I recently returned from two weeks of vacation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Although it was tempting to spend that time laying on the beach - something we lack here in Lyons - I was there to participate in the 13th annual International Agroecology Short-course.
In a small university town in Quintana Roo, graduate students and professionals from all parts of the western hemisphere converged to discuss food and farming systems, their ecological and cultural functions, and challenges to sustainability.
Although I didn't get much of a suntan, I did learn a lot about traditional agricultural systems in Mesoamerica, namely the milpa.
The word milpa in Mexican Spanish means "field." It is based on the ancient agricultural methods of the Maya peoples and other indigenous groups. Simply explained, milpa agriculture describes when farmers clear a field to plant dozens of crops at once, most famously "the three sisters": maize (corn), beans, and squash.
Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Beans grow using corn as a trellis; when eaten together they provide the body with the right combination of amino acids to make proteins.
In addition to crop scientists, we also heard from Mexican anthropologists who described the milpa as an important socio-cultural concept as well. The milpa binds together the family, the community, and according to Mayan spirituality, the universe.
Okay, so maybe here in the midwest we don't always relate our agricultural pursuits to the universe. But believe it or not, standing in a field in the tropics - within sight of bananas, dragon fruit, and papaya - I found myself thinking about the thread connecting rural Yucatan, Mexico to rural America: Family farms are the basis of vibrant rural communities.
And that's why the Center for Rural Affairs works to make family farms viable every step of the way - from providing resources for new farmers, to Land Link, to larger food systems, and policy work.
There's no doubt that rural Mexico and rural America have distinct problems and pressures that threaten small, sustainable farms - land tenure structures, subsidies, issues of the global economy -- it's a complicated story.
But simply put, I'm glad to be part of an organization and a larger movement that makes a connection between the milpa, the fields, the pasture - and the well being of the surrounding community.
(I'm not however, terribly excited to leave 80 degree weather for snow).
Read more about A Perspective from Mexico: La Milpa Maya