PAN-AMERICAN ADVENTURE: On the trail of sustainable farming in Latin America
The Del Cabo Cooperative of Southern Baja keeps
300 farm families busy growing organic crops for export

There are surely easier ways to make a living, says manager John Graham, but he likes supporting rural communities, and keeping small farms viable.

By Don Lotter

Posted July 20, 2004: As I drive into San Jose del Cabo, at the southern tip of Baja California, I find it hard to believe that this desert next to the sea can be a significant producer of quality organic produce for the US. Yet during the growing season from December to April, nearly one semi-truck a day goes north filled with organic produce grown by small farm families, and around $7 million a year flows into the local agrarian-based communities.

The partnership between Jacobs Farm Inc.of Pescadero, California, and the Del Cabo cooperatives, Productores del Cabo and Agroproductos del Cabo, form a collaboration that may be a model for how to sustain small farms in Mexico by using private enterprise and the economic power of American consumers. NOTE: The two cooperatives, Productores del Cabo and Agroproductos del Cabo, are very closely related, so I’ll refer to them as the Del Cabo cooperative. Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo Inc. is the name of the organic produce company based in California and will be referred to as Jacobs Farm.

When proposing as a model the relationship between the Del Cabo cooperative and Jacobs Farm, however, I have to temper the proposal with a statement by Sandra Jacobs, company founder along with Larry Jacobs, “No one in their right mind would do what we’ve done in San Jose del Cabo in order to make a lot of money.”

In 1985 Larry and Sandra Jacobs showed up in, at that time, the little town of San Jose del Cabo. They were travelers who had spent time in Central America and had an organic farm in Pescadero, California The idea came to them of getting farmers in San Jose del Cabo to grow organic vegetables which they would market in the US in order to add an off-season component to their supply.

The Jacobs extensively consulted their markets, such well known organic produce distribution companies as Veritable Vegetable, about starting an operation in Mexico, and got positive responses.

“The whole thing was new to the Mexicans in San Jose del Cabo, and the businesses and officials who we needed help from – from Mexican customs to Mexicana Airlines, really were supportive” said Sandra Jacobs by phone from her Pescadero office.

A team was put together in San Jose del Cabo. Ten farmers signed up that first year. The farmers were coached by the Jacobs and by Mexican agronomists on how to grow, pick, and pack for the organic market. There was no organic certification for Mexico back then.

From this was formed the Del Cabo cooperative, which has now grown to over 300 farmers. Jacobs Farm has grown into a company with over 60 employees in California.

During the same period, San Jose del Cabo has become one of the fastest growing resort areas in Mexico, swamping the original inhabitants – farmers, fishing families, and a few businesses.

The big task of managing relationships with over 300 small farms

John Graham, a self-described “Okie” from an Oklahoma farm, is the San Jose del Cabo coordinator of the partnership between the Del Cabo cooperative and Jacobs Farm. Graham joined Jacobs Farm in 1991 after doing stints in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and the Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as work on fuel-efficient wood stoves in Malawi in central Africa.

In addition to providing technical support for farmers, the Del Cabo cooperative purchases many of the inputs needed by the farmers, like drip irrigation equipment, organic pest control materials, and seeds. The volume purchases reduce the costs and the products are provided to the farmers at cost, so essentially it is a buying club. Additionally, via Graham and other managers of the cooperative, the farmers have access to innovative organic inputs and techniques that have been trialed, researched and comply with NOP organic standards.

Del Cabo also employs field managers, known as zone managers, who basically see that farmers produce and deliver what Jacobs Farm needs. There are a dozen zone managers who coordinate twelve groups of farmers from eight communities in the southern Baja peninsula. The farming communities have formed around sites where water is available, often government developed wells, irrigation canals, and catchment dams. All of the farms in the cooperative are irrigated by gravity systems, and drip wherever possible.

The partnership between the farmers and the operations managers is not always easy, “If making money was the only criteria, we probably wouldn’t be doing it this way, with so many small farmers living in rural towns, many without telephones,” says Graham, “Cooperatives are not necessarily the most efficient way to produce, but it’s a way to make it possible for small farmers to enter the export marketplace.”

“We work to maintain our supply commitments by coordinating the production from many growing areas and by trying to overlap the production so that all the 300 or so farmers have opportunities to produce and market their crops. By providing transplants from the cooperative nurseries and by timing the numbers of plants that are planted throughout the season, we can regulate the flow of produce.” Graham likes to over-plant by about 20% of projected needs in order to ensure supply.

The ultimate goal: keeping farmers on the land

Despite the challenges of keeping over 300 small farmers organized, Graham likes being involved in keeping farmers on their land and in sustaining traditional farming communities.

