Some Observations on Agriculture in the Northern Yucatan

1.  My observations of the countryside, which are, granted, confined almost entirely to what I could see from the car window (and a good swathe from the plane window on the way in), did not reveal much agriculture to begin with, which only confirmed what some had told us:  the land is extremely rocky and the climate dry and fickle.  In a word, agriculture is extremely risk-prone.  Our resident historical expert Heath says that one out of five years of non-irrigated agriculture on the peninsula is likely to result in complete crop failure, most likely from drought.  So most of what you see is scrubby forest and more scrubby forest.

2.  The few examples of what look like milpa plots confirms something stated by the website referenced in my first

An old milpa, now in a fallow state (the yellowed stalks sticking out of the green undergrowth are old corn stalks)

post:  these plots are left fallow for several years (eight, to be precise) after being cultivated for two.  The plots we did come across that were recognizable as milpas had corn stalks that were at least a year old, whithered and a dull yellowish tan, nearly lost in the tangle of other herbaceous plants that had grown up since.

They look pretty lowly and pathetic in this light, but of course this is actually evidence of their sustainability:  the only way to replenish the soil nutrients originally removed by the corn in the first place short is a fallow period, other than turning to commercial fertilizers or large amounts of animal manure, which does not seem to be locally available.

The two striking current (i.e., green) corn plots we did come across confirmed the other key fact, which is the centrality of water to growing anything in this area.  One came out of nowhere as we were driving the back roads from Uxmal to Tulum – a little

A currently cultivated milpa plot

plot carved out of the iron-red soil, seemingly haphazard in the way that garden plots often seem.  Some corn plants, some other vegetables or tree species set apart by a small ring of stones…. and feeding the whole plot, an old-fashioned windmill (think Amish), at the base of which was a concrete trough funneling the water pumped up by the mill down into the plot.  A fascinating glimpse of local, sustainable, and very small-scale farming.

An old-fashioned windmill pumping up water from the ground

The other was far more extensive – rows and rows of corn, a vibrant green in the middle of a parched landscape.  Even more interesting, some of these plants were already at near maturity stage – how was this possible given that it’s only May?  And even more interesting than that, the plot seemed to be divided into sections of rows, some of which were distinctly shorter than others.  A look behind us solved the mystery, and underscored the centrality of water – this was a field research site set up by the state government of Yucatan, and what are they doing research on?  Why irrigation of course!

Experimental plots of irrigated corn

A sign announcing the state-run irrigation project

3.  But does this mean that farming is alive and well in the peninsula?  Undoubtedly there are areas where it is, but my impression coming away is that those areas are few and far between.  It’s certainly telling that out of the hundreds of miles we covered in five days, far and away the best looking agricultural site (and indeed, one of the only agricultural sites) was not run by campesinos but by the government.  Given the climate, the soil conditions, and of course the opportunities available in the tourist sector, I don’t think the Yucatan will ever be a hotspot for farming, sustainable or otherwise.

YOU try growing crops in these conditions!

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