to Mr. Evarts.
Mexico , May 21, 1879.
Sir: Ten days ago I accepted an invitation from one of the largest hacendados (planters) of the Yalley of San Martin, in the State of Puebla, to witness the trial of American agricultural machinery which he was making. This valley is one of the best wheat-growing regions in this republic, and the present is the harvest season.
Mexico, notwithstanding it lies mainly in the tropics, has a considerable area of lands very suitable for the production of wheat of good quality. At an elevation of from 6,000 to 8,500 feet above the sea, [Page 805] wherever the soil is sufficiently fertile, it is produced; and at these altitudes there are many broad valleys and table lands where the cultivation is extensively carried on, mainly by irrigation, although in many localities an annual crop is raised without irrigation. And even at a lower elevation than 6,000 feet wheat is grown. In the Valley of Oaxaca and elsewhere, say 4,000 feet above the sea, I have seen large fields of wheat and sugar-cane cultivated with success side by side. Besides in the northern States of the republic, as Sonora and Chihuahua, there are large tracts of lands adapted to wheat-cultivation much nearer the sea-level; so that Mexico is capable of producing not only all the wheat which is needed for its own consumption, but under favorable circumstances, it might be able to export this grain in considerable quantities. Up to the present time it has not been able to accomplish either of these most desirable objects, but it is hoped that the movement now being made to introduce American agricultural machinery may be an important factor in hastening their realization.
Notwithstanding there is so large a portion of territory admirably adapted for wheat production, wheat-bread is virtually a luxury in this country, as only the upper and more well-to-do classes are accustomed to its general use. Cakes made of Indian corn or maize (undergoing a peculiar preparation) constitute the bread of the large majority of the population.
Mexico feels the great need of increasing its products for exportation, and it has been a fondly-cherished desire of the government and planters to so adapt the laws and the system of cultivation to such a condition as to promote the exportation of wheat and other small grains, and thus increase the capacity of the country for sustaining a large foreign trade.
The two chief reasons why wheat-bread is a luxury in Mexico, and why the country cannot export this product to foreign countries, are (1st) the cost of cultivation, and (2d) the difficulty and heavy cost of transportation. The first of these it is hoped may be obviated by the use of improved agricultural implements and machinery, with an indirect influence also upon the second. At the first glance it would seem that almost all circumstances favored the cheap production and sale of wheat. Labor is low, averaging about 25 cents per day, which is increased to say 31 cents during the harvest season. The government apparently does everything possible to encourage this industry. It has levied duties upon the importation of wheat and flour, which are almost prohibitory, in order to keep out competition from foreign countries, the import duty on wheat being $1.08 per bushel, and on flour $8.90 per barrel. The entire taxation, federal, State, and municipal, on the planters of the Valley of San Martin, one of the most productive and prosperous in the republic, does not amount to 1 per cent, upon a low appraisement of their lands. But with all these favoring conditions, wheat averages say $1.70 per bushel, and good flour $10 per barrel These figures represent the price of this product in the City of Mexico, which is near to the best wheat-growing regions of the country; but in all the districts on the Grulf and on the Pacific coasts, more or less distant from these regions, the price of flour is very much higher—even, in some seasons of scarcity of the wheat crop, reaching starvation prices.
From the foregoing figures it may be readily seen that it is an article beyond the reach of the poorer classes, especially in a country where wages are so low, and where corn, which is grown in every section, is much cheaper, and that until the cost of production is considerably reduced, it cannot be exported with profit. Although labor is so cheap, [Page 806] the complaint of the hacendados is that the supply is limited, and that it is very indifferent. The methods of cultivation also are of the rudest and most ancient character, which cause the sowing and harvesting to be very tedious and expensive. The plows most generally in use are of wood and of the most clumsy pattern, as are the other implements. Iron plows are being gradually introduced, but as yet they are by no means common; and drills, cultivators, and such class of machines and improved implements for sowing and cultivation are almost unknown for practical use here. And it is a safe estimate to say that 95 per cent, of all the wheat and other small grains is harvested by hand with the ancient small sickle, and that the same proportion is trodden out on the thrashing-floor with animals, and winnowed by the wind without the aid of any other implement or machinery than a flat wooden shovel.
The hacendados have long felt that these processes must be abandoned and a resort be had to the modern methods of cultivation, with the aid of improved machinery; and of late years a number of reapers, thrashers, drills, and other machinery have been imported from the United States and Europe; but to the present their working operations have not been so fully satisfactory as to lead to greatly increased importations and their general use.
Among the reasons for these unsatisfactory results have been that the persons who sought to use the machines were entirely unacquainted with their practical working—were unable to make changes to adapt them to the peculiarities of the grain and surface—and hence the machines never have had a fair trial; when they got out of order, or parts were broken or lost, it was found very difficult to repair them, and as native laborers were generally opposed to their use, it has in most cases resulted that after a short and imperfect trial the machines have ceased to be used, and were stored away in barns and warehouses to rust and decay.
The proprietor of the hacienda of Chualta (the hacienda, or plantation, visited by me in the valley of San Martin, referred to in the opening of this dispatch) is thoroughly impressed with the necessity of the application of modern improvements to grain cultivation, and he has comprehended the reasons for the failure heretofore of the improved agricultural machinery, and has taken measures to secure for them a fair trial. He has within the past three months brought from the United States the following (among others) machines and implements of the most accepted manufacturers: Havesters and binders self-rakers, droppers, thrashers with steam and horse power, drills for wheat, barley, and alfalfa (clover), corn-planters and cultivators, gang-plows, and a full variety of agricultural implements. With these instruments he has also brought out three American practical machinists and workmen, intimately acquainted with the construction of the machines and their operations, for the purpose of instructing the native laborers in their working management, to keep them in order, and to explain their merits and operation to the Mexican hacendados (planters). It was very gratifying to me to visit the hacienda of Chualta and witness the trial of two of the American harvesters (McCormick’s, of Chicago, and Osborne’s, of Auburn, N. Y.), which are attended by the special agents of the manufacturers in order to see what, if any, changes were necessary in order to adapt their machines to the Mexican wheat and fields. These agents inform me that they find the Mexican wheat very dry and feathery, from the long, dry season in which it always ripens; it has heavy heads, the stalks without blades, and short, and often standing very thin on the ground, for which reason a little difficulty was at first experienced in the machine gathering and binding the stalks. But with very few and simple modifications which [Page 807] they were able to make at once, they adapted them to these peculiarities. From the result of previous trials, it has been thought by some hacendados that a serious obstacle would be found to the successful operations of the machines in the ditches which line and intersect the fields for irrigation; but these have encountered no difficulty on that account. So far as I was able to judge, their operations were a complete success, and were so regarded by the Mexican hacendados who have witnessed their workings.
I regard this trial and the effort now being made by the proprietor of the hacienda of Chualta to introduce improved American agricultural machinery as a significant event for Mexico, for with its success there may be anticipated the following important results to flow from it:
- It will diminish the demand or necessity for manual labor which can be employed in other departments of agricultural work. The general complaint in all departments and by all writers who account for the backward condition of the country, is that there is a great want of more labor or workmen. This is especially the case with agriculture.
- It will cheapen the cost of production and will result in lower prices, This will be specially beneficial to the country in regard to wheat, bringing it within the reach of the common people, and it may eventually result (with improved means of transportation) in an ability to export it to foreign countries.
- It will shorten the period or season both in planting and of harvesting. The first begins in October, and owing to the rude methods and implements for doing the work, as also on account of the deep planting or sowing required here, say 6 inches, a long time is necessarily consumed, the season lasting into and sometimes to the end of December. The natural result of this is that the harvesting is scattered along through two months or more, as the crops must ripen in the order of their sowing. With improved plows in place of the old wooden Asiatic pattern now in general use, and with drills and planters the planting or sowing season can be greatly shortened, and, with harvesters and thrashers, such as are now being operated in the haciendas of Chualta, the grain can be reaped and made ready for market in short order. This prompt harvesting will be particularly valuable in this climate, where the crops are often lost at the end of the season by the hail-storms and the early beginning of the rainy season.
- An indirect effect will be in an improvement in the system of irrigation so largely practiced in Mexico. In most haciendas the system is very rude and unmethodical. The use of modern improvements in agricultural machinery will lead to better methods of irrigation and a consequent enlargement of the crops.
- The influence of placing agriculture abreast with modern improvements and civilization will be to greatly elevate this industry and enlarge its importance in a country which has been too long devoted almost exclusively to mining. Notwithstanding Mexico has great capacity for wheat-production and for almost unlimited cultivation of coffee, sugar, and other tropical agricultural products, of the $28,700,000 of its annual exports last year more than $22,000,000 were gold and silver, or more than 77 per cent, of the entire exports. Besides the general effect cannot fail to be most salutary in quickening the intelligence and inquiry of the people, awakening them from the lethargy of past ages and turning their attention from revolution and civil strife to the development of the wonderful resources of the country.
The trial which is now being made for the introduction of improved American agricultural machinery will demonstrate its fitness for Mexico, [Page 808] and it is to be hoped that the hacendados and citizens generally of this country will avail themselves of their use to such an extent as to reap the benefits to which I have alluded.
I am, &c.,