Several native breeds of corn have nearly lost the battle against more profitable strains and while their nutritional value may be similar, it is their sentimental and cultural importance that make them worth preserving in the eyes of one Mexican businessman.
Not only that, but Rafael Mier would like to see the Toluqueño palomero corn, the maize from which popcorn is made, become popular again.
It is one of eight once popular strains, and was mostly cultivated in the Toluca valley of the State of México.
Today, according to the federal Agriculture Secretariat (Sagarpa), these eight varieties of palomero are grown on just 515 hectares in Tamaulipas.
Mier, both an entrepreneur and an advocate for native Mexican corn strains, decided a few months ago to rescue the Toluqueño maize because he was worried that the genetic diversity of Mexican corn remains stored rather than being cultivated.
“I began looking for seeds in the homes and markets of the towns of Calimaya and Temoaya, in the Atlacomulco region, and in the Valley of Toluca, but I had no luck,” he said. “The people told me their grandmothers used to grow [this variety of corn], but that no one did any more.”
Mier then decided to go to the the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a non-profit institution located in Texcoco. Since 1943, it has been dedicated both to the development of improved varieties of wheat and maize and introducing farmers to better agricultural practices.
CIMMYT houses the largest collection of corn seeds available, and Mier was able to access them and eventually grow them on his Valle de Bravo farm.
“[At the center] I found Toluqueño corn from 27 different sources, all collected between 1940 and 1950,” explained Mier. The stored samples of each corn variety are represented by five kilograms of seed, two of which are available for experimentation.
Although “two kilos aren’t even enough to cultivate a fourth of one hectare,” Mier’s efforts and time have paid off and now he has a two-hectare plantation of Toluqueño palomero corn just 136 kilometers from Mexico City.
The businessman will be ready for his first harvest around October when he will have to determine which varieties are the most viable. “We’ll take the four or five most successful ones,” and slowly but steadily he expects his yield will grow.
Mier believes the same effort should be applied to other varieties of palomero corn, such as those from Jalisco and Chihuahua, which are also “on the brink of disappearing.”
The major threat for Mexican popcorn is U.S. imports. According to official data, 97% of corn for popping is imported, which amounts to over 60,000 tonnes every year. In order to meet the national demand, Mexico would have to cultivate the corn on more than 15,000 hectares.