laughable. It was the height of the dry season and Martinez’s land was hard, brittle, and gray. The farm was literally etched into the mountainside, with a slope so severe that plowing with tractors or animals was impossible. Yet his storage room was full of maize, beans, dried chili, squash seeds, and fresh fruit that he’d grown right here.

When I asked how this was possible, Martinez explained that he simply farmed in the manner of his ancestors, the indigenous Triqui people.

Josefino Martinez. Photo by Leah Penniman.

Josefino Martinez explains how the pine trees he planted just three years ago are stabilizing the soil on the mountainside. Photo by Leah Penniman.

Western agronomists would have us believe that Triqui farming practices are irrelevant today, but I thought they might be part of the solution to the nascent global food crisis. I spent the first half of 2015 in southern Mexico on a Fulbright fellowship to exchange ideas with indigenous farmers like Martinez on how get long-term high yields out of difficult farmland. I was fed up with our society’s obsession with corporate, industrial agriculture, which is flooding vulnerable communities with unhealthy food, destroying natural resources, and undermining the independent family farm.

What I learned gave me hope.

According to a detailed report by my favorite think tank, the World Resources Institute, the first thing to know about the impending food crisis is that the human population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. That’s a 37 percent increase from 2012, when it reached 7 billion. Even imagining massive redistribution of food resources, the world will need to produce 69 percent more calories by 2050 to feed all those people.

But agriculture already accounts for a nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of freshwater use globally. So if we simply increased the scale of what we’re doing now, the ecological effects would be catastrophic. The report goes on to describe a “menu of solutions” that farmers can follow in the future to grow more food without using additional land, water, and fuel.

I had a hunch that rural farmers in Mexico were already modeling some of these practices and not being credited. While it was difficult to leave behind the daily responsibilities of tending the land, I knew that only grassroots farmer-to-farmer exchange could solve the world’s food crisis. So, with my husband and children at my side, I left behind our farm in New York and traversed the windy mountain roads of Oaxaca to trade ideas on how to feed our communities with dignity and take care of the earth at the same time.

What I learned gave me hope. Here are three items from WRI’s list of solutions that the farmers I met are already doing—and one that isn’t on their list but probably should be.

1. Farm like a forest

Not accounting for land covered by water, desert, or ice, about half of the planet is dedicated to pasture and croplands, according to WRI’s study. And the continued expansion of agricultural land is driving biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, an increase in “cropping intensity” could avert the need to clear an additional 62 million hectares for crops by 2050. That’s an area about the size of France. In other words, farmers need to start growing different plants one after another on the same land, as well as growing them closer together at the same time, a practice known as intercropping.

Planting different crops together minimizes soil erosion.

Oswaldo Flores, a Zapotec indigenous man from the village of Yaviche, explained how his community uses intercropping and agroforestry to grow more food without expanding into new lands.

“The forest pulls clouds from the sky so that they drop rain on the fields below,” Flores said, while showing me his shade-grown coffee farm.

The farm is a cafetal, a shady, multistory system with tall, purple-podded guajinicuiles and fruit trees forming the upper layer, coffee trees at the intermediate layer, and smaller food plants and vines (chiles, chives, chayotes) near the ground. The trees protect the plants below from high winds and cold temperatures, and their fallen leaves provide a natural compost that inhibits weed growth, adds fertility, and retains soil humidity. Guajinicuiles also fix nitrogen, making it available in organic form in the soil. This system of shade-grown coffee is almost equal to the native forest in terms of biodiversity, and maintains habitat for migratory birds.

At the edge of Flores’ cafetal, the vegetation transitioned to another complex and even more ancient intercropping system. The milpa is a Mesoamerican technology that integrates maize, beans, squash and other complementary food crops. While estimates of its age differ, it is at least 3,000 years old. The intercropped milpa system is multilayered, with maize in the upper canopy, beans in the intermediate story, and squash at the bottom. Bean plants fix atmospheric nitrogen and help reduce damage caused by the corn earworm pest (Helicoverpa sea). Squash plants inhibit weed growth with their dense network of thick, broad leaves and retain soil humidity. Natural chemicals (cucurbitacins) washed from the leaf surface act as a mild herbicide and pesticide.

Milpa. Photo by Leah Penniman.

Corn, beans, and squash grow together in this milpa, tended by Oswaldo Flores. Photo by Leah Penniman.

Planting different crops together minimizes soil erosion because their roots form a dense network that holds soil in place. This system also tends to be very efficient, squeezing the maximum value out of every drop of water, ray of sunlight, and bit of nutrients in the soil. According to studies using the Land Equivalency Ratio—a way of measuring the productivity of agricultural land—intercropped fields often yield 40 to 50 percent more than monocropped ones.

H. Garrison Wilkes, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, calls milpa “one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”

2. Eat low on the food chain

Aside from the detrimental health effects of getting our protein from animal products, it's also highly inefficient. Poultry is the most efficient conventional source of meat, and still only converts 11 percent of its feed energy into human food. Beef cows convert only 1 percent and are major contributors of greenhouse gases. Shifting toward plant and insect-based protein sources is part of the sustainable food solution.

Amaranth is making a comeback in Brisa’s town.

“You have never tried chicatanas?” challenged Brisa Ochoa, as she served our family a salsa made of mashed ants in her hometown of Ayoquezco. During the first spring rains, the chicatana ant leaves its nest, only to be captured by eager residents who prize its sweet and tangy flavor. Mexico has 300 to 550 species of edible insects, more than any other country in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Among the most popular in Oaxaca are grasshoppers known as chapulines, served roasted and flavored with lime and chili, and maguey worms, served ground up and incorporated into a spicy salt. Insect protein takes some getting used to, but it’s healthier and more environmentally sustainable than livestock, boasting a feed conversion ratio of more than 50 percent.

