Last Thursday, the New York Times featured the decline, and more recently the resurgence, of the traditional varieties of corn grown by Zapotec farmers in Mexico’s Oaxaca state. The article focused on the farmers in the Zapotec community of Santa Ana Zegache.

Native Mexican, or “landrace” corn, grown in Oaxaca
Native Mexican, or “landrace” corn, grown in Oaxaca (All photos by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on Flickr, Creative Commons licenses)

The piece in the Times made the facts clear: the white, yellow, and burgundy-colored corn (also called maize) has been grown as a domesticated crop for thousands of years in Mexico. Farmers typically keep a portion of the harvest for family consumption, save seeds for the coming year, and sell the rest. The author of the article, Victoria Burnett, quoted a police officer named Lorenzo Gaspar Montes who raises the crop in Santa Ana: “Corn is in our roots,” he said.

However, market prices for the native corn, often referred to as “landrace,” have suffered over the past 20 years, forcing farmers to cut down on their crops or go out of business—or move north to large cities for employment. Free trade with the U.S. and the termination of price supports have undercut the corn market in Mexico and driven down prices. Mexico now imports a third of its corn from the United States. Nearly half of the men from Santa Ana work in the U.S. as a result.

But the Times reported that a change is occurring. A small but noticeable movement has started among some high-end restaurants in the U.S. and Europe, which are beginning to feature foods such as tamales and tortillas on their menus that are made from landrace corn raised by small-scale traditional growers in Oaxaca. The article mentioned Cosme, a restaurant in the Flatiron District of New York, and Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen, as examples.

Cosme obtains its corn from a company based in Los Angeles, Masienda, which buys the foods from the growers in Mexico. Jorge Gaviria, the founder of Masienda, drives around the Oaxaca countryside buying a ton of corn here, another couple tons there—or even as little as 100 kilos from some farmers. He has around 100 clients in Europe and the U.S. The Times referred to him as the dominating player on a very small playing field. He imported about 80 tons of corn in 2014, but he expects to import much more this year—around 400 tons. He also plans to open tortillerías in the U.S. in 2016.

A farmer examines maize varieties as part of a participatory maize breeding project in Oaxaca
A farmer examines maize varieties as part of a participatory maize breeding project in Oaxaca

The reporter contacted various Mexican experts about the new trend to feature traditional Mexican corn products in restaurants of major western urban areas. Martha Willcox, a geneticist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and Flavio Aragón Cuevas, another geneticist, are working to improve the production of landrace corn varieties and to make sure that some of them don’t die out because of a lack of local production.

Dr. Willcox expressed the hope that increasing demand will inspire some young people into staying in their traditional villages and continuing to farm rather than emigrating north for urban employment. Another official, Luis Herrera Estrella, estimated that the developing market for gourmet corn might be able to provide employment for about 20 percent of the smallholders. Dr. Herrera emphasized that a key to sustaining the traditional way of life of the small scale farmers was to support them with all of the technology possible.

Farmers participating in a maize breeding project field day in Oaxaca
Farmers participating in a maize breeding project field day in Oaxaca

But the experts warned that increasing demand for supplies of the traditional corn has its risks too. Amado Ramírez, an agricultural engineer in Oaxaca, warned that focusing just on increasing yields and improving farming methods could disrupt the traditional system of farming.

On that point, Mr. Gaviria, the importer from Los Angeles, agreed. Masienda, his company, only buys surpluses from farmers after they have saved enough corn for their own families. He emphasized that corn should not be grown for cash, it should be grown for subsistence.

In Santa Ana, farmer Juan Velasco told the New York Times he did not worry about their lives being turned over by increasing demands from high-end New York restaurants. He told the reporter that he was glad he was now able to feed his crops to people rather than just giving the surpluses to the sheep.