Tag Archives: farming

Failing at your own business–Sharecropping

For the past few years, we have been sharecropping on a neighbor’s hectare (acre). It involves working 2-3 hours daily from the summer planting season in June until the fall harvest in November. (See Forcibly Green)

My husband waits to plant until the middle of June just to ensure the rains would remain steady because we have no way to irrigate the field. It’s a crucial decision in the life of a sharecropper. Plant too early and the corn sprouts wither. Plant too late and frost kills off the crop before harvest. We’ve had mixed results. Some years, there have been bumper crops. Others, the plants are puny and low producing.

barbechando

The first step is barbechando the area to be planted.

The first step is readying the field called barbechando. Fiona was an essential component there, pulling the plow up and over the old corn rows. She does 5-10 rows per day. When the soil is suitably mixed, she starts at the beginning again making rows. Nearly straight is just as good as totally straight. The plants don’t seem to know the difference and grow anyway.

plowing with fiona

Making the rows.

We plant in the tres hermanas (See Planting with the tres hermanas) style. Corn, beans, and squash are planted and tended together. Once the corn has sprouted about knee-high, Fiona takes another swing through the rows. Any maiz coyote (non-ear producing corn) is pulled out, and the regular corn plants in their rows are thinned out, although not aggressively.  Some sections need to be replanted.  Mice and birds really like organic seed corn.

thinning

Thinning out and replanting.

The rainy season ensures that the non-edible plants grow faster than the edible ones. To keep the edible plants from being choked to death, it’s necessary to arrancar (pull out from the roots) the invaders. As soon as the weeding is done through once, it’s time to start back at the beginning again.

working in the field

A nice morning for working in the field.

If the corn starts to yellow, we throw abono (fertilizer) around the roots. This is usually a one-day project, sometimes two if we get a late start on the first day.

As the crops ripen, we enjoy the steady stream of bounty. My husband makes a delicious squash, tomato and onion dish. Corn is boiled in its leaves or roasted over the open flame. Beans can be cooked fresh from the vine or spread out to dry for later.

corn

A day in the fields removing the dried corn ears from the stalks.

Let the planter beware! The drive-by harvesters flock to La Yacata about this time. Unlike crows, mice, and squirrels, the drive-by harvester is not put off by scarecrows or lines of plastic bottles swaying in the wind. We send out extra patrols, dando la vuelta to check the borders of our crops several times a day until all the fresh produce is in.

toros

These drying stacks are called toros.

Once the corn has dried, we cut and stack it in toros (stacks). This is when the sharecropper pays his dues. We had a la tercia (a third) contract For every 3 stacks the field produces, one stack goes to the owner of the hectare. The owner and the sharecropper walk through the stacks together while the owner indicates which stacks he will accept as payment.

bringing it home

Bringing it home.

Once the crop is divided, it’s in the best interest of the sharecropper to remove his stacks as soon as possible, either by having the molinero (shredder) come or just restacking them in another area for further drying. Remember, the concept of ownership is more open here in Mexico. We’ve had entire stacks of drying corn stolen in the night. We could file a police report I suppose, but when have the cops here ever looked out for anyone’s interests but their own?

fiona

Fiona saddled up for an afternoon ride.

This year, my husband decided not to plant. He was so determined not to plant that he sold Fiona. I opposed the sale. Fiona is a good worker. She earns her keep. She is placid and gentle when not working, unlike Joey I also prefer her lady-like steps to Beauty‘s mountainous stride when riding. But he was not to be gainsaid. (See Reducing the herds) and away she went.

moliendo rastrojo

Moliendo rastrojo. Milling the corn stalks for animal fodder.

Even without planting ourselves, we should be able to get enough rastrojo (dry corn stalks without the corn) from neighbors. A 7 x 20 lot size sells for less than $100 pesos. Entire hectares can be purchased after the harvest. We’ve done this before. My husband makes the deal, and when the owner says it’s ready to be picked up, he goes with the truck and brings it back to stack next to our house. When we have enough, he calls in the molinero, and we bag it up for winter feed. Instead of a June-November work season, our gathering work takes about a week in late November.