Much of the land here is being bought by real estate speculators hoping to cash in on the tourist boom. Farmers are often convinced to sell their land, as the property values have risen rapidly over the past few years. The Jacobs Farm cooperative provides economic incentives and opportunities for farmers to keep their land.

The main crops grown by the Del Cabo farmers are tomatoes, culinary herbs, and a diverse array of vegetable and fruit crops. The cooperative also runs a drying facility for tomatoes and mangos produced for sale on the organic market by Jacobs Farm.

The zone managers keep tabs on how each farm’s crop is developing. While I was interviewing farmer Hectorio Guillins in his field of cherry tomatoes interplanted with young mango trees, a zone manager came by and met with him. The manager, Mario Cortez, wrote out the maintenance requirements for Hectorio’s crop of young mango trees, had him sign the sheet, and kept a carbon copy, illustrating one of the strategies for sustaining relationships with some 300 farmers. Zone managers meet with their farmer groups about once a month.

The Del Cabo cooperative farms have been certified by Oregon Tilth since 1992. The week I was there they were preparing for an inspector from Ecologica, a Costa Rican company hired by Oregon Tilth to do inspections in Mexico and Central America. The cost is high -- several thousand dollars per inspection -- which is why cooperatives are about the only way certified organic production can be done by small farmers.

While most of the farmers who grow for Jacobs Farm are based in southern Baja California, Jacobs Farm also has growers up and down the 1000-mile length of Baja California – from San Jose del Cabo to Ensenada. Cropping follows the seasons from south to north, maintaining steady production through the year.

The planting season in San Jose del Cabo starts in August. Baja California is part of the Sonoran Desert climate zone, which gets summer rains in August and September. All of the farmers bolster the scant rain that makes it into the crop root zone with irrigation from wells.

Stormy weather makes for tough farming

The growing season is also the hurricane season. Last year in October, 2003, the area was hit by two hurricanes, each with several days of hard rain and high winds. Damage to San Jose del Cabo farmers’ fields was extensive – many were under powerful torrents of water flowing from the surrounding hills. Crops and enormous amounts of soil were washed away. The area still hasn’t recovered.

Nearly all of the farmers in Del Cabo cooperative are ejido-based—farming on communal lands redistributed to peasants during the 1930s (see box for details). The San Jose del Cabo ejido was formed in 1936.

Many San Jose del Cabo ejido owners have sold their land, although they may be amongst the lucky ones, as San Jose del Cabo is probably in the top one or two percentile of ejido land value in all of Mexico, due to the tourist boom here.

Del Cabo cooperative member Gerardo Coeto, known as “Moreno,” and his wife Alicia and two teenagers, farm two hectares near San Jose del Cabo. Alicia’s father was a member of the 272-member San Jose del Cabo ejido, joining in 1954. At that time many families were asked to join in order for the ejido to qualify with the government.

Moreno and Alicia joined the Del Cabo cooperative in the second year that Larry and Sandra Jacobs started organizing farmers. “Only a few farmers signed up with them the first year,” said Moreno. “We started with basil our first year. After we sold all of it, lots of farmers signed up the next year.”

Moreno and Alicia’s current crops are cherry and Roma tomatoes, sage, marjoram, oregano, mint, basil, and chamomile.

Compost, compost tea, rotations of cowpeas, corn and sorghum cover crops all provide soil fertility for the farm. Most of the farmers in the area use at least two of those crops, plus compost, and increasingly compost tea for their soil amendments.

Moreno and Alicia’s 15-year old son, Andres, and 16-year old daughter Silvia, both help work the farm. Andres wants to continue farming when he is done with school. “He wanted to drop out of school to help me farm, but I told him to finish,” says Moreno.

Last year’s hurricanes hit Moreno and Alicia’s farm hard, carrying off 600 small mango trees, 60 lychee trees, nearly all of their annual crops, and untold tons of soil. “We had six hectares of crops before the hurricanes, now (six months later), we only have two,” says Moreno. The land they inherited sits in a vulnerable area of flood plain.

Pest management strategies are varied in Del Cabo

Pest management strategies that the cooperative farmers use include various botanical products including garlic and neem, oils, the old standby Bt, as well as releases of beneficial insects, resistant varieties, timing of plantings and crop rotations. All of these methods are worked out by Graham and the cooperative agronomists in collaboration with the farmers.

The Mexican ejido and the second and third deaths of Emiliano Zapata.”

The ejido, a communal land system, is a distinctive part of Mexican history. Ejido lands were traditionally the lands surrounding native villages. Until the early 20th century, ejido lands increasingly came under the control of the formerly Spanish oligarchy and owners of the large estates, known as latifundios.

