Exotic, tasty ways to save Mexican farms

Tired of the same old apples and oranges? How about trying pitajaya, the red-skinned "Mexican kiwi" already highly prized in Japan? Or maybe carambola, known as "star fruit"?

It's the next way to surprise your taste buds - and help Mexican farmers stay in business by growing crops more profitable on small fields than staples like corn.

One day eight years ago, Fortino Ramos Lemus got out front in rural Mexico's struggle to survive, as the world's taste in foods was becoming more exotic. He ripped out 30 acres of citrus trees - a traditional crop in his Gulf state of Veracruz - and replaced them with lychee trees, native to southern China.

Today Veracruz's orange production fetches little more than 5 cents a pound, but Mr. Ramos's juicy lychees command about 25 times that price from eager exotic-fruit sellers in the United States and Europe. He now has a nursery of 200,000 lychee trees awaiting new owners.

Most Mexican farmers are small landowners - 75 percent farm less than 12 acres - which is why they can no longer survive by growing corn.

"They just can't compete with the efficient and productive grain growers in the US and Canada, nor is most of our soil really suited for that," says Leonel Ramrez Faras, coordinator of the Agriculture Secretariat's market identification and promotion division. "But the small farmer can survive and even prosper with a nontraditional crop."

Ramos is one of a small but rising number of Mexican farmers who are taking the hint. If they can find marketable alternatives, they won't have to migrate to Mexico's already overburdened cities or the US.

Among the alternatives Mexico is promoting are black and yellow sapodilla plums; chia, a plant whose seeds yield a dietary cooking oil; jackfruit, a giant fruit sought out by the US Asian population; tamarind, long a Mexican favorite but now finding a market with the growing Hindu population in the US; nopales and prickly pears, or cactus leaves and fruit; specialty bananas, specialty corns, and Caribbean cherries, plus the abovementioned Mexican kiwi, star fruit, and, of course, Ramos's lychees.

Successful transitions "We think that about a third of our corn farmers should be able to make the transition to alternatives with considerable success," says Mr. Ramrez. "But if they - and we - don't make the effort," he adds, "we'll have 2 million farming families leaving the fields for someplace else."

By farming "new" or nontraditional crops, farmers like Ramos are responding to an appetite in the US, Europe, and Japan for ever-greater variety and access to "exotic" foods. They are also satisfying the home-grown tastes of transplanted fellow Mexicans now residing elsewhere.

Ramrez highlights the experience of a farmer in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, who replaced half of his 50 acres of bananas with jackfruit. "Now he sends all the jackfruit he produces by plane to San Francisco, and he earns better than three times more on the jackfruit than with his bananas."

Another alternative with great promise is an integration of fish and agricultural farming along Mexico's arid coastal areas.

One Mexican-American joint venture in the Mexican state of Sonora uses the waste seawater from tilapia (algae-eating) fish and shrimp farms to irrigate fields of "seaphire," a green that connoisseurs say accompanies fish and seafood dishes especially well.

Boxes of seaphire are now being shipped to gourmet markets and expensive restaurants in Los Angeles, the US East Coast, and Europe. But growers say the plant, whose seed produces a fine vegetable oil, also has a promising future in arid coastal Arab countries and parts of India.

Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry is showing small-scale shrimp farmers how they can add a second production to their existing installations - and create additional jobs - by farming tilapia fish, oysters, mussels, even scallops, in their effluent channels.

"Freshwater irrigation is either prohibitively expensive or simply infeasible in much of Mexico, but the cultivation of seaphire with seawater opens up new areas to agricultural use," says Carlos Mota, director of Sonora-based Genesis Aquacultura. Genesis formed a partnership with Phoenix-based Planetary Design Corp. to develop the integrated seafood-agricultural system.

"The attraction of this system is its combination of food production, environmental protection, and economic development," he says.

Wanted: 1 million jobs

With Mexico needing to create 1 million new jobs a year, Mr. Mota says the current high growth in labor-intensive fish and shrimp farming is good news. But the growth also poses a threat with the kind of water pollution that intensive fish-farming countries like Thailand, Taiwan, and Ecuador already know about.

That's where seaphire comes in, Mota says "It's another income-producing crop, it creates more jobs, and it uses the fish-farm effluent that otherwise would pollute the sea."

The Agriculture Secretariat's Ramrez spends a lot of his time at product fairs and regional tours drumming up interest among potential investors.

But lychee grower Ramos says nothing will save the Mexican farm if people don't open up to innovation.

"The resistance of rural people to growing something new is a real obstacle," says Ramos. "You still have a lot of people thinking it will just be easier to leave the land than to learn a new crop."

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