La Milpa: A Sustainable Model
Juan Estévan Arellano
When looking for a model of sustainability, I prefer too look at what is around us that has worked. Then I try to understand it and see if it can be improved. It’s kind of like fixing an old automobile instead of simply doing what may appear to be the easy alternative – buying a new one.
Every New Mexican I am sure has heard the word “milpa” if they have ever visited a Native American or Indo-Hispano farm in northern New Mexico. Growing up in the Embudo Valley, when I heard the word “milpa,” it immediately conjured up a corn field that produced fresh sweet corn, corn for chicos, posole and atole – while the word “huerta” brought to mind the big chile field my mother tended to every summer.
Yet in Mesoamerica the word “milpa” usually referred not only to a corn plot but rather a sustainable model where corn, beans, squash and chile grew together and took care of each other as a family. One can still see remnants of this model throughout northern New Mexico, where it was an active model until a few years back. I personally still practice this model at my place in Embudo.
The word “milpa”is a Mexican Spanish term meaning “field,” from the Nahuatl (mil-li “field” + -pa “towards”) for a cultivated parcel, and it is usually a field that also includes melons and tomatoes besides the conventional three sisters and their first cousin chile.
According to H. Garrison Wilkes from the University of Massachusetts, the milpa “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.” In an interview I did recently with Dr. Tomás Martinez Saldaña, professor of agriculture at Colegio Posgraduado in Texcoco, México, he said it is a concept that is a sociocultural construct rather than an agricultural system. He called it “a medida” in Spanish.
Today, one of the best examples of milpa agriculture can be seen in the chinampas of Xochimilco and throughout Chiapas and Oaxaca. The use of traditional milpa systems, which are nutritionally and environmentally complimentary, conserves local knowledge, and enables farmers to control their genetic resources, besides providing for local food production.
Corn lacks both lysine and tryptophan, something that beans have. Thus when people cook beans with chicos (dehydrated Concho corn cooked in an horno), one has a complete protein. A person needs less total food if the two are eaten together than if prepared and eaten separately.
Squash not only provides an array of vitamins; it is also a natural mulch and the plants conserve moisture around the corn and beans. Corn requires high levels of nitrogen in the soil to grow properly and quickly depletes the soil if planted alone. Bean plants (genus Phaseolus), on the other hand, are high in nitrogen, so when planted together it extends the life of the corn plot by helping to keep nitrogen levels healthy. The corn then repays the debt to the beans by providing stalks for the bean plants to cling to as they grow. The chile plants tend to repel insects that might attack the sisters.
Dr. Ronald B. Nigh, in his Ph.D. dissertation, wrote, “the making of milpa is the central, most sacred act; one which binds together the family, the community, the universe…[it] forms the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica, and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.”
Another important aspect is that the traditional landraces are sustained by the milpa (huerta) systems of northern New Mexico, conserving crop genetic resources such as traditional chiles of the Española Valley like the Chimayó, Velarde, Cañoncito and others, as well as the Concho corn found in Trampas, Taos and Embudo, among other villages. As a result they make minimal use of toxic agrochemicals, if any are used at all.
Besides the crops that are planted by the farmer, the milpa also produces a lot of food in the form of quelites (both the wild amaranth – quelite juz, or quelite del burro – and quelite pardo – wild quinoa – which adds to the genetic diversity of such a system. The fallow areas of the milpa provide habitat for birds and small mammals that helps conserve the natural biodiversity by creating diverse landscapes.
The milpa (huerta) systems of my childhood were usually rectangular or square pieces of land of a quarter to half an acre, where corn, beans and squash (calabaza mexicana) were planted along the edges of the plot with chile interplanted with melons and watermelons. Among the chile, plenty of quelites and verdolagas (purslane) grew, which people used not only for human food but also to feed the hogs to get them ready for the winter matanza.
Today, my milpa, which is a lot smaller than the ones planted by my parents, is composed of a row or two of corn interplanted with beans and calabaza mexicana, then four to five rows of chile, two more rows of corn, tomatoes, then another five rows of chile and more corn. This is similar to the milpas I saw in Xochimilco. Now that I think back to the milpas I grew up seeing, I realize that they are based on the same model.
Since in a milpa everything is grown together, space is saved, as is water. When corn is planted separately from the beans, squash, chile and melons, more land is needed and also more water, so in the long run this model also saves time and thus labor.
Hopefully more people will look at their backyard and take a critical look at the surviving milpas. Instead of seeing them as a relic of the past like an old ‘57 Chevy, see them as viable sustainable systems that can still be replicated today.
Farmer, researcher and community leader, Juan Estevan Arellano has devoted most of his life to documenting the traditional knowledge of the Indo-Hispano in northern New Mexico, especially as it relates to land and water. He has served as mayordomo of the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga in the village of Embudo, and he is the translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture.