Cornucopia `From the Cape'. Mexican farmers grow, pack, and ship organic vegetables for buyers in the United States. AGRICULTURE: WITHOUT CHEMICALS
SAN JOS'E DEL CABO, MEXICO
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.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.
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.