Although nearly half of Mexico's total land area is officially classified as agricultural, only 12 percent of the total area is cultivated. In the early 1990s, only some 24 million hectares of a possible 32 million hectares were under cultivation.
Extensive irrigation projects carried out in the 1940s and 1950s greatly expanded Mexico's cropland, especially in the north. The government created areas of intensive irrigated agriculture by constructing storage dams across the valleys of the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) and the rivers flowing down from the Sierra Madre Occidental, by controlling the lower Río Colorado (Colorado River), and by tapping subterranean aquifers.
These water-control projects allowed Mexico to expand rapidly its total land area under cultivation. Between 1950 and 1965, the total area of irrigated land in Mexico more than doubled, from 1.5 million hectares to 3.5 million hectares. Despite a slowdown in the development of irrigated land after 1965, the total irrigated area had expanded to more than 6 million hectares by 1987. In the early 1990s, 80 percent of Mexico's cultivated land required regular irrigation. Because of the high cost of irrigation, however, the government has emphasized expanding production on existing farmland rather than expanding the area under irrigation.
Agricultural practices in Mexico range from traditional techniques, such as the slash-and-burn cultivation of indigenous plants for family subsistence, to the use of advanced technology and marketing expertise in large-scale, capital-intensive export agriculture. Government extension programs have fostered the wider use of machinery, fertilizers, and soil conservation techniques. Although corn is grown on almost half of Mexico's cropland, the country became a net importer of grain during the 1970s.
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