Central Mexico – April 2015
Another 5 days marathon meeting new growers and visiting the ones we already work with. As per usual, Rafael set up visits to meet with new growers and took us to regions that remain inaccessible to many in the industry.
We landed in Guadalajara, in between 2 flights from Chicago (one of the major Mexican community in the US) and left right on time before the entire state of Jalisco was set on fire. We saw much more military presence than usual, with convoys of troops on the highways, and lines of armed vehicles ready for action. Within hours of us leaving on Thursday morning 40 roadblocks were set up, and the news have been featuring pictures of burning tractor trailers and buses on highways all over areas we were driving on Tuesday and Wednesday. Near where Rafael runs our Mexican office we stopped for gas where troops were massing, and we were the only customers in the convenience store not carrying an automatic weapon. That’s what happens when you arrest a high ranking member of a cartel.
Despite the turmoil, Central Mexico has an incredibly fertile soil and holds a tremendous potential for various projects. Below is an update of different projects that are underway or might soon be.
Agrofresco – Ecocampos
Visiting Agrofresco, planning next year’s crops and moving on with their Fairtrade certification was the main goal of this trip.
Agrofresco is a farm operation in Dolores Hidalgo, in the state of Guanajuato. Engineer Gustavo Gaya and his field manager Victor have been running 3 ranches of 60, 80 and 100 cultivated hectares for the past 7 years, all organic certified by CCOF or in transition.
Always interested in trying new crops, Gustavo and Victor (picture below) agreed to try growing other items for our winter months
It is now time to move on to a uniform packaging with the ecocampos logo, proper elastic bands, PLUs, etc.
We have a few months to take care of that and we are confident that packaging-related uses will be fixed for next seasons.
We are also working on a more efficient system for us to know what really is available.
Agrofresco sells a little bit to us and a lot to Earthbound Farms and Taylor Farms. To ensure good supplies year round, they both contract farms to grow the type of greens they need for their brand of salad mixes, broccoli and celery, etc. So next time you see Earthbound celery, it is very likely that it will be coming from the same location as the one we carry. Same stuff, different packaging. Both Earthbound and Taylor are vertically integrated with QC technicians on the contracted ranch every single day, rigid MOs, own harvesting crew, own packing line and of course their own packaging under their brand.
We obviously operate quite differently but having to comply with such drastic conditions with other customers has made Agrofresco more performant overtime and we also benefit from it today.
Labour conditions and Fairtrade certification
Engineer Gaya contracts his own crew, one for each ranch. Each crew generally comes from the same community, some of them coming from indigenous communities in the nearby mountains. Gustavo sends private buses to the most
remote communities every day. For the crews refusing to travel in these buses, the designated truck drivers ensuring the commute gets a higher wage to cover the cost of gas and other expenses related to transportation.
Despite salaries much higher than the minimum wage, Gustavo struggles to retain a stable number of qualified farm workers, for different reasons.
For one, 60% of farm workers on Gustavo’s ranches are women, busy working in their garden before the rainy season starts. So they don’t come to work during this time.
Then most people in this region have relatives in the US helping them financially. So if they feel like working 3 days and taking the next 3 off, they do. Working overtime isn’t very appealing to them either. Meanwhile, fields don’t get weeded, the harvesting crew isn’t as efficient, orders to get filled as they should, etc.
In addition to that, the nearby humongous Nissan, Toyota and GM plants are attracting more and more farm workers and therefore represents a major competitor for farms in this region. Gustavo still considers himself lucky that most of his workers are locals but keeps in mind that he might end up having to hire workers from Southern Mexico and therefore build proper accommodation for them. And the California droughts are not likely to bring Mexican immigrants back home.
Although Fair Trade is not (yet) a magical phrase to solve the problem, stepping up and improving farm working conditions with proper lunch rooms, daycare centres, and a foundation where workers have a say, would set the example in the area and help Agrofresco distinguish itself as a good farm to work for. Similar to what Grupo Alta has been doing in Sonora. So the goal is to help them get certified by November.
Artichokes was just another trial for Victor and Gustavo with objectively no dedicated market at the time they planted. Whether it is the soil content (rich in iron, silicate and other minerals), the weather conditions or an exceptional green thumb, the 2 acres plot produced a tremendous amount of flowers evolving into stunning globe artichokes. Victor was still shocked to see how well this trial went. Even more shocked by our growing enthusiasm as we were getting closer to the field. Cameras and smartphones were all out:
From left to right: Zachary, Victor, Gustavo, Rafael, Randy
Fun fact about artichokes (thanks OGC trivia)
Spain, France and Italy are the top producers of Artichoke. For once, Italians came up with something new, an artichoke-based liqueur called Cynar. After doing a little bit of research, turns out Cynar doesn’t taste at all like artichoke but presents the plant health benefits, so they say.Until the 16th century, European women were prohibited from eating them in many countries, because they were still considered to have aphrodisiac properties…
Artichoke and health:
Brussels sprouts and Broccoli
Tomatillo and other crops
Salsa verde is to Mexican food what ketchup is to “American cuisine”: essential. Salsa verde’s main ingredient is tomatillo, from the same family as tomatoes and potatoes. Easy to grow, Agrofresco showed us hectares and hectares of them.
Mexico City is 300kms away from Mexico City a.k.a the big monster. With a population of 25 million people, the federal capital has a lot of mouth to feed. The proximity from such a huge domestic market turns out to be quite convenient at times, although the price generally halved compared to the export market.
With a major hail storm at the beginning of March, Pragor has been struggling to find exportable fruits for us lately. Bad timing when everyone goes bananas for guacamole and margaritas while firing up the barbie…
It’s been hard for Pragor members to have a good estimate of what’s on the tree, what can be cut and what calibre they will end up with. And it sometimes ends up in bad surprises for us too.
For the last shipment, 21 tons were cut but only 11 tons were good enough to make it to Canada. And we have been quite lenient on quality and sizing lately.
The silver lining here is that the next season should start at the beginning of July, earlier than usual. 3 parameters will influence the kick-off date for the new season: rainfall, dry matter (correlated to oil content) and Sagarpa, the USDA counterpart in Mexico. The Sagarpa is the authority measuring the dry matter and officially giving the GO to start harvesting and exporting.
California is still a major producer of avocados and unless the California season has come to an end, Mexico technically cannot harvest.
In order to avoid any overlap, the dry matter threshold for harvest is maintained as high as 23%, compared to 21%. Huge difference although it doesn’t seem like it.
Tomatoes and Guavas
We drove all the way to Ixtapan de la Sal in the State of Mexico to meet with Green house tomato growers. Their entire production is currently sold to Wholesum but they wouldn’t mind putting their eggs in different baskets. Their green houses are surrounded by Guava orchards. A potential new project.
The valley before arriving to Ixtapan de la Sal seems to be the major flower producing region in the country. It could have been a nice and colorful landscape but it is in fact a sea of shiny white plastic as everything is grown under beat up greenhouses, and apparently heavily sprayed. Didn’t stop, no pictures.