The Three Sisters & Me: Toward a Revitalization of Traditional Farming

By Adriana Murguia Gonzalez

How is the milpa doing?” dad would always ask into the phone when talking with his family back in Mexico. “How many inches of rain did we get this year?” was another regular question I overheard. I was just a kid. I didn’t know what milpa was, nor did I fully understand the nostalgia he had for his home country. As children, my siblings and I had traveled to Mexico to visit my dad’s family, but my dad was never able to travel with us because he worked multiple, minimum-wage jobs without vacation opportunities. Traveling without our dad, we did not hear his stories of growing up in Mexico on a traditional family farm. As my siblings and I grew older and went to school, it got more complicated to visit our family in Mexico, and soon we stopped going altogether. We never seemed to miss the trips or our grandparents and their lifestyle.

A farmer sowing milpa in Veracruz MX.

An Intercropping of Knowledge, History, and Science

Many years afterward, I am only now beginning to understand how the cultivation of milpa — the intercropping of maize, beans, and squash, called the three sisters in North America — is representative of generations of pre-Hispanic traditional knowledge, culture, and history. I have formed a passion for agroecology: the design, preservation, and combination of traditional farming systems with new ecological practices to revitalize the well-being of local food practices.

For me, agroecology connects pieces of family history to a field of scientific inquiry that honors traditional knowledge and the pursuit of social justice in order to achieve localized farming practices that are ecologically sound.

A New Global Economy

It was halfway through my undergraduate career when I was first exposed to agroecology during a trip to Veracruz, Mexico. The intent of the trip was to attend an intercultural exchange discussing sustainability farming and access to food. The organizations and participants arrived from Southern Mexico, Nicaragua and the United States, and worked with youth to increase their involvement in food systems change. Many of the members of the coffee cooperatives described the decline of farming in their communities due to the globalization of farming.

For many rural communities like the ones in Veracruz, Mexico, market liberalism had profoundly changed the relationship between agricultural production and food security from a local to a more global process.

Farmers described how traditional farming and meal preparation had been lost within the span of a single generation.

Medicinal and culinary plants previously used in meal preparation were no longer available because they were being pulled out as weeds.

Market liberalism, which was intended to integrate rural farming economies into the global market, has, in fact, brought an abundance of cheap food imports that were previously not available in rural communities. Furthermore, the import of U.S.-subsidized corn and wheat has displaced local Mexican farmers and traditional food staples. Without the ability to sell their grain, migration to tourist cities on the coast of Mexico and to North America seems to provide greater income security than cultivating milpa and coffee. Rural youth are the most impacted by the chronic poverty in their communities. They often move out of their communities in search of a higher income.

My dad’s generation in the 1980s-1990s was the most impacted by market liberalism after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Plummeting grain prices and increasing food costs led many rural populations in Mexico to abandon farming to work in maquilas (manufacturing operations at the border of northern Mexico) or farms in North America.

When I think back on the experience of the youth in Veracruz, I can barely imagine the untold hardships my dad experienced: his journey, the years of separation he has endured, and the amount of money he has sent back to his family in order that they can continue farming milpa.

A Green Revolution Sounded So Cool… But was it?

Free-trade agreements and modernization models have been implemented in Asia, South America, and more recently Africa, as a proposed solution to chronic poverty and to integrate developing nations into the global economy.

The free-trade agreements built on a legacy of the Green Revolution: a period of technological advances aimed at alleviating hunger by introducing higher-yielding strains of plants and the fertilizers and industrial farming practices necessary to successfully cultivate the new varieties. These development models perceived traditional farming practices as a barrier to improved agricultural practices.

Milpa Maya activity by Universidad Intercultural de Quintana Roo during CAN and VIDA AC intercambio.

Green-Revolution technologies — chemical pesticides, high yielding seed varieties, and intensive irrigation practices, were implemented in Mexico in the 1940s, but their devastating consequences have lasted for decades by creating unequal and ecologically damaged agricultural landscapes. In predominately peasant and indigenous communities, Green-Revolution technologies ruined soil productivity and further impoverished farmers. Meanwhile, in more affluent communities, agriculture production has intensified and relied on the indispensable labor from rural communities to keep their costs low.

In the Wake of the Revolution

In the wake of the Green Revolution and the new global economy, ecologists and agronomists began to understand that the ecological decline in agricultural fields reflected the social and economic changes that had ravaged traditional farming communities. Additionally, a changing climate, in which rain and other normal weather patterns have become irregular or nonexistent, has significantly altered traditional farming practices. An agricultural field maintains bounty in part by the result of the passing down of farming knowledge from one generation to another. But when that generational chain is disrupted or the ecosystem has radically changed, new, sustainable practices need to be developed to mitigate the damage.

