A Small Farmer in Mexico
A Small Farmer in Mexico
Berta and the three grandchildren she is helping to raise.

A Small Farmer in Mexico

by Jim Fitzgerald of Bayfield, CO

I grew up in the city, but Terry and I have farmed the same place near Bayfield, Colorado for 32 years now. We have come to believe that small, diverse farms represent a crucial effort to find connections in an increasingly fragmented world. We look for specific connections, such as the way our cows, horses and sheep connect to each other, to our permanent and temporary pastures, and to our vegetable gardens. We look for other connections, such as our relation to nature, which we constantly alter, and to our animals, which we care for and cry over and sometimes kill and eat. We try to find connections between our farm and to our children and grandchildren, and to each other. And of course, we try to find the essential connection between human beings and the food we eat. The search for these connections sometimes leaves us with questions which are too large or too frightening to contemplate for very long. Small farmers are affected by forces which we only dimly understand. I think of these forces as: social (family, friends, community); ecological (rain, drought, desertification, etc.); systems (political, economic, free trade, land tenure, etc.); cultural (connections to our past, values, beliefs, etc.); and historical. It seems to me that the more we understand these forces, the more likely we are to successfully interact with them.

A Small Farmer in Mexico
Berta’s house.

At our Small Farmer’s Conference in Durango, Colorado a year and a half ago, Terry and I were fortunate to meet Mario and Livia Vasquez from Santa Isabel in the State of Chihauhua in northern Mexico. Mario had been working with a farmers’ advocacy group and had just been elected mayor of the municipality of Santa Isabel. This last November we went down to visit with them and to talk with small farmers in the area.

We found that small farmers throughout Mexico are being greatly affected by many of these same forces. In northern Mexico farmers have been severely affected by a brutal drought and the vicious free trade agreement (NAFTA) with the United States. NAFTA has contributed to the collapse of prices for their livestock and grain. How are Mexican farmers coping with these external forces?

A Small Farmer in Mexico
La Tapia. Berta’s village. (In Mexico they call it an “ejido”)

Señora Berta Arambula: Señora Berta is a small farmer in the “ejido” or village of La Tapia near Santa Isabel. Berta and her husband Isaias cultivate about 15 acres of land with horses and run about 15 head of cattle on communal pastures. She also raises turkeys, chickens, pigs and a garden. “Don’t you just love animals?” she said to my wife. She seems to me to be an individual who is strong and hopeful, but discouraged. (See But Today the Fence is Down, below.)

Berta’s work is greatly influenced by her social, economic and ecological contexts. She is helping to raise three of her grandchildren because her son is in Denver and her daughter-in-law works in a factory in the city of Chihuahua. The drought and the collapse of the prices for her calves have affected her economically. She is unable to irrigate her 15 acres of cultivated land because the dam and canals which supply La Tapia were flooded out about ten years ago. The government has been unwilling to help rebuild it. It would take $40,000 U.S. dollars just for the cement.

Her community has been remarkably stable for the last 50 years because one of the results of the Mexican Revolution was that “ejido” land can’t be bought or sold. This arrangement contributed considerably to the stability of small communities through many ecological, political and economic crises. In the past when young people left to work in the U.S. or in Mexican cities, they usually came back. Children were raised and schooled safely amongst families and neighbors who they knew and who knew them. The elderly were cared for by their families and had useful work to do. In La Tapia we talked to Facundo Solis who is 79 years old and who was checking his cows on horse. In 1992, however, the Mexican constitution was amended to allow individuals to sell their land and some of the ejidos have begun to disintegrate.

A Small Farmer in Mexico
One of Berta’s neighbors, Facundo Solis. Facundo is 79 years old. In the photo he is out checking his cows.

Horses and Cattle in the Culture and History of Northern Mexico: The attachment of Mexicans to their horses is incredibly strong. The social historian Alfred Crosby says that the Spaniards who came to the Americas were “more skilled as riders than any other European people.” The horses they brought with them were “the product of crossbreeding the strong, fast horse of Iberia and the fine Arabians brought in by the Moors. The result was the finest horse in Europe.” The Spanish horses exploded in number on the grasslands of Mexico. “By 1550 mounts were available for little more than the effort to rope them… By 1777, Fray Morfi wrote that ‘the area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River was so full of horses that their trails made the country, utterly uninhabited of people, look as if it were the most populated in the world. (The Columbian Transfer, pp80-83). The plentiful supply of horses enabled the Native Americans to adopt the horse so quickly and skillfully that they were soon able to more effectively resist the Spanish invasion. Their entire culture was deeply affected once they were mounted.