I am not about to give up on fresh, organic goodness even though we aren’t sharecropping. So this year, I’ve been trying my hand at container gardening. (See Failing at Container Gardening).

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Alternative Farming–Gleaning

maiz-sorgo-leviticus

November is harvest month in central México. The corn has been stacked to dry, and the squash piled high. The winter crop, garbanzo(chickpeas), has been planted and if the rains hold off, by now, it should be about 3 inches high.

But the harvesting isn’t done. Maiz sorgo is also ready to bring in. This grain plant is a favorite of chickens and pigs. (See Miss Piggy didn’t bring home the bacon). It isn’t a crop we plant since humans don’t typically eat it, so we have to obtain it through other means.

thresher sideTherefore last Sunday, we headed towards Cerano to see what we could see. And lo and behold, there was the maquina (thresher) mowing through the fields of maiz sorgo. My husband excitedly pulled off the road and leaped out with his costales (grain sacks) and machete.

thresher dumpingHe asked the people in the fields if he could apepinar (glean). It is a courtesy to ask, but nearly never is it denied. Gleaning, if you aren’t already familiar with the term, consists of collecting the fallen crops that la maquina (thresher) didn’t get. It isn’t difficult, but it is tiring going up and down the rows looking for leftovers. The trick is knowing where the thresher is going next to be one of the first to stake your claim.

gleaning

We followed la maquina (thresher) for a few hours and came home with 4-5 costales (sacks) of maiz sorgo. Not too shabby, but certainly not enough to last all winter.

threshing

The next step is to thresh the grain heads so that the little seeds can be stored better. This involves some heavy stick beating. After that, we give the chaff to the goats and scoop the seeds into a barrel. If there is enough, we take the seeds to the molinero (miller) and have it ground to dust. If there isn’t, we feed it as is to the chickens as part of their homemade “scratch” (grain mixture).

Being a gatherer isn’t such an onerous life as you might think and an important part of our harvest.

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Alternative Farming with las tres hermanas–Corn, squash and beans

ears-of-green-corn

I never really tasted corn until I moved to México. That seems odd to say since I grew up in a rural Pennsylvania community and had corn-on-the-cob freshly picked from our garden every summer, helped my mom freeze corn in August and had corn with most meals throughout the winter, but it’s true. I never tasted it before. I thought at first that it was how my husband cooked the corn. When he boiled the elotes (corn-on-the-cob) he left an outer layer of leaves on them. Then instead of butter, we ate them with lime and salt.

red corn

But it was more than that. México has more than 200 native varieties of corn. There is yellow sweet corn, yellow, not sweet corn, white corn, purple corn, red corn and blue corn all of which come in large, medium and small kernel size to name a few that I have sampled. And nothing compares to the taste! Each type of corn has its own specialty dish. Yellow corn for gorditas (fat small tortillas for stuffing), white corn for tortillas, reddish-purple corn for pozole, etc.

For awhile, I was concerned that Monsanto would make it big and destroy the natural diversity Mexico’s corn. However, GMO corn has been officially outlawed, although Peña Nieto’s new reforms that allow foreigners to own parts of México doesn’t rule out Monsanto continued and future interference entirely.  This ban does not include other crops, such as soy and cotton, so México is not GMO-free.  However, corn, or maize, is such a part of the fundamental culture here, that protesting campesino (farmer) groups were able to rally under the slogan  “Sin maize, no hay país” and in November 2013, force the Méxican government to listen.

simpler-life

So since corn is a staple part of the diet, we had to plant some ourselves. As our property is a mere 14 x 20 meters and nearly fully occupied by our home and animal kingdom, we had to ask around to see if we could borrow a bit of land to plant on. We didn’t have too much problem making the sharecropping arrangements, and we were off. It meant clearing off the grasses and barbechando (taking the plow over it a few times), but with the help of Red, it was done in a matter of days.

