Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The principal crop, maize, is considered a basic part of every Totonac's diet. In the highlands, there is only one season for the cultivation of maize (March to September or October). In the lowlands, two crops per year are possible; however, land erosion and overuse of the soil have made double cropping more difficult. Agriculture is labor intensive. Other subsistence crops are beans, chilies, and, on a lesser scale, other vegetables that are grown on small family plots near the houses.
Sugarcane became an important commercial crop in Totonacapan during the colonial period, although production could not rival that of the great sugar plantations. Coffee began to be cultivated on a large scale around 1950. The ecological conditions in many communities are favorable for this plant, and production boomed in the following decades. Prices, however, are dependent on the international market for coffee beans, and cultivators suffer great losses when they go down.
In Veracruz, vanilla has traditionally been an important commercial crop. Because of a growing consumer rejection of artificial chemical substitutes for vanilla, the cultivation of this crop has expanded and may offer an alternative to dependence on coffee as the only cash crop.
The oil industry has created new jobs for many Totonac men living on the coastal plains of Veracruz, but it has damaged the marine environment and some agricultural lands.
Industrial Arts. Tools, household items, and clothing are made by family members. There is no external market for these goods.
Trade. The Totonac rely on middlemen to take their agricultural produce to distant markets. Aware that these individuals were monopolizing the transport and distribution of produce to the detriment of the growers, the Mexican government created agencies to replace the middlemen, who had become local caciques, but corruption and mismanagement proved difficult to eradicate. The Instituto Mexicano del Cafe, a government agency for the purchase and marketing of coffee beans, was terminated in 1989. Attempts to create nonprofit marketing agencies that aid the small growers of cash crops continue, with varied results.
Division of Labor. For many years, men were in charge of the maize fields and women took care of the household and the family vegetable plots. Coffee cultivation, which requires a great deal of labor, has altered these patterns; women, children—in fact, entire families—work together to harvest the delicate beans. Migration in search of wage labor has led to further changes: when the men are absent, women must work the fields themselves or find someone else to carry out the household agricultural labor.
Land Tenure. Small private holdings are predominant in Totonac communities. There are few ejidos in the northern Sierra de Puebla. Communal lands, which do not fall within the category of government-granted ejidos, are also scarce. The distribution of land is unequal; mestizo cattlemen own large ranches, whereas many Indian families are landless rural laborers. Many owners of small plots of land have formed cooperatives, often with government aid, to obtain mutual benefits. Along the coast of Veracruz, Totonac fishers are also organized into cooperatives.