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In the Land of Milpa and Honey

Milpa refers to the ancient, Mayan agricultural practice of companion planting corn with beans and squash. Maize and beans are the two main staples throughout Mesoamerica, and within this planting scheme that westerners often refer to as ‘the 3 sisters’, these two crops enjoy a very symbiotic relationship. Corn grows a tall stalk quite quickly, but it’s also tough on the soil, depleting its nutrients rapidly and thoroughly. Beans are legumes that fix nitrogen and restore nutrients in the soil, while providing a nice protein source in the Mayan diet. They are climbers that benefit from a trellis, which is where the corn comes in to provide a natural trellis even after the cobs have been harvested and the stalks are dry. Squash completes the trifecta by providing another abundant, nutritious food source while serving as a ground cover around the corn and bean plants to keep weeds out and keep moisture in the soil. They also benefit from the nitrogen fixing tendencies of the beans and the natural trellises provided by the corn.

Traditional Mayan Milpa

Permaculture is a term and a philosophy that has picked up a lot of steam in the world of sustainable agriculture since it’s inception nearly 40 years ago.  And indeed Milpa is a popular component in modern permaculture,  even though it’s been in practice for centuries in Mesoamerica. I find it interesting that most Mayans I’ve encountered have never even heard the term ‘permaculture’, but most of them are practicing it every day, just like many generations before them. The garden of the Spanish school we’re staying at is literally a food forest with over 50 tree species in a one acre space, most of which provide edible fruits, medicinal value and/or pollination, but Antonio has no idea that his garden is a model of permaculture…it’s just the only way he knows how to do things.

Spanish class cabañas within the food forest of Corazon Maya

It was in conversations with Antonio that I got a sense for the Mayan’s respect for pollinators and especially bees. Beekeeping has been a way of life here for a very long time, and according to Antonio, most Mayans don’t buy honey in the store. Everyone has a cousin, uncle or friend who keeps bees, so most families have a big bottle that they continually fill up over at their relative’s house. Local honey at it’s finest.

Marta and Antonio with their granddaughter Ixjca and their family jug of honey
Ixjca loves honey!

Over the last several decades, the nasty fingers of chemical agriculture have clawed their way into Guatemalan agriculture, especially in larger operations. Here on Lake Atitlan however, I’ve found quite a few Mayan farmers that never succumbed to the lure of using chemicals to achieve bigger yields and they will proudly point out that their produce is grown naturally, the way Mayans have always done it. Any given plot usually has 2 -3 different crops growing together as companions, and crop rotation is strictly adhered to.

Companion planting with onions, cilantro and marigolds

Compost provides most of the nutrition to their soil but their composting systems are quite different than what I’m used to. Typically they will dig a large hole in the volcanic soil and then fill it in with food scraps and organic field waste and let it just sit there and decompose slowly over time, as opposed to making raised piles and turning them often to heat them up for a much quicker compost. I’ve always thought cold piles deliver a better compost overall, so I’m with them there, but digging a giant hole in the Carolina clay for food scraps would just make a really gross pond.

Digging giant holes is no big deal in this soft, sandy, black soil, which lends itself perfectly to no-till farming, and theses folks are the ultimate no-till farmers! I haven’t seen a tractor or even a rototiller on the lake yet, as most farmers here typically use 2 main tools… a big hoe and a machete. As far as I can tell, they do all of their soil work with these hoes. Simple and completely effective.

Mayan farmer

Besides being blessed with delicious soil, Atitlan farmers get the added bonus of an ideal growing climate. There are basically 2 seasons here…the dry season and the wet season. And being at 5,240 feet in the tropics, the lake maintains a fairly constant, temperate climate year round…aka ‘The Land of the Eternal Spring’. Fruit grows well here. Papayas, mangoes, bananas, oranges and avocados are standouts here, while the veggies that grow best here are crops that we typically grow in the spring or fall in NC. Beets, carrots, onions, chard, broccoli, kale and lettuce are outstanding here. Coffee also thrives.

Farmer Alejandro spreading out coffee beans to dry in the sun
Coffee beans in various stages of drying

During the rainy season (May – October), irrigation isn’t an issue, but during the rest of the year it’s bone dry here. We’ve seen it rain once in 5 weeks here…a brief drizzle the other night, so in this season, irrigation is crucial. There are few streams on this side of the lake, so the primary water source is their gigantic rainwater collection tank…aka the lake. Most of the farmers have turned to gasoline powered pumps to  get water from the lake  uphill to their fields, but I’ve met a few hard-core, old-school Mayan farmers that still irrigate their plots with 5 gallon buckets of water carried from the lake.

Farmer Antonio lugging buckets of water to irrigate his crops

And while the Mayan farmers here have a lot of natural blessings, they still hold ultimate respect for Mother Earth and take nothing for granted. The other day while I was in my Spanish class in the garden, we suddenly heard a rather robust male voice spoken in the local Mayan dialect, just a few feet from us on the other side of the fence. The neighboring farmer was delivering a gratitude-laden prayer for a healthy, upcoming crop. My teacher informed me that all traditional Mayan farmers always pray to Mother Earth before doing any significant work in the field.


Certainly an attitude of gratitude blended with manifesting intentions through the law of attraction is an approach that is somewhat embraced in the modern permaculture movement. However, it’s been my observation that in our modern society, even within the realms of sustainable agriculture and permaculture, there is a general lack of acknowledgement of the contributions that indigenous people all over the earth have had on sustainable agriculture as we know it today. So I’ll contribute to that conversation right here and now (since I’m in the neighborhood) and say…

Thank you, with deep gratitude to the Mayans and all other indigenous cultures who have thrived at growing stuff. Thank you for creating templates for us modern humans to achieve sane food systems within a world in which a handful of multi-national corporations appear bent on controlling the food systems of the world. Thank you!


4 thoughts on “In the Land of Milpa and Honey

  1. I’m a new blogger and a permie..searched for nc and permaculture and found your delightful blog! I really enjoy your writing style. We are planting 3 sisters style this year for the first time. I found some Cherokee white flour corn to plant, an heirloom saved by a native American lady in NC!! It is supposed to get 15 ft tall. Thank you for your beautiful and meaningful story, I feel it is relevant and inspiring
    Definitely going to follow


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