Tag Archives: Agriculture

Berry, Berry Good!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you’ve ever driven across the high plains of central Mexico, you’ve seen the signs. FRESAS con CREMA, FRESAS con CREMA, until you come to a weather-beaten shack that shades baskets of strawberries and coolers with crema on ice. Those strawberries used to make their way down the mountains to Huatulco, to be sold in the streets from impeccably arranged pyramids on wheelbarrows. Thinking “I’m too old for this,” I once chased one up Carrizal, against the traffic, to get a kilo weighed out on the scale that magically appeared from beneath the wheelbarrow. Well worth it.

Now we go to the Carrizal produce markets to buy Driscoll’s strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries – the “everyday” brand in American groceries. The berries come in vented, hinged, “tamper-evident” plastic containers called “clamshells,” stored in the commercial coolers on the back wall at Fruver or Hermanos Lucas.

What Happened to the Wheelbarrows?

They went big-time. Global big-time.

Mexico is now the world’s fifth-largest producer and the third-largest exporter of frutas rojas – “red fruits,” the category for straw-, rasp-, blue-, and blackberries; sometimes cranberries, sweet cherries, and grapes are included in the group (Mexico has begun to produce and export all three of these, especially and surprisingly cranberries, which boast a 50% return on investment.)

In 2019, the “true” berry exports were valued at US $800 million, employed about 100,000 people in – for the most part – stable, well-paid jobs, many of them year-round. Direct employment and another 100,000 “spillover” jobs (jobs indirectly related to the berry industry) were valued at US $900 million, for a total industry impact of US $1.7 billion. In 2016, more than half (53%) of the fruit in America’s markets was imported, and Mexico supplied 100% of those imported strawberries, 98% of the imported raspberries, 95% of the imported blackberries, and 9% of the imported blueberries.

The berry trade basically did not exist 25 years ago. One winter in 1995, J. Miles Reiter, now CEO/Board Chair of Driscoll’s, came to Mexico to attend the wedding of one of the company’s migrant pickers in California. Reiter looked around and thought strawberries would grow well in that environment. He did some testing and trials; when tensions over labor, immigration, and water supply soon started rising in California, Reiter realized that Jalisco could be the solution.

The growing fields of Jalisco are located above 4,000 feet, as they are in neighboring Colima and Michoacán, thus avoiding the severe heat at sea level; since they border the Pacific Ocean, these three states also have ready access to the “cold chain” (refrigerated storage and transportation) necessary to export fragile berries. The volcanic soil in the “fruit-belt” produces sweeter strawberries from the same varieties grown in California. It wasn’t long before acreage used for lower-profit crops, e.g., sugar cane, was being converted for strawberries, then for blackberries and raspberries, and most recently, blueberries.

Berries are also grown in Baja California, with climatic differences allowing for year-round fruit production, although growers in the two regions tend to use different cultivars. Strawberries are still grown all across the high plains, but production has begun concentrating in the fruit-belt states and Baja.

The Berry Biz

Driscoll’s is a good example of how the U.S. berry industry became Mexico’s most profitable agricultural sector – exports of tomatoes, avocados, and hot peppers may be bigger, in terms money and quantity, but profit-wise, berries are the winners.

Starting with strawberries in the 1880s, J.E. (Ed) Reiter and his brother-in-law R.F. (Dick) Driscoll are credited with starting the “Strawberry Gold Rush” in Shasta County in northern California. Ed and Dick got together with a marketing guy, Thomas (no doubt “Tom”) Loftus and developed a sales strategy that included a paper banner wrapping every last crate they sent to market. Voilà, Banner Berry Farm’s Brand incorporated in 1904.

The California strawberry business imploded in the 1940s when Japanese residents, the primary growers, were forced into internment camps during World War II. Next-generation Ned Driscoll and Joe Reiter kept planting strawberries when no one else did, so when the war was over, they were in a position to hire the released Japanese as sharecroppers. They started calling themselves Driscoll Strawberry Associates; the sharecropping model, along with hiring breeders from the University of California’s about-to-be-dropped strawberry program, represent key pillars of Driscoll’s current business model: contract growing and state-of-the-art research and development.

When they had to fend off takeover assaults in the late 1980s, Driscoll’s decided to go bigger, getting out of production and into organizing the industry. They worked on building their brand, developing the clamshell package largely so they could slap a big label on it. They did the R&D to create new varieties of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries that suited the Mexican climate. They adopted the eminently suitable name of Driscoll’s, Inc.

