Agro-ecological and micro-enterprise training transforms lives of Mexican subsistence farmers and field laborers
A nonprofit founded by two Canadian women creates a thriving local food system that joins expatriate community and local producers.

By John P. Lintz

March 15, 2007: Near commerical raspberry production in the Guadalajara area of northwestern Mexico lies a thriving community built on cooperative learning, teaching and enterprise development. La Asociacion Comunitaria de Autosuficiencia A.C. (ACA, www.ggs.com.mx) is an organization dedicated to teaching sustainable farming to local farmers with minimal resources, teachers and school students in La Ribera near Lake Chapala. In English, the name is the Community Association for Auto-sufficiency.

The collaborative efforts of subsistence farmers learning organic farming techniques are forging new avenues of agricultural opportunity as global trade makes what used to work unsustainable.

The ACA Eco-Training Center, Country Store and demonstration gardens are near the northwest shores of Lake Chapala, where hills rise steeply above the small town of Jaltepec. This is just 45 kilometers south of the 500-year-old city of Guadalajara, the second-largest city in Mexico, with a metro population of 4 million people. Local expatriates say it is like Los Angeles, but with no freeways and better public transport.

In the commercial agricultural area not far north of nearby Jocotepec, hundreds of acres are dedicated to chemically intensive raspberry production for American, Canadian and European markets by BERRYMEX (www.berrymex.com), whose only customer is Driscoll’s (www.driscolls.com). BERRYMEX hires many farm workers from the nearby towns, including Jocotepec and Nestipac. Their organic berries grown for Driscoll’s are on the other side of the lake, near Zamora.

Lake Chapala, the largest natural lake in Mexico, is located in the states of Jalisco and Michocan. Because it is very shallow, its size varies from year to year, depending on rainfall and water releases from upstream dams regulated by the Mexican government. After years of low water, the lake regained its level quite a bit from 2004 to 2005.

Setbacks to farmers, fishers

This was good news for most people and most farmers in the area, but not for the producers who had been growing corn, vegetables and blue agave (the tequila plant) on the reclaimed lakeshore below the high-water mark. This land is leased from the government of Mexico, which controls all water resources, rivers, lakes, production from wells and waste water disposal.

By Mexican law, the farming fields on the upper hillsides and mountaintops belong to the Native Mexicans—Huichol Indians in this area. They have no access to irrigation, so they depend on seasonal rainfall for their crops. Most local subsistence farmers can’t afford irrigation. They also depend on the rainfall during the wet summer season from June to October and need an alternative to the expensive and dangerous chemicals used to prevent pests and fertilize their fields.

The historical local fishing industry has been impacted by the growing industrial and agricultural pollution of the lake. Coupled with the sewage plants’ effluents, the problem has led many people to refuse to eat fish from the lake.

Two Canadian women, Marie Pruden and Wendee Hill, founded the ACA in 1996. Over 11 years they have forged a strong support base of local farmers, citizens, teachers, students and the large—mostly retired—population of U.S. citizens, Canadians and other foreigners.

The English-speaking foreign population of the Guadalajara area is estimated to be more than 30,000, mostly concentrated on the north shore of Lake Chapala, between the towns of Chapala and Jocotepec. The major attractions are the year-round almost-ideal temperatures, low-cost housing and reasonable prices.

The local farmers, teachers and students are the beneficiaries of the ACA’s educational training programs in organic farming and the creative enterprises its students have created. “Rural people in Mexico are realizing the only ticket out of poverty is education and access to it,” says Wendee Hill. “The more this education dialogue continues, the more impact will be felt.”

She mentions these projects that have sprung from their work:

Edible schoolyards in three schools. Leaders integrate nutrition classes and a lunch program into the school curriculum of environmental studies and health.

Vermiculture models. ACA has designed three systems for producing worm castings for various uses in backyard gardens, in schools and—on a larger scale—for farmers.