Agroecology can best be understood as the application of scientific inquiry in combination with indigenous and community-based experimentation to create knowledge intensive and readily adaptable technologies for small scale farmers. It strives to apply ecological principles to the study, management, and design of sustainable agroecosystems — natural environments that embody social, cultural, indigenous, and traditional agricultural knowledge. These sustainable agricultural systems do not require high chemical and energy inputs such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels for crop growth. Instead, agroecology implements ecology-based practices like cover cropping and composting to improve the sustainability of agriculture over time and space.

Agroecology in Action

During my trip to Veracruz, Mexican students studying in Quintana Roo gave an excellent example of how agroecology is used to preserve, foster, and encourage innovation in indigenous farming practices. They gave a presentation on agroecological management of the slash and burn farming technologies used in milpa Maya.

The Maya populations of Quintana Roo have passed down the indigenous practice of slash and burn agriculture to prepare the soil prior to sowing their crops. Ecological problems have arisen with slash and burn technologies as populations grow and less land is available. Additionally, farmers are experiencing more pressure to grow food and are not giving the land the 10-year fallow required to regenerate the soil. Milpa mejorada is an agroecological management alternative to the Maya milpa.

In the design of milpa mejorada, there is an objective of resource conservation of soils by adding organic matter and rotating crops in order to increase crop productivity. Milpa mejorada has been demonstrated to be a beneficial practice for increasing soil quality in previously depleted fields without taking away from the cultural decree of the Maya milpa and the practice of slash and burn.

Building Bridges Across Disciplines to Build a Movement

Agroecology is also a transdisciplinary practice in which social-science research methods are used in combination with natural-science research. Social-science research has been integrated into agroecology in order to better understand the social changes occurring among agroecosystems. Societal changes that have occurred in farming systems include an increase in women farmers, loss of farmers due to migration, increasing needs for income, and changes in the diets of rural communities.

Participants from CAN 16th Annual International Agroecology Short course in Santa Cruz CA.

Dr. Marcia Ishii Eiteman, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network-North America, explains how agroecology has become a nexus of action,

“ We need to focus on more than science; political engagement is central to the ecological transformation of our agricultural system.”

Politics is often intertwined with ecological decline and must be brought to the forefront in order to form solutions.

Similarly, agroecology takes the social-science practice of participatory research into the field, literally. Dr. Carlo Moreno from University of Idaho emphasizes “it is important to use a participatory approach with stakeholder buy in; the expert approach of [the] researcher is outdated.” Farming communities are often more familiar with the ecological and social degradation than visiting researchers, therefore it is important to include farmers in sustainability design because they will be maintaining it rather than the researchers.

Beyond the ecological, political, and social sciences, indigenous people and the landless have adopted agroecology as a foundation to counter “the destructive practice and unhealthy food produced by industrial agriculture.” Social movements like La Via Campesina (the Landless Worker’s Movement in Brazil or MST) use agroecology in order to form an alternative agricultural model in which food and natural resources are not commodified, countering the capitalistic view of food and natural resources as commodities.

A New Generation

When I came back from Veracruz, I was excited to share with my dad that I had seen the farming of milpa for the first time, and I finally knew what he was talking about all those years ago on the phone to his family. When I described how I’d witnessed the fields being ploughed by oxen and other details, he commented, “We don’t need to do that anymore, we have tractors.” That was the end of the discussion. I never brought it back up again. I couldn’t understand why he no longer wanted to discuss the growing of milpa. Was he too far removed from his past now? Were there some technological advancements that had been helpful? Since then, I have yet to share with him what I plan to do next with my pursuit of agroecology.

Milpa field in Nicaragua.

Even though I no longer have conversations with my dad about farming, it hasn’t deterred my interest or determination. I know that agroecology is the way to bring back autonomy to farmers.

Ultimately, I have found a science that honors traditional knowledge and my own family history and will ensure that farmers will be able to grow plentiful, healthy food for generations to come.


Altieri M and Toledo V (2011). The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies 38(3) 587–612.

Pesticide Action Network (2009). Agroecology and Sustainable Development: Findings from the UN led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.

Rosett, P and Martinez Torres, E (2016). Agroecologia, territorio, recampesinacion, y movimiento sociales. Estudios Sociales. Revista de investigacion scientifica 25(47): 275–299.

Wright, A (1990). The death of Ramon Gonzalez: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma: Austin, University of Texas Press.

About the Author:

Adriana Murguia Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems concentration at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is currently a policy fellow at the Pesticide Action Network. Her next steps and aspirations are to pursue a graduate degree in natural resource management and to work with farm-field schools: working with small farming communities to come up with experimental solutions to their crop problems. Her research interest is the formation of native-seed conservation in Latin America by way of farming cooperativism.