Still a private, family-owned business, Driscoll’s has over 400 growers in 21 countries on every continent except Antarctica (their berries are probably served on polar cruise ships); they market their wares in 48 countries. Their major competition is half a dozen or so major berry-producing companies (e.g., NatuRipe, WellPict, Dole, SunnyRidge, Sunbelle), which also practice contract growing.

How It Works in Mexico

The Mexican berry business has been profoundly shaped by Driscoll’s (and their competition) – it is a world removed from what Miles Reiters saw when he went to that wedding in Jalisco. Growers are licensed by Driscoll’s, provided with plants developed by Driscoll’s, and required to return all berries from those plants back to Driscoll’s. Growers must meet federal, state, and local food safety regulations for their country, as well as additional U.S. requirements; performance is monitored.

Berries are handpicked, “decanted” into the clamshells, moved into coolers and chilled to 33°F, palletized, and moved on to the “cold chain” serving that location. According to a case study for the executive agribusiness seminar at the University of California at Davis, payment to the grower is based on a quality evaluation of 4 clamshells from every pallet. Under Driscoll’s Pay for Quality program, growers get paid by the tray (8 one-pound clamshells), according to their average quality score over a week’s worth of evaluation. Let’s say the tray sells for $12, Driscoll’s knocks off $2 for the clamshells and takes 18% as its share – that leaves $8.20 for the grower. But it’s not that easy – in order to make growers in a local area compete for quality, the $8.20 goes into a pool for all the area growers, and growers are then paid based on their evaluation score: $8.20 is for average quality, top quality gets a premium price of $8.50, low quality gets $7.90.

Very American business school, pairing pay with worker-generated quality improvement. And very American ag-tech university, all the innovations in “controlled environment agriculture” (CEA).

Using drip irrigation with filtered water and white plastic protective tunnels, strawberry growers in Zamora, Michoacán, have achieved a remarkable increase in production per acre – going from 60,000 pounds per acre to 160-200,000 pounds per acre, as opposed to 54,000 pounds per acre in California. The tunnels protect from the weather – too hot, too cold, heavy downpours, heavy winds – and most pests. A double layer of plastic mulch around the plants prevents soil-borne pests from damaging the roots.

In the San Quintin Valley of Baja California, growers use raised white plastic troughs lined with coco/coir fiber (the “substrate”) to grow their strawberries hydroponically, under screen houses for insect protection. The substrate reduces water use – always in scant supply in Baja – and lets growers reuse and regenerate the hydroponic solution, and of course eliminates soil-borne pests and pesticides to kill them.

Trough production is often called “table-top,” since it puts the plants at a height that eliminates “stoop work” for pickers. (If Baja berry production is to continue, it needs even more technology – current efforts to support wide-spread desalinization will have to come to “fruition”!).

Small is Still Beautiful

But it’s not all Driscoll’s (or Naturipe or Sunbelle) all the time. Alejandro Olvera manages Productores Qzar, a cooperative that grows certified organic blackberries (zarzamoras) in San Juan del Río in the state of Querétaro. There are four members – families or groups of friends – in the cooperative. Qzar’s website (http://qzar.mx/) emphasizes its outreach to the community through eco-agritourism (including U-pick visits), tours by school groups, and support for entrepreneurs. Olvera, in a 2016 interview with the online trade magazine Fresh Plaza, points out that as long as “more and more people want to eat healthy,” they will want to eat berries, and blackberries are a more economical source of antioxidants than blueberries.

Although Productores Qzar is a very small company, with perhaps more interest in social benefits than commercial success, Olvera is well versed in the industry, noting that Mexico’s status as a major exporter of berries requires “dependency on many foreign companies investing in Mexico.” For smaller producers, however, exporting doesn’t really work as their reason for being. “The exporting culture is not widely spread throughout the Mexican population … it is difficult for Mexicans to see themselves as exporters.”

Nonetheless, Productores Qzar does export its berries, on its own scale. “We are growing for companies that are our size, regardless of which country they are in. We love working with family businesses that don’t need a container, but a pallet.” The Querétaro location puts Qzar close to three airports, so it provides its own cold chain for exports.

When Qzar started growing blackberries, the crop was unknown locally. Their success has started other blackberry operations; their focus on community outreach had already brought 6,000 U-pick visits to the fields, and Olvera was predicting 10,000 visits within two years.