Major changes came in the 1930s under President Lazaro Cárdenas. Along with the nationalization of the petroleum industry, now known as Pemex, and the creation of a national labor union, millions of hectares of land were redistributed to Mexican peasants under the ejido system.

Emiliano Zapata’s battle cry, “The land belongs to the people who work it,” was the anthem of the ejido movement. Farmers who I recently talked to still quote the words of Zapata when referring the ejido system.

By the 1990s Mexico’s 28,000 ejidos accounted for half of the national territory, albeit consistently the worse half.

Over the five decades since their inception however, the ejido system became deeply corrupt. Much of ejido land ended up, once again, under the control of the oligarchy and latifundistas.

Eduardo Galeano, in his classic book of the 1970’s, The Open Veins of Latin America, about the exploitation of Latin America by oligarchical and European powers, called the corruption of the ejido system “the second death of Emiliano Zapata”, who was betrayed while pursuing a truce and killed.

In the early 1990’s, under the infamously corrupt (for his involvement in the drug trade) presidency of Carlos Salinas, the process of privatization of ejido lands began and continues today.

Forest and water rights, while in the past simply sold illegally under the pre-1990s system, are now being sold legally under the privatization process. Bill Weinberg, in his densely informative 2000 book Homage to Chiapas, calls the privatization of the ejidos “Zapata’s third death” – it being simply the legalization of a corrupt process.

Under the privatization of ejido lands, small farmers, if they end up with any land, have often sold their land for pennies on the dollar.

Working hand and hand with this process has been NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the market-driven fall in corn prices – the crop that traditionally has been the backbone of the Mexican small farmer. (Actually it is difficult to call the fall in Mexican corn prices market-driven, since it is cheap corn from heavily subsidized US farmers that is responsible for the low prices.)

It is estimated that six million farmers will have sold or abandoned their ejido land and fled to the already overcrowded cities as part of the NAFTA process.

Del Cabo has promoted the planting of neem trees in the southern Baja region – nearly every Del Cabo farmer I visited had them lining his fields. The neem trees have turned out to be an excellent windbreak, but it has been difficult to process the seeds for pest control. Graham has found it more cost effective for Del Cabo to buy neem products.

“We’ve tried extracting neem, but the time involved in harvesting seeds and making a water-based extract that’s only effective for a short time, and then trying to get it out to 300 different fields, in most cases wasn’t practical, so we now buy a product processed in India,” says Graham.

Making a difference in the Del Cabo economy

The Del Cabo farmers are paid every two weeks, usually before money from the sales show up in the Jacobs Farm accounts. “By paying growers regularly, in addition to providing services and training, we’ve been able to give them the economic stability to become reliable producers who are dedicated to organic agriculture” says Graham.

“We are generating significant amounts of money that goes into local rural economies via crop receipts, employment of administrative staff, farm workers, packing shed personnel, and agronomists, as well as supporting local businesses,” says Graham. Many of the packing shed workers and the Del Cabo most of the administrative staff come from the families of the farmers.

Trucks loaded with Del Cabo organic produce make the 24 hour trip along narrow two lane blacktop road to the US border, then on to the Jacobs Farm warehouses in Los Angeles and South San Francisco from where they are distributed throughout the US and Canada.

With the new US bioterrorism law, more work needs to be done for every shipment. US Customs needs itemized lists of what is included in any shipment 24 hours ahead of the border crossing. Plus they require 24/7 phone access to someone in the exporting company. Also, new food safety laws and requirements from both Mexico and the US add to the complexities.

Breeding varieties suitable to organic and Baja Sur conditions

One of the things that keeps Graham going after many years in this work is developing new cultivars. The week I was there, tomato breeder Kanti Rawal was there from California. Rawal is a well-known tomato breeder who converted to organics since leading the effort to breed the first genetically engineered tomato, the Flavr-Savr, for Calgene Inc. (later bought by Monsanto). Rawal is working with Jacobs Farm to develop cherry tomato varieties that are adapted to organic management and to the Baja Sur conditions.

“Commercial varieties of tomato are bred for conditions in California and Florida, and they aren’t necessarily well adapted for this climate,” says Rawal.

Basil is another crop they are working on developing locally adapted varieties for. Currently Graham and Rawal are trialing 66 varieties, collected from various parts of the world, for general performance and quality as well as Fusarium and nematode resistance. They will be evaluated and selected over several plantings and then subject to a breeding effort over several years.

John Graham shakes his head and exhales when talking about the challenges of working with small, traditional farmers to provide a US market-quality supply of organic produce – but he waxes philosophical, “Making money in agriculture isn’t easy. We could probably be more profitable by monocropping organically on large tracts of land, but by working with farmers and their families, growing a diversity of crops, we all feel like we’re contributing to building rural communities by making small farms viable.”