Milpa

Milpa

[mil-puh]
Milpa is a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica. It has been most extensively described in the Yucatán peninsula area of Mexico. The word milpa is a Mexican Spanish term meaning "field," and is derived from the Nahuatl word phrase mil-pa "to the field" (Nahuatl mil-li "field" + -pa "towards"). Based on the ancient agricultural methods of Maya peoples and other Mesoamerican peoples, milpa agriculture produces maize, beans, lima beans and squash. The milpa cycle calls for 2 years of cultivation and eight years of letting the area lie fallow. Agronomists point out that the system is designed to create relatively large yields of food crops without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and they point out that while it is self-sustaining at current levels of consumption, there is a danger that at more intensive levels of cultivation the milpa system can become unsustainable.

The word is also used for a small field, especially in Mexico or Central America, that is cleared from the jungle, cropped for a few seasons, and then abandoned for a fresh clearing.

Charles C. Mann described milpa agriculture as follows, in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Knopf, 2005, pp. 197-198):

"A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth, and mucana.... Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;.... Beans have both lysine and tryptophan.... Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, "is one of the most successful human inventions ever created."

Milpitas, California derives its name from the term "milpa".

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