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Agriculture in Mexico

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Agriculture in Mexico

Agave plants and an abandoned hacienda house in Jalisco

Agriculture in Mexico has been an important sector of the country’s economy historically and politically even though now it accounts for a very small percentage of Mexico’s GDP. Mexico is one of the cradles of human agriculture with the Mesoamericans developing domesticated plants such as corn, beans, chili peppers, squash, various kinds of spices and more.

During the colonial period, the Spanish introduced more plants and the concept of domesticated animals, principally cattle, goats and sheep. 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 1
    • Mesoamerican period 1.1
    • Colonial period 1.2
    • 19th century to present 1.3
  • Modern Mexican agriculture 2
    • Agricultural trade 2.1
    • Geography and land tenure 2.2
    • Crops 2.3
    • Livestock 2.4
  • References 3

History of agriculture in Mexico

Mesoamerican period

1912 photo of chinampas and canals

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 principle 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]

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

While mining brought many Spanish to Mexico, over the colonial period it was a secondary enterprise compared to agriculture. It was initially established to feed a growing colonial population raised on encomiendas and later hacienda arrangements that made the indigenous slaves or near-slaves. The Spanish introduced a number of new crops such as wheat, barley, fruits and vegetables, but their main contributions were domesticated animals, unknown in Mesoamerica. The Spanish brought over their breeds of cows, 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, cotton and tobacco. Mesoamerican staple foods continued to be important as well during this time.[3][4]

19th century to present

View of the Zopilote Tequixquiac ejido in the State of Mexico.

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 benefitted only the elite, making life for the common rural worker worse.[1]

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 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]

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.[7] In addition, the Mexican government encouraged only crops such as corn and beans, restricting imports of these two staples until 1990.[7]

After the 1970s, agricultural production was unable to keep up with population growth leading to imports of basic staples.[1] The rise of neoliberalism and the negotiation of NAFTA pushed agriculture towards more commercialism. 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.[7]

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.[7] 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][7]

Despite greater output, agriculture continues to decrease in percentage of Mexico’s GDP since 1990.[7] 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][8]

Modern Mexican agriculture

Agricultural trade

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.[8] 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.[8] 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

Fields in Cazones, Veracruz

Mexico has a territory of 198 million hectares of which fifteen percent is dedicated to agricultural crops and fifty eight percent 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.[8] 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.[8]

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 for 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 or qualify for financial products such as loans.[1]


Trucks being loaded with bananas at the Rancho La Duena in Paso de Telaya, San Rafael, Veracruz.
Vineyard in the Valley of Guadalupe, Baja California

The growing of crops is the most important aspect of Mexico’s agriculture, accounting for fifty percent of agricultural output.[7] Main crops include corn, sugarcane,

  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.  
  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.  
  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. Retrieved December 4, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Mexico - Agriculture". Encyclopedia of the Nations. Retrieved December 4, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Johnson, Todd (2009). Low-Carbon Development for Mexico. Herndon, VA, USA: World Bank Publications. p. 73.  


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 feed is replacing that used for the growing of corn for human consumption.[1]

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]

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 Charollais 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]

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 from the United States.[7] 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]

Cattle on a rural road in Tabasco
Cattle pasture in Palenque, Chiapas


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]

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]


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