planting

Next came the planting. We planted in the traditional way with las tres hermanas (the three sisters) corn, beans, and squash. The corn stalk supports the bean plant, and the squash grows along the ground. My husband dug the hole and my son, and I dropped in the seeds. Afterward, my husband tied a large branch to the back of Red and went over the mounds to smooth them out. Again, no more than a few days work.

tree back of horse

Then we waited for the rain. Planting is typically done in this area, central México, after the first day of summer, which marks the beginning of the rainy season. If you are feeling frisky, you can plant earlier, but you risk your newly sprouted corn drying out while waiting for the rains. We try to wait until there have been 2 or 3 days of rain before planting. Not only is the ground easier to work with, but there is less chance of crop failure. But you never can tell. A season that starts out well may not bring enough rain for your plants. This past year, we had to replant a section of our corn because it just didn’t grow well because of spotty rainfall.

The enormous varieties of corn available in México, ensure that there is a type of grain for each climate, soil, and elevation.  As these corn varieties have been developed over thousands of years, the introduction of homogenized genetically altered corn would upset the delicate balance that allows for the continued adaptation of the plant.

planting too

Throughout the rainy season, my husband spent an hour or two each day hoeing our rows of corn. When he had finished all of them, he started in at the beginning again. We hadn’t planted acres and acres, but a manageable piece of ground, about an 1 1/2 acres is all. My husband, of course, was all for planting more, but I pointed out that the years we had planted more, we had harvested less. It was just too hard to maintain properly. So we contented ourselves with what we could reasonably do.

chocho bottle

We do not use any sort of pesticides on our crops. Of course, the chochos (grasshoppers) love that. But we don’t feel the need to exterminate the species to protect our plants. Every morning, when the chochos are still in a deep-freeze sleep, my son heads out and plucks them off the leaves and puts them in a plastic soda bottle. When the bottle is full, he empties it in the chicken area for them to enjoy a scrumptious protein-rich breakfast. Any that escape, are welcome to their lives. Any that return to feast on our corn leaves could be subject to being eaten tomorrow.

Before too long, we had small, tender calabacitas (squash) to enjoy. My husband makes this scrumptious dish of squash, tomato, and onion that we had an average of once a week while the squash held out.

chivada 2

Then, the corn was ready. We had a chivada (corn toasted over an open flame) every second day or so. Incidentally, the word chivada was a new one for me. The first time I heard it I thought we would be having roast goat (chiva). But it’s only corn. I believe that the word began once upon a time as a poor man’s version of a goat roast, a play on words.

The beans were ready after the corn and yummy! The tender, fresh picked beans were absolutely delicious in taquitos dorados (fried tacos). Those that we didn’t eat right away, we set out to dry for future meals.

stacked corn

The corn plants eventually dried out in mid-October. When there were no more ears to be had, my husband chopped down the stalks and set them to dry. The chopping and stacking took the better part of a week. Once they were completely and utterly dry, he had a machine come and molir (grind) the rastrojo (corn stalks) into a coarse powder that we feed our animals mixed with other grains throughout the dry season. The machine is rented by the hour, so this chopping and stuffing into costales (sacks) is done by the end of the morning.

moliendo rastrojo

Moliendo rastrojo. Milling the corn stalks for animal fodder.

Once the corn plants were finished, my husband planted a few rows of garbanzo as a winter crop. Planting after the rains are officially over is risky if there is no irrigation. However, we have the attitude that if it grows, it grows and if it doesn’t we let the goats graze in it.

live-simply-corn

Our efforts at agriculture provide enough feed for our animals so that we need to buy very little to maintain them. If it becomes too hard to feed our animals with what we have harvested, we know that it is time to cull the herds and flocks.

rastrojo molido

What the milled fodder looks like.

Our human household is not year-round dependent on our cultivated crops either. We find nature’s abundance grows wild (See Picking Pitayas and Picking Tunas) and don’t try to store up in grain houses more than we need. We enjoy what there is to be had in season and agree completely with Thoreau when he writes “In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely… It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow unless he sweats easier than I do.”

corn truck

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GMOs: What You Need to Know

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