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Tropentag, September 17 - 19, 2014 in Prague, Czech Republic

"Bridging the gap between increasing knowledge and decreasing resources"

A Model for Understanding the Economic Rationality of Agricultural Modernisation of the Mesoamerican Milpa System

Heike Vibrans

Postgraduate College of Agricultural Sciences, Dept. of Botany, Mexico


Traditional (family, peasant) agriculture is often considered unproductive because of low yields of the main crop. However, many farmers, even in relatively well-communicated areas, do not adopt modern, high-input methods, despite available credits and much promotion. One explanation for non-adoption of modern methods is risk, which is ameliorated by diversity, at an efficiency cost - most traditional farming systems are mixed, either within the field or within the farm. Other explanations are cultural conservatism or lack of schooling. A different reason was suggested by several local studies on the total input and output of maize fields with other cultivated and non-crop species (milpas) in central Mexico; they included labor and energy costs, as well as interviews on decision processes. They showed that maize grain only contributed about 15-30% of the value of the whole harvest under rain-fed conditions with low-input methods; cultivation for only this product was often not profitable. In contrast, if all inputs and outputs (?secondary? products) were considered, the system was highly profitable, as long as labour/opportunity costs were low. Based on these data, a model is presented that explains and predicts farmer's decisions on modernisation. It is based on a novel classification of agricultural crops (selfconsumption, crops that add value within the farm, locally valuable crop/speciality, regional cash crop, international cash crop) and the cost of inputs, particularly of labour opportunity costs, market access and energy (transport, agrochemicals). Modernisation occurs when opportunity costs rise and/or external energy costs sink. In order for intensive, high-external-input cropping to be an economically rational alternative, farmers would need to value their time at about the level of the salary of a recent university graduate in Mexico, in our milpa example. The model can be applied to other systems, and different scales. This contribution shows that a discussion based only on the yield and economics of the main crop is not adequate for traditional systems.

Keywords: Agricultural modernisation, economic evaluation, intercropping, Mexico, traditional agriculture

Contact Address: Heike Vibrans, Postgraduate College of Agricultural Sciences, Dept. of Botany, Carretera Mexico-Texcoco km 36.5, 56230 Montecillo, Texcoco, Mexico, e-mail: heike@colpos.mx

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