Diverse Varieties and Diverse Markets: Scale-related Maize “Profitability Crossover” in the Central Mexican Highlands

Abstract

Discussions of maize agriculture in Mexico often treat “maize” as a uniform commodity, sold in a relatively homogeneous market, and for which there is a single, “economically rational” production strategy. Based on qualitative research on maize value chains, we suggest that this unitary notion entails significant oversimplifications. We offer a heuristic model of farm-size related “profitability crossover,” based on observations of highland maize varieties’ roles within a series of farm-cycle opportunities and constraints. We suggest that while improved maize varieties may be profitable for large-scale farms taking advantage of economies of scale, landrace cultivation may offer advantages to small- to medium-scale farmers, who utilize a diverse range of input strategies, and sell their products in specialty markets. Understanding maize agriculture as a multi-product and multi-market pursuit rather than uniform commodity production would add greater depth to policy and academic debates.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, treats maize as a single commodity, notwithstanding that white and yellow maize are sold separately on the international market and differ in price.

  2. 2.

    See Bellon et al. (2005a) for a typology of local and improved maize germplasm in Mexico.

  3. 3.

    Farmers’ perception of the riskiness of a given variety may be contextual. Brush et al. (1988) found that farmers cultivating flat, lowland areas of Chiapas in Mexico considered a particular improved variety to be less risky than landraces, due to its shorter stature and decreased propensity to lodging.

  4. 4.

    A more robust analysis would include factors which we did not explore in-depth, such as existing resource endowments (especially soil quality, and sources of animal or mechanized traction), labor availability (e.g., household size and age), and other non-maize sources of household income (e.g., savings/credit). Researchers typically explore these variables in structured, household-level studies which pre-define their study populations by some variable on which households are assumed to be comparable, such as participation in maize farming, area planted, etc. The methodology we applied explores relationships among actors whose resources and activities are explicitly incommensurable, or statistically incomparable, including farmers, market traders, and maize processors.

  5. 5.

    Transaction costs are “the costs other than the money price that are incurred in trading goods or services” (Johnson 2005). In the case of Mexico, transaction costs that farmers face include: finding and contracting casual laborers; identifying a buyer for the maize harvest; and organizing transport of the harvest. For a buyer or large-scale industrial processor, transaction costs (time, transportation, search costs) are implicit in each individual purchase of maize grain. These actors prefer acquiring a large, uniform volume of maize through fewer purchase transactions.

  6. 6.

    The wide array of unique permutations of soil, seed, agrichemical, labor, and marketing options for maize-production results in a far more complex decision-making process than is often perceived by ‘outsiders,’ i.e., anyone who is not a small farmer and includes researchers, development practitioners and policy makers (Bunch 1982:30).

  7. 7.

    PROCAMPO is a generalized per-hectare agricultural subsidy and the most widely available farming support mechanism in Mexico.

  8. 8.

    Effectively, an individual farmer’s discount rate may fall between these two points. Although they might expect to earn 130 pesos/day for their own labor on others’ farms, the fact that such opportunities are temporary and would likely overlap with the period of highest labor requirements on their own plots may effectively reduce the value of agricultural wage-labor in the farmer’s eyes: for a week of 130 peso/day labor at a key time, a farmer might risk sacrificing an equivalent or greater proportion of his or her own yield.

  9. 9.

    The non-adoption or slow adoption of improved varieties has been the topic of much previous research including, notably, Lipton and Longhurst (1989) and Heisey et al. (1993).

  10. 10.

    This assumption may not hold true for all products or under all circumstances. For example, at the time of research there were no hybrid varieties of blue maize or pozole maize available that paralleled the performance of landrace varieties. Farmers also suggested that they preferred landrace varieties to hybrids for totomoxtle because the shape and size of landrace leaves was superior for tamale production. In contrast, for elotes hybrids were considered to be equal or superior to landraces.

  11. 11.

    A thorough discussion addressing the historical roots of unequal land distribution falls outside the scope of this paper.

  12. 12.

    Lerner and Eakin (2011) similarly argue that the multi-functionality of Mexico’s peri-urban maize landscapes may reinforce household food security.

  13. 13.

    Kraft et al. (2010) observe similar impacts of the market on the diversity of Mexican chili peppers.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the insightful comments made by three anonymous reviewers on early drafts of this paper. Research was supported by the USDA-SAGARPA project, Increasing Maize Productivity and Profitability in the State of Mexico. The first author was also supported by a Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship. The opinions and data presented in this document are the responsibility of the authors alone.

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Appendix

Appendix

Table 8 Cost-of-production table for small-scale farmer
Table 9 Cost-of-production table for medium-scale farmer
Table 10 Cost-of-production table for large-scale farmer

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Keleman, A., Hellin, J. & Flores, D. Diverse Varieties and Diverse Markets: Scale-related Maize “Profitability Crossover” in the Central Mexican Highlands. Hum Ecol 41, 683–705 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-013-9566-z

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Keywords

  • Mexico
  • Maize
  • Agro-biodiversity
  • Agricultural development
  • Small-scale farmers