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Focus on Agriculture

July 16, 2012

A Farmer’s Heart is Universal

By Erika Hooker

Less than 2 percent of the U.S. labor force is directly employed in production agriculture. In Mexico, the number is 13.7 percent. While a significantly higher percentage of people work in agriculture in Mexico compared to the U.S., there has been a sharp drop in the number of farmers in Mexico.

From the viewpoint of a college senior studying international agriculture and rural development, a situation like Mexico’s is both intriguing and disappointing. Clearly, the potential for agricultural progress exists. However, factors such as international competition, urbanization and the allure of higher paying jobs in the U.S. have led to a steady stream of small farmers packing up and leaving their quiet fields in favor of city lights.

On a recent field study trip to Chiapas, southern Mexico, I met with farmers and learned about the development projects they are working on with local universities or, in some cases, the Kellogg Foundation’s international programs. Many of the farmers were well below the poverty line, most farming by manual labor on a hectare of land or less. Much of the state of Chiapas is also made up of indigenous populations who descend from the Maya and other native heritage. They come from thousands of years of farming ancestry, and most don’t even speak Spanish.

What the farmers might lack in literacy, they make up for tenfold in enthusiasm and a desire to improve their farms. One dairy farmer had recently finished constructing a shelter where he milks his 30 cows; Extension officers had suggested he built it just one week earlier. A maize farmer’s wife in the mountains outside of San Cristobal grew her flock of chickens from five to more than 20, thanks to a government program that helped her and her husband build a fenced-in coop complete with a nesting area and feed dispensers. She now sells eggs to customers in villages several miles away.

Given the scale of production in these rural areas, a clean milking area or a dozen more chickens to lay eggs can mean the difference between staying in production or going out of business.

The farmers grow whatever crops, livestock or products flourish in the environment and yield the most money, all the while keeping in mind how the items they produce complement each other. For some, this means beans and squash intercropped with corn. For others, it means chickens kept for eggs or meat and their manure used to fertilize crops. And for some, it means goats tethered behind houses with their milk sold to neighbors or traded for cow cheese made by another farmer.

Clearly, a very lively cycle of life is at work, and as their counterparts in the U.S. understand, Mexican farmers are as dependent on each other as they are on the weather.

Rural development in Mexico is at war with itself. Although local university programs and non-governmental organizations have dedicated years to improving communities, it is inevitable that sometimes farmers leave or grow older and no one steps up to take their place. Many communities have lost young people to jobs in Mexico City or the U.S. Most young people who leave never return, but a few do come back, saying their experiences outside the villages they grew up in showed them the importance of where they came from.

Erika Hooker is a public relations intern at the American Farm Bureau Federation.