Terry and I were able to see the effects of this history when we attended a “coliadero” on a warm Sunday afternoon in the tiny town of Santa Ana, just outside of Santa Isabel. A “coliadero” is a kind of rodeo with a single event repeated over and over. Yearling steers run down a lane while a mounted cowboy (“vaquero”) tries to get him to stumble and fall by giving his tail a twist while riding behind him. There were close to 100 participants who paid $8 each time they tried to throw a steer. The money went to help the local school. About one out of ten of them were successful. When this occurred the band played “La Diana” and the riders were given small ribbons to pin on their sleeves.

A Small Farmer in Mexico

We were surprised by the large number of women, men and children dressed in tight jeans, leather boots and vaquero hats. The horses were also well decked out. The band played constantly. The people drank beer and soda and talked and giggled for hours while the cowboys chased the steers down the dusty lane in the tiny Mexican town of Santa Anna.

The day after the coliadero I spoke with a Mexican extensionist who contracted with the government to teach bio-intensive gardening. I told him that I thought the community participation was wonderful and that I thought that horses and cattle were deeply embedded in the culture of northern Mexico. He answered angrily, “That culture is corrupt. The boots they wear are too expensive for them. The animals are mistreated and the environment is degraded. That culture must die.”


Señora Berta and Don Facundo, and the cowboys and women and children at the coliadero, and Terry and I, are all living within cultures and histories which can change dramatically in a short period of time. Mexican newspapers reported that the NAFTA mandated cuts on chickens, livestock and corn for the year 2003 would have disastrous effects on farmers. Nevertheless, I think that Dona Berta and her family and her community are people of the future, not of the past. They are strong people trying to survive until the rains begin again, and until the current dreary and smothering systems break open to allow a flowering of farmers and communities in the deserts and grasslands of northern Mexico.

A Small Farmer in Mexico
Close up of the fence Berta made around her garden. She wants to replace it with a cyclone fence, but she can’t afford it.

But today the fence is down

by Terry Fitzgerald of Bayfield, CO

The sturdy cement house sat in a small grove of trees on the arroyo bank. Dona Berta was sweeping the bare ground in front of her door when we arrived. After introductions, we explained that Mario Vasquez had suggested that she might visit with us about farming in La Tapia.

She smiled as she showed us her chicken area – a pole shed with wire fenced walls and the dirt floor swept clean. She explained that she gets a few extra eggs to sell to neighbors, and that last week she had sold five laying hens and a rooster.

A Small Farmer in Mexico
Berta’s poultry yard.

She spoke of the past July when the rains came and she and Isaias had plowed their plot with a greenbroke team of horses that was rather wild. She would have preferred her donkeys she said, but they had been killed by a train that ran near their pasture. Despite the rowdy team, they had planted the corn and beans. The plants were about 4 inches high when the rains stopped. There was no harvest.

She spoke of the four Holstein cows they had received from a rural development program. They had carefully followed the rules of care for the first 18 months. Two cows had not calved, one calf had died and the fourth cow had severe mastitis.

A Small Farmer in Mexico
One of Berta’s turkeys and chickens.

We spoke of gardening and we walked to the plot which sloped down the arroyo bank. She had had a good garden the year before by following the double dig method suggested by the extension agent. But then the fence fell down. “There was no money for a real fence” she said. We stared at the fence. We both knew that to repair the fence would have taken only a number of hours of grueling work – replacing fence posts, binding them together with a few poles, and weaving between them a thick mat of bramble of hawthorns or rose hips.

We looked at each other – two small farm women – and felt together the crushing weight, the numbed mind, the deep internal tears that are never seen when there is no rain, wild horses, and sick animals. Tomorrow – maybe it will rain – maybe the horses will give a good days work. But today the fence is down.