Cornucopia `From the Cape'. Mexican farmers grow, pack, and ship organic vegetables for buyers in the United States. AGRICULTURE: WITHOUT CHEMICALS

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN the dappled light of a palm-thatched packing shed at the tip of Baja California, neatly packed boxes of red ripe tomatoes await shipment to San Francisco, almost 2,000 miles away. The brightly colored box label depicts a cornucopia of vegetables spilling out of a desert scene. Below, it says ``Del Cabo - organically grown in accordance with Section 26569.11, California Health and Safety Code in B.C.S. Mexico, by the Ejidos of Los Cabos in collaboration with Jacobs Farm and Steve Farrer.'' Del Cabo is the inspiration of three California organic farmers, Larry Jacobs and his wife, Sandy Belin, and Steve Farrer. Their project is introducing dozens of Mexican small farmers to organic farming techniques and supplying the booming United States organic market with high-quality, off-season produce.

``It comes down to taste,'' says Judy Rodgers, the renowned chef of San Francisco's Zuni Caf'e. ``My bias against off-season produce is that it usually doesn't taste good. But the Del Cabo vegetables are really tasty. I'm also excited that we are getting organic food from south of the border. Now that it is coming in fresh, reasonably priced, and so good, organic food is really becoming viable.''

Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Belin approached farmers in the Los Cabos area with their idea three years ago during a winter break from their 60-acre organic farm just south of San Francisco. Angel Salvador Cesena, then president of the local 250-member ejido, was supportive from the start, and by the first season they were working with a dozen farmers.

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Mr. Farrer, who had been farming organically in several California locations for 15 years, teamed up with Jacobs and Belin the second year. Jacobs brought with him expertise in desert climate production of tomatoes (a crop mainstay for Del Cabo), as well as an understanding of soil fertility and dedication to the ideals of the project. The name Del Cabo means ``from the Cape.''

Jacobs and Belin provide services including technical assistance in conversion to organic methods, production planning, packing supervision, and marketing. They also cover costs of seeds, packing materials, an office, and transportation. Ejido members who participate in the program are responsible for all production and harvesting.

``Everyone knows us and likes us here,'' says Farrer, ``the farmers, mayor, the airlines who we ship with, even the regional governor. We are helping these small farmers make a decent living.'' As they rattle through the dusty streets of San Jos'e in the project's '75 Chevy pickup, Jacobs and Farrer exchange warm greetings with the locals.

At first, the ejido farmers were skeptical. The organic practices were new to them, especially the concept of cover-cropping during the off-season. There was little overlap between their traditional crops of corn and beans and the crops that they are now growing for export to the organic market in the US - tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, basil, eggplant, and sugar peas. But the immediate economic gains were convincing.

Farmers aren't the only ones benefiting from the project. With the organization of a packing shed, jobs have been provided for an additional 40 people. Del Cabo is a community affair; the farmers use family members for picking and cultivation, and many of the packers are relatives of the farmers.

Sharp-eyed Lio supervises the receiving end of the packing operation. He has 30 years' experience as a tractor driver for the ejido (before that, he plowed with oxen). His current job makes good use of his legendary memory; he must identify the produce of 52 farmers and keep track of it as it goes through the sorting and packing process.

``The farmers do better when they bring in fewer boxes with a higher percentage of good quality,'' Lio says. He is positive about the program's benefits to the ejido's farmers, ``They are all making much better money now than before.''

BEATR'IZ supervises the pack-out. The young women in her crew work on sorting and packing a given farmer's produce. The young men carry the boxes in and out of the homemade swamp cooler, strap some together for air shipment, and palletize others for truck freight.

A typical output is 300 boxes a day, seven days a week, with an average daily value of $5,000. The expected gross for this season is almost a million dollars, which is 30 times as great as the gross from the first experimental season.

On the three days a week when air shipments go out, the pace quickens. Farmers are still not used to the idea of tight schedules, so they bring in produce up to the last minute. There is always a big rush to get a few more boxes ready for the plane. Jacobs, who oversees the packing shed as well as the marketing, feels the tension between farmers and packers doing their best and buyers demanding an exact order.

``The lack of communication can get pretty frustrating at times,'' says Steve Reinstein of Greenleaf Produce Company in San Francisco. ``We never know what is going to be on a shipment until it arrives. But we work with the situation because we can't get remotely enough product to satisfy the demand from our customers. Such high-quality off-season organic produce is a real first.''

While Jacobs and Farrer discuss every aspect of the operation, Farrer prefers to concentrate on organic production techniques. His favorite time of the year is late summer and fall, when the fields are being prepared for planting.

Farrer talks excitedly about soil fertility and the success of the cover crop program required of all participating farmers. ``When we saw how well the corn was growing in alkaline and supposedly poor soils, we decided to mix corn with pea beans, as a cover crop. And we've seen a lot of improvement in just one year.''

Year-round irrigation is possible because ground water is relatively plentiful; a somewhat surprising fact considering the surrounding desert landscape of cacti, thorn bushes, and rocky crags.

Pest control is managed in accordance with California's organic guidelines and according to the principle of balance. The practices emphasize the encouragement of beneficial insects through habitat enforcement. Sometimes fields are ``seeded'' with releases of desirable beneficials. Biological insecticides are applied as necessary.

The project receives technical assistance from Dr. Robert Faust and Dr. Everett Dietrick, who are independent consultants in biological controls and soil fertility. These renowned experts in the organic movement are enthusiastic in their support of the Del Cabo experiment.

UNLIKE many US farmers, the small farmers on the cape traditionally use relatively few chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so the change to chemical-free farming has not been too difficult. The relatively small size of each farmer's holding (an average of 5 acres), and the diversity of crops on each plot, minimize the pest infestations that are endemic to larger-scale monocultures. The need for herbicides was never really an issue, since the farmers were already used to labor-intensive practices such as hand weeding.

Farrer and Jacobs have gone out of their way to ensure that the participating farmers understand that organic is not a casual term open to interpretation. They have had California's Organic Certification Law translated into Spanish. Farrer and Jacobs conduct regular certification inspections of the plots and explain carefully what is allowed and what isn't.

In addition to Del Cabo, there are two other organic operations in Mexico. Even with the rapid yearly growth of all three farms, the demand of the organic market far outstrips their production. The wholesalers continue to clamor for (and to compete with each other for) the Mexican organic produce.

While buyers and consumers are unanimous in their enthusiasm for Del Cabo's produce, the response of California organic farmers has been mixed. In fact, the presence of imported organic products has become a volatile and controversial issue with the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) Organization.

Some members see it as a threat, especially those in the southern chapters whose products could potentially be in competition with Mexican imports. They have seen farming communities such as that in San Diego County be completely economically undermined by imports from across the border. Most members, however, do agree that the project is clearly beneficial to farmers in Mexico, where regulations on pesticide use are almost nonexistent.

Last year CCOF voted that it would not certify any farms outside the US. Farrer, who has long been an outspoken member of the organization, says CCOF is being shortsighted.

``One of the things that is holding organic back from going fully mainstream [as many farmers say they want] is the lack of a year-round supply of some basic commodities. Projects like Del Cabo could fill the gap.'' It continues to be the intent of Del Cabo to work in cooperation with, rather than in competition with, California organic growers.

In the meantime, Del Cabo stands as an inspiring tribute to people working together. The collaboration is true to the slogan printed on every Del Cabo box - ``Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants and Healthy People.''

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