Integrated Pest Poultry & Plant Production Model (IPPPM). This system shows how small to mid-size farms can synergistically incorporate poultry, forage feed systems and vermiculture to provide safe pest management, nutritional animal feed and higher-protein yields.

Local retired people have been big supporters of the ACA Country Store, which sells organic vegetables, including the “Great Greens” salad mix. The store, through its retiree customers, have helped expand the local market for other organic growers. One sign of market success is that a former ACA student, Manuel Navarro, is now a successful organic farmer and a vendor to the local markets. The retirees serve as volunteers within the ACA on its board of directors and helping with fund-raising.

Students into leaders

Luz Elena Jimenez Valentin helps the children at Eco-Discovery Day, an ACA educational program.

Thanks to its classes and on-the-job training, ACA has developed three former students into valued employees.

Gloria Garcia Flores and Luz Elena Jimenez Valentin say they do everything at ACA. They plant, water, till the fields, manage the vermiculture process, feed animals and wash the “Great Greens” crops (in converted wringer washing machines), which they then dry and package in plastic bags. They also reluctantly admit to being teachers of both children and adults, giving tours and teaching ecological farming techniques.

Previously, both were laborers on commercial farms near Nestipac. The work was hard, but it was exposure to chemicals that drove the women to start their training at the ACA. Flores is a 14-year employee who had asthma, which was aggravated by the chemicals. Valentin has two years’ experience. Marie Pruden says the two have grown into the “right hand” of the organization at its Eco-Training Center.

Outreach coordinator Carlos de la Garza is another former student. Carlos says that ACA aids farmers by bringing them hope. For 70 years the government protected the farmers and their products, but now has left them alone in the world of globalization agricultural trade where their farming existence is based solely on money, he says. Prices are fixed in a country far away, by people who do not know them, their country and culture.

De la Garza continues: “Organic production is an option so the farmers can produce food for themselves, and sell the rest, without having to ask for credit to buy seeds, fertilizers, etc. This way, their health improves without using chemical fertilizers. Like a farmer friend of mine says: ‘[This organic option] is starting to create the farmers’ economy.’”

“In each class that I lead for the gardeners, none of them knows that chemical products are poisonous,” he says. “They believe their health problems are because they ate something that was bad. They do not use anything to protect themselves. Everybody can buy the most toxic of chemical poisons at the market without any restriction.”

Many local people believe that if they don’t die there is no problem with the product, de la Garza explains. “Once a fisherman told me that if pollution was so harmful, then why there were still fish in the lake? Yet sometimes he had to return some of the fish to the water because they did not have skin, and nobody buys those fish.”

Welcoming more internationals

Thanks to its efforts to upgrade its educational efforts, ACA has been approved to receive 12 social-service interns from a regional technical school. The nonprofit also serves students from outside Mexico.

“Spring and summer is generally the peak season for international interns, who often come during their university break," Hill explains. “This winter we had a group of 10 interns visiting from a Vermont university for an alternative spring break program. Northwestern University has a group of 14 that has come twice for their spring break, and has ACA listed as an ongoing approved international break site.”

Other ACA training includes:

  • Four classroom discovery days, which were booked in one month from Jocotepec and Tizapan el Alto (on the south side of the Lake) and brought in approximately 15 to 30 students per class.
  • Two gardening short courses per month, which usually have 6 to 12 registrants.
  • Offsite classes three times a week in a special school for disabled children in Ixtlahuacán de Los Membrillos, just over the hill from Chapala on the highway to Guadalajara.

The ACA experience shows the potential of a nonprofit ecological organization to work with small farmers while utilizing the talents and resources of a nearby retirement community. Their eco-training and education programs create effective bridges between diverse populations. Their work empowers poor subsistence farmers and engages relatively well-off retired foreigners, teachers and students to create new possibilities for everybody concerned.

John P. Lintz is a freelance writer living near the town of Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico.