Agriculture in Mexico

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Agave plants and a ruined hacienda house in Jalisco

Agriculture in Mexico has been an important sector of the country’s economy historically and politically even though it now accounts for a very small percentage of Mexico’s GDP. Mexico is one of the cradles of agriculture with the Mesoamericans developing domesticated plants such as maize, beans, tomatoes, squash, cotton, vanilla, avocados, cacao, various kinds of spices, and more. Domestic turkeys and Muscovy ducks were the only domesticated fowl in the pre-Hispanic period and small dogs were raised for food. There were no large domesticated animals.

During the early colonial period, the Spanish introduced more plants and the concept of animal husbandry, principally cattle, horses, donkeys, mules, goats and sheep, and barn yard animals such as chickens and pigs. Farming from the colonial period until the Mexican Revolution was focused on large private properties. After the Revolution these were broken up and the land redistributed. Since the latter 20th century NAFTA and economic policies have again favored large scale commercial agricultural holdings.

Mexico’s main crops include grains such as corn and wheat, tropical fruits and various vegetables. Agricultural exports are important, especially coffee, tropical fruits and winter fruits and vegetables. Sixty percent of Mexico’s agricultural exports go to the United States.

History of agriculture in Mexico[edit]

Mesoamerican period[edit]

Aztec maize agriculture as depicted in the Florentine Codex
Chinampas and canals, 1912.

The territory of Mexico roughly corresponds with that of Mesoamerica, which was one of the cradles of plant domestication.[1][2] Archeological research in the Gulf coast of Tabasco shows the earliest evidence of corn cultivation in Mexico. The first fields were along the Grijalva River delta with fossilized pollen evidence showing forest clearing around 5100 BCE. The domestication of corn is followed by that of sunflower seeds and cotton.[2]

Agriculture was the basis of the major Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmecs, Mayas and Aztecs, with the principal crops being corn, beans, squash, chili peppers and tomatoes.[1] The tradition of planting corn, beans and squash together allows the beans to replace the nitrogen that corn depletes from the soil.[3] The three crops together are sometimes referred to as the Three Sisters.

Soil erosion from corn production has been a problem since the Mesoamerican period. This and other kinds of environmental degradation have been cited as the cause of the collapse of the Teotihuacan civilization. To create new areas for cultivation, Mesoamericans harvested rainfall, developed lakeshore irrigation systems and created new fields in the form of terraces and "chinampas" artificial floating islands in shallow waters.[3]

Colonial period[edit]

Silver mining brought many Spanish to Mexico and silver was the largest single export from New Spain, but agriculture remained extremely important. There were far more people working in agriculture, not only producing subsistence crops for individual households, but also commercial agriculture to supply Spanish cities. In the early conquest period, Spaniards relied on crops produced by indigenous in central Mexico and rendered as tribute, following existing arrangements. Some Spaniards were awarded grants by the crown of indigenous tribute and labor in the institution of encomienda.

Indian Collecting Cochineal from a nopal cactus with a Deer Tail by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777)

The expansion of the Spanish population in and the drop in indigenous population in the sixteenth century saw the rise of Spaniards acquiring ownership of land and using non-coercive indigenous labor on landed estates haciendas and smaller farms called ranchos. Much productive land was held in entail by indigenous villages, but the long term trend over the colonial era and the nineteenth century was the transfer of those lands into non-indigenous hands. The Spanish introduced a number of new crops such as wheat, barley, sugar, fruits (such as pear, apple, fig, apricot, and bananas) and vegetables, but their main contributions were domesticated animals, unknown in Mesoamerica. The Spanish brought their breeds of cattle, horses, goats and sheep, many of which are still raised today called "criollos."[3][4]

A number of European crops were forbidden or severely restricted in New Spain, including olives, wine grapes and mulberry bushes for silkworms to protect farmers back in the mother country. A number of native plant and animal species from Mexico proved to have commercial value in Europe, leading to their mass cultivation and export including cochineal and indigo (for dyes), cacao, vanilla, henequen (for rope), cotton, and tobacco. A high quality, fast red dye from small cochineal insects that were cultivated and collected from the nopal cactuses on which they thrived was an extremely important export to Europe, the second most valuable after silver. Cochineal production was labor intense and largely remained in indigenous hands. Mesoamerican staple foods, especially maize, continued to be important.[3][4]

19th century[edit]

Hacienda de San Antonio Coapa by José María Velasco Gómez (1840—1912).

The colonial system continued after the Mexican War of Independence, with rural farm workers almost landless, as peons on haciendas.[5] Under the modernization efforts of the Porfirio Díaz regime, these large haciendas were encouraged to develop commercial farming for export, especially the production of henequen and rubber. This included the building of railroads to take products to market and the attraction of foreign investment. While these policies succeeded in growing the economy, they mainly benefited the elite, making life for the common rural worker worse.[1]

20th century[edit]

The result was the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920. The result afterwards was the breakup of most large private landholdings to be redistributed, especially under a system of common tenancy called ejidos. The lands could be worked individually or collectively by members of the ejido but the land could not be leased or sold. The process of dividing lands and developing ejido organizations continued into the 1930s under President Lázaro Cárdenas .[1][6] By the end of the 1930s, haciendas almost entirely disappeared from central and southern Mexico with numerous small holdings of ten to twenty acres as well as ejidos becoming dominant.[5]

Land reform in Mexico was a major achievement of the Mexican Revolution, with the distribution of land to peasants concentrated in Mexico's center and south. The breakup of the haciendas solved a political problem in Mexico, since it was one of the demands of the peasants who fought and was enshrined. By the 1930s and 40s, agricultural production was dropping and the government sought technical solutions. In the 1940s during the presidency of Manuel Avila Camacho, the Mexican government partnered with the U.S. government, and the Rockefeller Foundation to launch the so-called Green Revolution (1950–70).[7] Research facilities developed new strains of wheat, maize, beans, and other crops, to engineer a variety of desirable traits, such as disease resistance, high protein content. Seeds and inputs of fertilizer and pesticides for irrigated agriculture were suited to Mexico's northwest, but required more capital than most ordinary cultivators could afford. Mexico's agricultural output between 1950 and 1970 was "truly spectacular," but it was not long lasting, subsequently called "the birth place and burial ground of the Green Revolution"[8] Sorghum, a new crop was introduced to Mexico during the era of the Green Revolution, which was used for animal fodder. Mexico expanded cattle production in this era, fed on sorghum.[9]

Sorghum field in Guanajuato. Sorghum is mainly used for cattle feed in Mexico.

The ejido system remained intact until the 1990s. However, during World War II, industry became the more important sector of the economy. Mexico’s rural population began to fall in the mid century, from 49.3% in 1960 to 25.4% in 2000. Federal policies outside ejidos still favored large agricultural producers over rural peasant production, including the offering of credit and protectionist policies.[1] One of these was the construction of major irrigation systems, especially in the north. The first major irrigation project was the Laguna Project near Torreón, followed by the Las Delicias Project near Chihuahua, both with the aim of producing cotton along with wheat.[5] These projects increased the amount of land available for agriculture from 3.7 million acres in 1950 to 8.64 million acres in 1965.[10] In addition, the Mexican government encouraged only crops such as corn and beans, restricting imports of these two staples until 1990.[10]

By the 1970s, agricultural production was unable to keep up with population growth leading to imports of basic staples.[1] The Mexican government initiated programs in the 1970s and 80s to encourage family planning and the utilization of birth control, in order to reduce surging population growth.[11][12] The peasant population had increased 59% in the period 1940-1960, with the number of work days in the fields going from 190 days in 1950 to 100 days in 1960.[13] Overpopulation was a factor in internal migration as well as migration for work to the U.S.

The rise of neoliberalism and the negotiation of NAFTA in the early 1990s pushed agriculture towards even more commercialized enterprises. The Mexican constitution was modified in 1992 to allow for leasing and selling of ejido land if the majority of members voted in favor. The goal of this was to allow ejidos to combine to form larger and more efficient farms, with money invested from private sources, but has resulted in most ejido land becoming privately held.[10]

These changes have had uneven effects on Mexican agriculture.[1] Until the late 1990s, Mexico was a net exporter of agricultural products, but today it is a net importer, mostly from the United States.[10] With the need to compete with imported grains and less direct support from the government, the agricultural sector entered a crisis. Mexican agricultural income has polarized with large commercial farms dominating the sector and at the other end small subsistence farming which still is the main source of income for many, especially in the south of the country. The former are able to take advantage of reduced trade barriers and exports, especially to the United States have increased.[1][5] Former subsidies provided by the government was replaced by a program called Procampo, which gave direct cash payments to farmers growing corn, beans, wheat and other grains, allowing farmers to decide what to plant.[6][10]

Despite greater output, agriculture continues to decrease in percentage of Mexico’s GDP since 1990.[10] The proportion of GDP of agriculture, forestry and fishing fell from eight percent of the nation’s GDP in 1990 5.4% of Mexico’s GDP in 2006, with a growth rate of only 1.6% during that time, far behind other sectors of the economy.[1][14] In 2010, the structure of the GDP and labor force showed agriculture, forestry, and fishing combined was valued at 3.8% of total value, employing 5,903,300 or 12.5% of the labor force.[15]

Modern agriculture in Mexico[edit]

Agricultural trade[edit]

Cucumber field next to mountain in Tlayacapan, Morelos

Commercial agricultural products mostly come from three areas of the country, the tropics of the Gulf of Mexico and Chiapas Highlands, the irrigated lands of the north and northwest and the Bajío region in central Mexico.[5] At the beginning of the 21st century Mexico’s main agricultural products include beef, fruits, vegetables, corn, milk, poultry, pork and eggs, which make up about 80% of agricultural production.[1]

The most profitable tropical crops are coffee and sugarcane. Coffee is exported but sugarcane is mostly for domestic consumption. Other important tropical crops are fruits such as bananas, pineapples and mangos as well as cacao and rice. Vanilla is still also grown, which is native to Mexico. Cotton is an important crop in the export agricultural areas of the Soconusco in Chiapas and in the north of Mexico.[5]

As of the early 21st century, the rural workforce is still significant but it is shrinking.[14] Traditional farming methods with small plots worked by families and small communities still dominate in many regions especially those with large indigenous populations such as the Southern Plateau. In these areas the main crops are corn, beans and squash as in the Mesoamerican period. Many peasants still survive on subsistence agriculture earning cash by selling excess crops in local markets, especially in central and southern Mexico.[5]

Export of agricultural products to the United States is particularly important, especially since the implementation of NAFTA. While only about twelve percent of U.S. agricultural exports go to Mexico, about sixty percent of Mexico agricultural exports go to the United States.[6] Mexico’s growing population has made the country a net importer of grains.[14] Under NAFTA, the US has an advantage in the production of corn but Mexico has the advantage in the production of vegetables, fruits and beverages. The two fastest growing exports to the US are winter fruits and vegetables as well as fruit juices and fresh flowers. Two important products for export to the United States are avocados and tomatoes. The US prohibited import of Mexican avocados for over eighty years for hygienic reasons. In 1997, began to allow import of avocados from Michoacán. Most of the imported tomatoes eaten in the United States now come from Mexico.[6]

Significant Mexican agribusiness enterprises include Grupo Maseca, headquartered in Monterrey. It has modernized corn flour production in Mexico and is the largest corn flour producer in the United States. Pulsar International in Monterrery has a number of high-tec agribusiness concerns including Savia, which has operations in 123 countries. A number of U.S. agribusiness enterprises have significant investments in Mexico, including Campbell Soup, General Mills, Ralston Purina and Pilgrim’s Pride. The last is the second largest poultry producer in Mexico.[6]

Geography and land tenure[edit]

Fields in Cazones de Herrera, Veracruz

Mexico has a territory of 198 million hectares of which fifteen percent is dedicated to agricultural crops and fifty eight percent which is used for livestock production. Much of the country is too arid and/or too mountainous for crops or grazing. Forests cover 67 million hectares or thirty four percent of the country.[14] The terrain of Mexico consists of two large plateaus (Northern and Southern), the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental mountain chains and narrow coastal plains. These make for a wide variety of ecosystems, most of them dry due to the fact that most moisture comes from the Gulf of Mexico with the north-south mountain chains blocking much of this flow, especially in the north where it is almost entirely arid or semi arid. The wettest areas of the country are those along the Gulf of Mexico coast.[1]

The climate and topography limits agricultural production to 20.6 million hectares or 10.5% of the nation’s territory. Twenty five percent of this land must be irrigated. About half of the territory or 98 million hectares is used for grazing including natural grassland, various scrublands, tropical forests and conifer-oak forests. About 75% of grazing land is in northern Mexico.[1]

Sixty five percent of soils in Mexico are shallow and with low yield for crops. There are eleven main soil types in Mexico, mostly determined by climate patterns. These are the Northwest, the Gulf of California, the Central Pacific, the North, the Centre, the Northeast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Balsas-Oaxaca Valley, the South Pacific, the Southeast and the Yucatán. Those with high potential cover about twenty six percent of the country and are already heavily exploited. The greatest variety of soils is in the Centre and the Gulf of Mexico, areas with the highest population densities.[1] It is estimated that no more than one-fifth of the territory can be made to be arable.[14]

About one fifth of Mexico’s fields are irrigated, which is crucial for commercial production in arid north and northwest Mexico with cotton as the most important irrigated crop.[5] Underground aquifers have been under depletion at rates higher than one meter per year in most regions, with the raising of alfalfa one reason.[1]

Ownership of agricultural land in Mexico is either private or in some form of collective tenure, most often in an ejido arrangement. Ejidos were created in the first half of the 20th century to give Mexican peasants rights over redistributed lands, but this did not include leasing or selling. In 1992, the Mexican constitution was amended to modify this arrangement. However, most commonly held lands such as ejidos are characterized by small plots worked by families which are not efficient nor qualify for financial products such as loans.[1]


Packaging bananas at the Rancho La Duena in Paso de Telaya, San Rafael, Veracruz.
Wine grapes maturing in Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California

The growing of crops is the most important aspect of Mexico’s agriculture, accounting for fifty percent of agricultural output.[10] Main crops include corn, sugarcane, sorghum, wheat, tomatoes, bananas, chili peppers, oranges, lemons, limes, mangos, other tropical fruits, beans, barley, avocados, blue agave and coffee.[14] The most important crops for national consumption are wheat, beans, corn and sorghum. The most important export crops are sugar, coffee, fruits and vegetables, most of which are exported to the United States.[10] The most important animal feed crop is alfalfa followed by sorghum and corn.[1]

Corn is still the most important crop in Mexico, grown on almost sixty percent of its cropland and contributing to just over nine percent of human calorie intake and fourteen percent of protein intake.[3] Central Mexico grows about sixty percent of the country’s corn, almost exclusively in the rainy season from June to October. While self-sufficient in the production for human consumption, half of Mexico’s grain imports are for feed corn for animals.[3]

Many of these crops are important regionally. Wheat is the most important crop in the northwest, now the center of Mexico’s grain production. Other important crops in the northwest are winter vegetables such as tomatoes and lettuce as well as oilseeds. The traditional area for grain production in Mexico was the Bajío region. The region still produces wheat, corn, vegetables, peanuts, strawberries and beans, mostly on small holdings.[5] Wine grapes are grown in areas such as Baja California, Coahuila and Querétaro. Mexico produces two crops not generally produced elsewhere, henequen used to produce a strong fiber and maguey, both in the agave family. Maguey is used for the making of pulque as well as mezcal. Tequila is a type of mezcal made from the blue agave in a designated zone mostly in Jalisco.[3][5]


Cattle in General Terán, Nuevo León.

Livestock accounts for thirty percent of Mexico’s agricultural output, producing milk, poultry, eggs and beef. Mexico is not self-sufficient in the production of meat and fish, importing its remaining needs mainly from the United States.[10] The north of Mexico has been the most important overall ranching area since the Mexican War of Independence. Large haciendas often exceeding 385 square miles in size were created in the 1800s and many large holdings survived the reforms associated with the Mexican Revolution. In the north open-range methods are giving way to rotational grazing systems, with some natural pastures enhanced by means of irrigation, top-seeding and fertilization.[5]

The ruminant section has traditionally been dominated by cattle, which provide 95% of the value of ruminant products. Thirty percent are raised in the north, 26% raised in central Mexico and 44% raised in the south. European breeds for meat such as Hereford, Angus and Charolais are dominant in the north, a local breed called criollo (descendants of those brought over by the Spanish) in central Mexico and Zebu breeds dominant in the south. Dairy cattle are varieties of Holstein and criollos, 42% raised in the north, 48% in central Mexico and 10% in the south. Since the 1990s, the raising of cattle, especially for dairy, has grown, mostly in the center and north of Mexico, displacing other kinds of agricultural production.[1]

Lamb and mother in Zacatlán, Puebla.

After cows are goats, with 20% raised in the north, 58% in Central Mexico and 22% in the south. Most of these goats are criollos, descendants of those the Spanish brought with Nubian, Alpino and Saanen breeds being introduced. Seventy five percent of dairy goats are raised in Coahuila, Durango and Guanajuato. About two thirds of meat production is on eight states in various parts of Mexico. Following goats are sheep with 16% raised in the north, 60% in central Mexico and 24% in the south. Criollo and Rambouillet are dominant in the north, with Suffolk and Hampshire dominating since their introduction in the 1970s in central Mexico. In southern Mexico breeds for tropical areas such as Pelibuey, Black-belly and Katahdin increasingly dominate.[1]

As natural pasture is not enough to support modern commercial livestock production, animal feed is produced as a crop or as a measure to enhance natural pastures. The former has increased since the 1990s and latter has increased more recently with government encouragement, especially in central and northern Mexico. In many areas, land used for the production of animal fodder, such as sorghum, is replacing that used for the growing of corn for human consumption.[1]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bishko, Charles J. "Cattle Raising and the Peninsular Tradition," Hispanic American Historical Review 32:4(1952), 491-515.
  • Borah, Woodrow. Silk Raising in Colonial Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press 1943.
  • Brading, D.A. Haciendas and Ranchos in the Mexican Bajío: Léon, 1700-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1978.
  • Cotter, Joseph. Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002. Contributions in Latin American Studies, Number 22, Westport CT: Praeger 2003.
  • Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange. Westport CT: Greenwood Press 1972.
  • Denevan, William M. "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82 (1992), 369-85.
  • Martin, Cheryl. Rural Society in Colonial Morelos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 1985.
  • Melville, Elinor G.K. A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997.
  • Sanderson, Steven E. The Transformation of Mexican Agriculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1986.
  • Taylor, William B. Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1979.
  • Van Young, Eric. Hacienda and Market in Eighteenth-Century Mexico: The Rural Economy of the Guadalajara Region, 1675-1820. Berkeley: University of California Press 1981.
  • Wells, Allen. Yucatan's Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen, and International Harvester, 1860-1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 1985.
  • Wessman, James W. "The Agrarian Question in Mexico: A Review Essay." Latin American Research Review 19 (1984).
  • Wessman, James W. "Agribusiness and Agroindustry," Encyclopedia of Mexico, vol. 1, pp. 26–32. Chicago: Fitzroy and Dearborn 1997.
  • Wolfe, Mikael D. Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press 2017.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Améndola, Ricardo; Castillo, Epigmenio. "Mexico". Pedro A. Martínez. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  2. ^ a b Pope, Kevin O; Pohl, Mary E D (May 18, 2001). John G Jones, David Lentz, et al. "Origin and environmental setting of ancient agriculture in the lowlands of Mesoamerica". Science. 292 (5520): 1370–1373. doi:10.1126/science.292.5520.1370. PMID 11359011.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Fernandez-Reynoso, Demetrio Salvador (2008). Evaluation of sustainable agriculture systems in central Mexico (PhD). The University of Arizona. Docket 3297973.
  4. ^ a b Hoyt Palfrey, Dale (November 1, 1998). "The economy of New Spain: Mexico's Colonial era". Mexconnect newsletter. ISSN 1028-9089. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Mexico". Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d e "US-Mexico Agriculture: A trade success story". United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on October 30, 2012. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  7. ^ Cotter, Joseph. Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002. Contributions in Latin American Studies, Number 22, Westport CT: Praeger 2003.
  8. ^ Esteva, Gustavo. The Struggle for Rural Mexico. South Hadley MA: Bergin and Garvey Publishers 1983, p. 56
  9. ^ Barkin, David. "Food Production, Consumption, and Policy," Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, p.494.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Mexico - Agriculture". Encyclopedia of the Nations. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
  11. ^ Gabriela Soto Laveaga, "'Let's become fewer':Soap Operas, Contraception, and Nationalizing the Mexican Family in an Overpopulated World." Sexuality Research and Social Policy, September 2007, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 19-33.
  12. ^ F. Turner, Responsible parenthood: The Politics of Mexico's new population policies. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research 1974.
  13. ^ A. Bartra. Notas sobre la cuestión campesina, Mexico, 1970-76. Mexico: Editorial Macehual S.A., 1979.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Johnson, Todd (2009). Low-Carbon Development for Mexico. Herndon, VA, USA: World Bank Publications. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-8213-8122-9.
  15. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica 2015 Book of the Year, "Nations of the World: Mexico" p. 669.

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