Hope for a Beleaguered Planet....

Our book Milpa: From Seed to Salsa - Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future explores through a blend of essays, recipes and documentary photography how the ancient agricultural knowledge and the wealth of 1000 year-old seeds and planting practices still in use among the Mixtec peoples of southern Mexico can help us to meet the ecological and food crises of today.

The essays, written in conjunction with campesino farmers, serve as a warning about the complicated dangerous effects inherent in the rapidly expanding distribution of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds in Mexico, the birthplace of corn. Our documentary cookbook discusses alternatives for campesino farmers across the world and gardeners and consumers who care about food safety. Using the example of the Milpa planting system in the Mixteca Alta region of Southern Mexico just north of Oazaxa City, the book supports recent studies by UN investigators that show that small plots of land, heritage seeds and sustainable practices can in fact feed the world while enriching the soils on which we all depend for life…….

Milpa contains the traditional recipes lovingly shared by the local indigenous Mixtec women, allowing readers to re-create the culinary magic that flows from this ancient agricultural system. Recipes are painstakingly tested and photographed in traditional indigenous kitchens as well as in a professional modern test kitchen. Please purchase the book, below.....

All Rights Reserved: © Phil-Dahl Bredine, © Kathy Dahl-Bredine © Judith Cooper Haden Photography, © Susana Trilling SOMH.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"CAJETE," The Milpa's Ancient Ecological Native Wonder

 In the villages of the Mixteca Alta there is a special kind of native corn that should give pause to the sometimes overweening pride of our modern scientific era and to its scorn for the ignorance of previous “less scientific” ages. It is commonly called “cajete” from the form in which it is planted in small indentations or “cajetes” in the dry fields. It is a very ancient corn in a land whose indigenous scientists invented corn from a parent plant called “teocintle” around 10,000 years ago. That feat alone, which accomplished an unequaled botanical leap from a wild plant with no cob or husk to “modern” corn with no apparent intermediary species, should humble our scientific hubris.

 But the corn called cajete in addition does things that the most technically sophisticated hybrid or GM corn cannot repeat. Planted in the long dry season in the Mixteca Alta by digging with a traditional tool called a coa until residual moisture from the previous year’s rainy season is uncovered it germinates and grows up to 4 months without rain. Some of the cajete varieties have long above ground roots that have a kind of mucus on them that, university investigators here believe has the capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen into soils and sustain yearly crops of cajete without diminishing soil fertility. Only leguminous plants are supposed to possess such capabilities.

 The cajete system is a sophisticated ecological and socio-economic invention as well. The checkerboard field of small, box-like indentations in which the corn is planted serves to collect scarce rainfall and helps prevent soil erosion. Since planting cajete is more labor intensive than traditional planting systems it is supported by and in turn supports a community socio-economic system based on mutual aid called gueza. I help my neighbors plant and they help me. And so on an early February morning one can see a line of 6 to 8 people with tall coas moving across a field in a synchronized planting dance.

In each indentation planters drop 3 to 4 seeds of corn, a native bean seed and the seed for native squash. By June the cajete Milpa is complete with its complementary planted varieties and the spontaneous edible plants called quelites that will grow between the rows. A full food system for both Mixtec families and native soils.

© Phil Dahl-Bredine
© Photographs Judith Cooper Haden


  1. Milpas are fascinating. Where in Mesoamerica can I see a healthy functioning Milpa?

  2. Our book takes place an hour north of OAXACA city in southern Mexico. The region is called the Mixteca Alta, north and west of Nochixtlan. Many small rural low-income farmers all over Mesoamerica farm in this fashion.