While insect protein is important in rural Mexico, it mainly serves as flavoring for plant-based protein sources. Brisa served her salsa with beans on a fresh, warm corn tortilla resulting from an ancient process called nixtamalization. She used limestone and hot water to remove the hull from the maize, then ground up the kernels into the dough for tortillas.

Nixtamalization makes the protein in maize more bioavailable to the human body and increases its niacin content. When combined with beans, the nixtamalized corn offers a complete protein.

A farmer from Yagavila with sugarcare. Photo by Leah Penniman.

Gustavo, a farmer from Yagavila, Oaxaca, poses with his organic sugar cane. Photo by Leah Penniman.

Brisa’s family also grows amaranth, a native Mesoamerican grain that has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 6,000 years. Nearly eradicated by the conquering Spaniards who feared its role in traditional religion, amaranth is making a comeback in Brisa’s town, thanks to her family’s breeding and sharing its seeds. Up until this trip to Mexico, I had only experienced amaranth as a “weed” invading my neat beds of vegetables and didn’t realize that its seeds are 13 to 15 percent protein, among the highest for any grain. Amaranth is also high in fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, folate, and vitamins A and C. Like beans, amaranth can be combined with maize to form a complete protein.

Brisa’s family does eat chicken, beef, and pork, but usually only on special occasions. Plant and insect protein are the basis of their healthful, affordable, and sustainable diet.

3. Restore health to damaged land

Cropland can expand at low environmental cost if the encroached lands do not have much natural potential to store carbon or support biodiversity. The arid Mixteca region of Oaxaca meets these criteria and has been termed an “ecological disaster zone” by the World Bank. Soil erosion and depletion has damaged about one million acres of cropland, and corn productivity rates have plummeted to the lowest in Mexico.

León Santos says he has seen yields increase fourfold.

Jesús León Santos, sustainable agriculture coordinator at CEDICAM, an indigenous farming organization in the Mixteca, blames Green Revolution farming technology for the environmental destruction. The Green Revolution of the 1960s was an U.S.-led international effort to push adoption of farm mechanization, hybrid seeds, and chemical fertilizers in order to increase yields.

León Santos is working to revive and enhance indigenous farming wisdom in order to restore the health of the soil and the productivity of the land.

Restored land in the Mixteca. Photo by Leah Penniman.

This degraded land in the Mixteca was restored to lush vegetable gardens under the direction of Jesús León Santos. Photo by Leah Penniman.

The first step for León Santos and his farming community was to build trenches, stone walls, and terraces to stop the erosion of the remaining soils and to slow water runoff so aquifers can recharge. He stabilized these barriers with tenacious local vegetation, such as the sweet-smelling vetiver grass, which withstands drought, flooding, and mudslides.

Once stabilized, the barren hillsides were reforested with native tree species, like nitrogen-fixing alders (Alnus acumilata) and pines (Pinus oaxacana). The CEDICAM community saves its own native crop seed, using an in-the-field selection process that has persisted regionally since the pre-Columbian era. They preserve and exchange the best seeds of maize, beans, squash, chile, tomatillo, chayote, squash, sunflower, and prickly pear, as well as local specialties like cempoalxochitl, quintoniles, and huauzontle.

The farmers further improve the soil by planting and tilling in “cover crops,” which add nutrients and organic matter. Some native varieties are especially good for this, like the “frijol nescafe,” ( Mucuna deeringiana) a nitrogen-fixing bean that thrives in dry soil. Finally, farmers add compost and plant debris so that the land is finally ready to receive these carefully maintained crop seeds.

The use of erosion control barriers, intercropping, and seed saving are part of the knowledge León Santos inherited from his Zapotec ancestors. And it’s working. León Santos says he has seen yields increase fourfold after incorporating these ancient and modern sustainable growing techniques. The newly established vegetation sequesters atmospheric carbon and attracts biodiversity.

The art of transforming lands of low ecological productivity into thriving foodscapes is not unique to the Mixteca. León Santos reminded me that the Aztec Empire sustained itself on chinampas, intricate gardens built of vegetation and river muck, essentially artificial islands constructed in shallow lakes. Chinampas are widely considered the most productive form of agriculture ever invented, and are so fertile that they can yield four to seven harvests per year. Indigenous Mexicans have long-standing successes in positive ecological transformation.

4. Cultivate reverence for the planet

One essential element missing from the World Resource Institute’s otherwise thorough and brilliant “menu of solutions” for the global food crisis was the ethical perspective that co-evolved with best practices in environmental management. This ethic, known as convivencia, or “living together” with both our human and natural communities, is best summarized by Kiado Cruz, a Zapotec farmer from the Oaxacan town of Yagavila:

The ground beneath our feet is our Mother Nature, who has carried us and sustains us. As we work her, we do not profane her, rather we carry out our task as farmers in the context of the sacred. It is corn through which Mother Nature nourishes us. It is flesh of our flesh, because we are people of corn. So we have to collect it in a manner that shows the respect we owe both our soil and our brother corn.

It is with a similar sense of belonging and reverence that I placed corn seeds into our home soil upon return, establishing Soul Fire Farm’s first milpa, an ancient and intricate tangle of complementary sister crops bringing us one small step closer to a sustainable food future.

A boy and grandmother. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.

A boy snuggles into his grandmother, who wears the traditional woven huipil of the Triqui indigenous people. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.