Future plans include setting up a hundred acres for new families to join the cooperative. “Just like we did when we started,” he said. “We don’t want to do it through large companies or for large supermarkets. What we want is for families here to work for families in other countries, … knowing other countries and getting other countries to know us.”

Earth Day Celebrates Mother Earth – Do We?

By Kary Vannice

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our annual celebration of Mother Earth. A day when we pay homage to the natural beauty that surrounds us and take stock of the environmental quagmire we find ourselves in 50 years after the start of the environmental movement.

There are few who would balk at calling our planet “Mother Earth”; after all, she does provide us with the essentials to maintain human life – food, water, and shelter (for some). But would any of us really treat our true mother as we treat Mother Nature?

Fifty years is a milestone, a time when we often take stock and look back to see how far we’ve come, to assess the progress that’s been made … or not made.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans, one in every 10 people, took to the streets demanding that the US government pass laws to protect them, the animals, and the environment from rampant air and water pollution, which, at that time, was almost completely unregulated.

Celebrations of Earth Day 2020, due to the COVID-19 virus “shelter in place” orders in 45 of the 50 United States, have been almost entirely virtual, and have exerted much less impact. It has been the same in Mexico, where one scientist candidly pointed out the irony of the situation: “Social distancing from home will imply an excessive increase in the use of electrical energy. The consumption of electrical energy is one of the factors that produces the greatest number of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This electrical power will burn more fuel, considerably polluting the atmosphere.”

But, while the only thing these situations may seem to have in common is irony, that’s not entirely true, as this excerpt from an Earth Day article published on Fortune.com points out.

Virologists and scientists say that our broken relationship with nature is at the very heart of this pandemic. Accelerating biodiversity loss—caused by a mix of pollution, over farming, urbanization, and changing temperatures—has made complex ecosystems much simpler and more unstable. That makes it easier for viruses to jump from animals to people, as they have begun to do with alarming frequency.

The truth is, we haven’t come far enough in 50 years. While some things have gotten better, many have gotten worse, and we are not where many eager young environmentalists had hoped we would be in 2020.

On the first Earth Day, polluted rivers, many of them veritable oil slicks from factories’ unremittent dumping, were a top agenda item. And, while most first-world countries have indeed regulated corporate sludge dumping, some developing countries still lag far behind. And our oceans are far more polluted than they were 50 years ago, so much so that scientists can’t even quantify the effects that plastics will have on the biodiversity of sea life, not to mention the fact that our oceans are also warmer and more acidic than they were in 1970. It all adds up to a grim prognosis for all, not just our fishy friends, since biodiversity really is the key to health, at both the macro and the micro level.

This year on Earth Day, The New York Times reported that the World Wildlife Fund estimates that, on average, thousands of different wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent since1970. And that “last year, a comprehensive scientific assessment from the United Nations warned that unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals.”

We haven’t done much better on land either. The rate of rainforest destruction has also increased. Before the 1970s, deforestation in the Amazon was mostly done by local farmers, clearing the land to grow crops. In the latter part of the century, deforestation became more of an industrial affair, when large-scale agriculture entered the region. By the 2000s, cattle ranching was the number one cause. In 2018, 30 million acres of the Amazon rainforest were lost. That was slightly less than in recent years, but it’s not slowing fast enough.

Why does it even matter? Well, this brings us back to our Mother. The Amazon has been called “the lungs of Mother Earth,” the largest producer of life-giving oxygen and a huge storehouse for carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of global warming. We humans need the trees to survive. But it doesn’t stop with the trees. The Amazon is also the richest, most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, home to at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity. And biodiversity equals health, not just for Mother Earth, but for all her inhabitants, including humans.

After 50 years, if you run the numbers for air pollution, water pollution, environmental toxins, species extinction, deforestation, overpopulation, waste disposal, and climate change, you’ll see that while some areas have made some small gains, there are simply too many losses to make up the difference. Far too often the real issue comes down to the environment vs. the economy. And in this fight, the environment will always be the loser, unless the consumer, the true driver of global economies, starts to make environmentally friendly products and companies a priority, sending the message that they aren’t willing to sacrifice one to benefit the other.

Now consider your real mother, what would you be (or have been) willing to sacrifice for her health and well-being? Does Mother Nature not deserve the same sacrifice?

Mamas and Papas – On the Road

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

One afternoon I was in a joyería in Santa Cruz, choosing earrings for my sisters. Of course, I was being helped with my selection by an English-speaking guy. The patter always begins with “Where are you from?”

And I reply in Spanish “Estados Unidos, estado de Maine,” and then assure him it’s right next to Canada, trying to ward off the complex issues involved in Mexican perceptions of the U.S.

“Oh, I have been to Maine, I liked it.”

“Wow, why did you go all the way to Maine?”

“Blueberries, I picked blueberries.”

This is not a fun thing to do in Maine. This is long days, bent over the low-bush berries swinging a blueberry rake, which is pretty much a giant (8-pound) aluminum comb. You have to swing the rake through the tops of the plants and then arc it sharply back to drag the berries into the comb. By the end of that long day, it’s really hard to stand up straight.

Ángel (according to his card) fulfilled my cliché idea of a migrant agricultural worker. Young, male, clearly up for a trip to the far reaches of crops to be harvested. The rest of the cliché is that there are huge numbers of Mexican workers in the U.S. – legal and illegal – who contribute massive sums to Mexico’s economy in remesas, the remittances they send back home; in 2019, it was about $35.5 billion in U.S. dollars, and it’s predicted to exceed $37 billion U.S. in 2020. Work hard, help your family, help your village.

Who Is Off to Work Somewhere Else in the World?

Turns out, while yes, Mexicans go to work in the U.S. and Canada and send a lot of money home, guys like Ángel aren’t really a norm after all. All kinds of Mexicans emigrate, mamis and papis among them.

In 2016, 16,348,000 Mexicans were working – legally or illegally – in the U.S., a little over 10% of the U.S. workforce. Although the current U.S. government seems to see immigration from Mexico as a major threat to the American economy and society, the number of Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. has dropped by more than half since the end of 2007, when America’s Great Recession began. And even when the economy began to improve in 2013, Mexican immigration to the U.S. continued to decline. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. dropped by 23%, not so much because deportation was pushing them out, but because the improving Mexican economy has been pulling them home.

In 2018, somewhat more Mexican men (53.4%) than women (46.6%) went north for work, because many jobs available to Mexicans in the U.S. are traditionally done by men. For example, the biggest U.S. employment sector for Mexicans is construction, which provides one-fifth of all their jobs – 97.4% of those jobs are held by men. Men are in the majority when Mexicans head to places where tough work is necessary, Central and South America and the developing countries of East Asia and the Pacific. On the other hand, when you look at Mexican emigration to countries with higher-wage, higher-skilled jobs available to immigrants, women are in the majority heading to Europe, Eastern Europe, the North Africa and the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and the developed countries of East Asia and the Pacific.

Are the Kids All Right?

In and of itself, emigration of one or the other parent changes a Mexican child’s family structure, although it’s only recently that researchers have begun looking at what happens to those left behind. In her book, Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and Their Children (University of California Press, 2010), sociologist Joanna Dreby describes a parent’s decision to migrate as “a gamble; by leaving their children, migrant parents hope to better provide for them. Their migration and hard work represent a sacrifice of everyday comforts for the sake of their children and their children’s future.”

And what are the odds of winning this gamble?  Only so-so.  Using children’s education to measure the success of the migration sacrifice, Dreby finds that when a father migrates, there is little effect on children’s education, as the mother left behind ensures that it will continue as before.  If a single mother migrates, her children, especially girls, tend to do better in school because they are motivated by her courage and sacrifice in migrating.  If both parents migrate, and children are left behind with relatives or friends, their commitment to education suffers significantly.

One measure of educational aspiration – the desire to complete your education because you believe it will bring a better future – is, interestingly, the time kids spend on homework. Not whether they get it right, but whether they make the time to finish it.  A study done in Puebla suggests that it depends not just on whether the student’s mother, father, or both parents migrated, but on whether the student was a boy or a girl.

When both parents had left the household, nearly 90% of girls wanted to continue their schooling, while only 33% of the boys did.  If only the father had migrated, 76% of the girls aspired to further schooling, but, again, only a third of the boys.  If only their mother had migrated, 100% of girls wanted to finish school, but only 30% of the boys.  It’s been suggested that boys whose parents, especially the fathers, have migrated, the expectation is that they, too, will migrate lessens commitment to more schooling.

In contrast, in households that had not experienced migration, girls were less committed to continuing their education, but boys were more committed.

In two-parent non-migrant households, 73% of girls and 51% of boys wanted to continue their schooling; in non-migrant households headed by a single mother, 67% of girls and 56% of boys wanted to do so.

Having a parent leave the household has another effect on the children left behind – someone has to pick up the responsibilities for the absent parent. The Puebla research asked children about cooking and feeding the family, cleaning the house, babysitting, helping siblings with homework, and feeding livestock. Obviously, more of the burden falls on girls than on boys, so their academic commitment is all the more impressive.

And the Future of Economic Migration?
If migrating mamas and papas work hard in unforgiving jobs under difficult conditions, if the parental gamble that more money buys a better future is showing only mixed results for the kids they left behind (especially for the boys), will Mexican economic migration continue to decline right out of existence? If blunt-force immigration enforcement at the U.S. border but an improving Mexican economy continue, will this be an issue of the past?

Back in the blueberry fields of Maine, according to the Bangor Daily News, the hard work took place in a festive atmosphere, “Mariachi music booms from loudspeakers, a roving lunch truck hawks authentic Mexican fare and workers jibe one another in their native Spanish.” But that was the summer of 2013, and as the number of migrant workers decreases, blueberry companies are investing in machinery to do the work – which, in turn, means even fewer workers. In the midst of a pandemic that has taught Americans that their food depends not on the supermarket but Mexican agricultural labor, “Quien sabe?”

A Primer on Pulque: Harvesting Aguamiel

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 8.44.23 AMBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

We arrive in the fields about 5:30 pm, near the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur, trying to catch the final glimmer of light before dusk sets in. I’ve invited a group of Oaxacan friends to accompany me and my native Zapoteco amigos Juana, Andrés and two of their children, into the countryside to witness the harvesting of aguamiel from the majestic Agave americana. The plant is commonly known as pulquero, because it’s the main species used to make pulque in Santiago Matatlán. And that’s the motive for the trek; even Oaxacans rarely if ever have had an opportunity to learn about pulque production first hand, out amongst the towering rows of maguey (agave). Continue reading A Primer on Pulque: Harvesting Aguamiel

Zapotec: Language and Perspective

By Julie Etra

Living here on the Oaxacan coast, we native English speakers forget that Spanish was not the native language here (in fact there are 16 distinct languages in the State of Oaxaca). Although we have absorbed so many Native American words in the USA and Canada daily vocabulary, like cars, bridges, highways and athletic teams, it is a bit different here (from my perspective). Many pre-Colombian languages in Oaxaca are still spoken, and Zapotec words are found in daily culture in and around Huatulco, such as the names of restaurants like Itoó (come and eat) and hotels like Binniguenda (actually Binni guenda, two words, and means Shaman, a live soul, or ancient people), etc. At Hagia Sofia, the lovely gardens on the way to Pluma Hidalgo, the plants are labeled with scientific, Spanish (Mexican) common, and Zapotec names. Continue reading Zapotec: Language and Perspective

The Empire Strikes Back…

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 4.58.55 PMBy Ramiro Vasquez

Since ancient times, agaves have been used for multiple purposes. They provided honey water that allowed long migrations through the desert, honey vinegar and alcoholic beverages were obtained from it; it’s cooked hearts are a delicious meal, it is used as medicine, the spines as surgical and ritual instruments, its fibers for clothing, the leafs for roofing, the quiote for musical instruments, tools and as building material. Just like corn, agaves provided resources for different nomad tribes to settle communities and then develop complex civilized societies. Continue reading The Empire Strikes Back…

Exotic Seasonal Fruits

By Brooke Gazer

Sampling the fabulous fresh fruit found in this region is one of the many pleasures Huatulco offers. While some are available year round others are referred to as “fruta de la temporada” or seasonal fruit. Visitors and residents of Huatulco are fortunate to have access to almost 80 varieties of fruit from the extensive orchards of Hagia Sofia. Some are local to Oaxaca but Armando Canavati has introduced a number of interesting new crops from around the world. Three exotic examples are: Mata Sabor, Mangosteen and Rambutan. Continue reading Exotic Seasonal Fruits

Certified Organic Produce in Oaxaca: Is it Necessary or Even Advisable?

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.15.46 AM

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

While there are indeed producers of certified organic foodstuffs and spirits in the central valleys of Oaxaca, the question arises as to whether tourists on a short visit, or residents of its capital, should go out of their way to seek out production from these purveyors. Are there healthy, sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives to shopping in the Friday and Saturday organic market in the Xochimilco neighborhood in the north end of the city, or patronizing restaurants which boast using certified organic produce or being Slow Food proponents? Continue reading Certified Organic Produce in Oaxaca: Is it Necessary or Even Advisable?