The Forest Gardens of Quintana Roo

Dragon Fruit (photo credit:Serious Eats)

Dragon Fruit (photo credit:Serious Eats)

By Fred Bahnson

When government extension agents first came to Juan Bautista’s Yucatan village of Chun-Yah, a tiny pueblo in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, they told him he should start growing pitaya, also known as dragonfruit. Originating in Meso-America, this cactus is now cultivated in parts of Asia, Australia, and Israel. The fruit is tasty, the plant is easily propagated, and it thrives in places with long dry seasons like the Yucatan.

Bautista and other farmers in Chun-Yah followed the agronomists’ instructions, clear-cutting nearby forests and building elaborate trellis systems made of concrete and wire to support the vine-like pitaya. Soon after the project began, the funding to maintain those trellises disappeared. The agronomists were at a loss as to how pitaya could be grown otherwise, and they left Chun-Yah. That was 15 years ago.

Rather than give up on pitaya, which by now was their main cash crop, the farmers of Chun-Yah decided to grow it in their milpas, the traditional Mayan field.

I recently visited Juan Bautista in his milpa. Standing there in the shade of a mango tree, I realized that this was no ordinary farm field—it was an intensively managed forest garden, a food-producing ecosystem built in nature’s image.

In traditional Mayan agriculture, maize has been the milpa’s main crop. But numerous sister crops also provide balance to both the farmer’s diet and the milpa ecosystem itself: beans, squash, melons, chiles, medicinal plants, pineapple, trees for fruit and lumber, plus the myriad fauna that call the milpa their home.

So what did Juan Bautista and the farmers of Chun-Yah do differently once the agronomists left? They essentially exchanged concrete trellises for living ones.

Pitaya is an epiphyte, meaning that it pulls moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that collects on the host plant, on which it depends for structural support. Instead of clear-cutting forest to plant pitaya, the farmers cut trees selectively, leaving Mexican Cedar and other lumber-producing tree crops for later harvest. They then select the host trees on which pitaya will grow, cutting them at head height to allow for easy harvesting of the dragonfruit. The host trees remain alive, their roots holding soil in place while bringing up nutrients from the sub-soil. Regular pruning of the trees provides mulch for other crops. The farmers plant pitaya and other food crops into this living forest system—a well-planned, well-managed agro-ecological system.

There is no irrigation in Chun-Yah. Other than a little fertilizer for the host trees, the only input is the knowledge and labor of farmers who have created this forest ecosystem. Growing pitaya on the concrete trellises was fine, but the only crop produced was the pitaya. Growing pitaya in the polyculture of the milpa means that Juan Bautista gets his cash crop plus all the benefits the milpa brings, with little drop in yield.

There are three main pitaya harvests between June and October. Through the Chun-Yah cooperative, Bautista sells his fruit locally in Quintana Roo. On his three hectares he harvests around 12 tons of dragonfruit per year. At $1/kilo, he’s earning $12,000 annually, almost double Mexico’s median annual household income of $7,297. And all that food coming from his milpa means a lower grocery bill than most city dwellers.

Thanks to their ingenuity, the farmers of Chun-Yah haven’t had to leave their farms to work in el norte, and they are able to live comfortably on several hectares each.

And those agronomists who left 15 years ago? They have returned to learn how to grow pitaya from the farmers of Chun-Yah. Which is proof that these Mayan villages and their ancient agricultural arts are not just vestiges of a lost way of life; they are crucial models that could teach us “moderns” how to farm in ways that work with, not in spite of, our surrounding ecosystems.

Fred Bahnson is a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.

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