Abstract Governments around the world have embraced trade liberalisation as a means of enhancing efficiency to realise economic growth and alleviate poverty. Likewise, the Mexican government implemented neoliberal policy reforms, the NAFTA in particular, to stimulate sustainable development. Using the Mexican maize sector as illustration, this article describes the adaptation process of smallholders to market changes shaped by these reforms. Going beyond the aggregated level, we have investigated smallholders' livelihood strategies. Contrary to what economic models estimated, our data suggests that farmers intensified the cultivation of maize rather than switch to sectors in which Mexico has a comparative advantage.