Posted August 3, 2004: When I met Osbaldo
it was 10:30 on a Sunday morning and he was drinking cheap
cane liquor out of a plastic bottle while fixing a fence with
his family. The bottle label had pictures of Agave,
the plant that tequila is made from, which made me think it
I was in the state of Nayarit -- tequila country -- next
to the tequila state, Jalisco, and there were fields of Agave
on the other side of the road. The pictures on the label of
the cane liquor bottle were there ostensibly because the liquor
was made in tequila country, and advertised as such, implying
that the essence of the Agave was present in it.
Everyone here calls it vino.
I was driving the free road from the west coast up to the
state of Jalisco, instead of the faster toll highway. The
free road is slow and tortuous, densely populated in places,
passes through the center of most towns, and is laced with
often-invisible speed bumps. Speed bumps, called topes, are
the only way townspeople have of slowing down the drivers
The free road follows much of the route of the old Camino
Real, the trail used by the first Spanish, and before that
by the Nahuatl and Aztec peoples. You can tell when the road
runs on top of the Real because there are old stone fences
and adobe houses along it.
I had just passed through the town of Ixtlan del Rio, of
Carlos Castaneda fame (Journey to Ixtlan), and stopped
to rest at one of those hard-to-find places where there was
a pull-out that didn’t have a 6-inch drop off. A month
shy of the beginning of the rainy season, the land was dry.
As I stopped I heard someone yell and looked over. A husky
young farmer, two kids, and an old woman were looking at me
from a fence line nearby. I got out and walked over and chatted
while they tightened new barbed wire over cut tree branches
that served as fence-posts.
|"Osbaldo’s only horse,
El Chiquiado, a smart, faithful, 10-year old, had just
died that morning of a mysterious disease that had killed
over a dozen local horses recently. Osbaldo was drinking
away the sadness of losing a faithful old pal."
Osbaldo was loud, a little drunk, and a little obnoxious,
but his kids sparkled and the old woman, bordering on meriting
the label anciana, but then way too vigorous in the
way she handled the fencing work, intrigued me. I could tell
this was not the family of a man who became abusive while
drinking. The kids and the mother would have been sullen –
waiting for the explosion of violence.
So I went ahead with our conversation about farming, taking
it to his house nearby. It turned out that Osbaldo’s
only horse, El Chiquiado, a smart, faithful, 10-year old,
had just died that morning of a mysterious disease that had
killed over a dozen local horses recently. Osbaldo was drinking
away the sadness of losing a faithful old pal.
Osbaldo Salazar Flores, 33, owns 14 hectares of rocky, shallow-soiled
land about seven miles from the town of Ixtlan del Rio. He
sows four hectares of corn during the June to November rainy
season, has 850 small guava and plum trees, 18 cattle, and
a mule. Osbaldo lives with his wife Agueda Ramirez, his mother
Antonina Flores Silva, and his two kids, Isabel, 8, and Humberto,
This countryside had for many years grown Agave
for tequila. However, the soil, according to Osbaldo, became
so impoverished that it was abandoned for a couple of decades.
Osbaldo’s mother bought the land 25 years ago.
Several of the cattle are milk cows. As we sat on the porch
and talked, Antonina strained a batch of milk curds and formed
a cheese round for aging. I tasted all the stages of the cheese
- the fresh, the medium aged, as well as the dried, aged cheese,
and they were all delicious, much better than those I had been
buying in the stores. Mexican cheese, the kind that most people
eat here, is similar to feta cheese, but usually with less salt.
Osbaldo said they use an old culture.
The cattle here, at least those owned by small farmers like
Osbaldo, look like crosses between zebu and criollo cattle.
Zebu are from India and are well-adapted to the Mexican conditions
– heat, occasional shortages of feed and water, and
parasites. The criollo cattle were originally brought by the
Osbaldo grows corn for his own consumption and for occasional
sale, if the price is high enough. It is an open-pollinated
corn known locally as Nayarit criollo. Criollo
is the universal Spanish word for original, or something that
is originally from that particular area. He and his mother
had no more to say about it than that – it was just
Nayarit criollo, which is available here and there.
Osbaldo named off the “Americano” corn varieties,
I assume hybrids, that he said many farmers use – T47,
885, 867, Pioneer (pronounced pee-own-air – that one
took a little thinking to figure out), Dekalb 887 yellow.
Osbaldo says he prefers to use the Nayarit criollo
because it is more tender, tastes better, is cheaper, and
(in so many words) is resistant to diseases and does well
Osbaldo doesn’t have a tractor, so he pays a neighbor
farmer to till his four hectares of ground and plant his corn.
He fertilizes with something he called formula, probably NPK,
plus urea, and a sulfate. He didn’t seem to understand
the concept of rotation or of cover crops. I asked him if
he thought about sowing green manure crops in his orchard,
but he didn’t seem to understand the concept. He said
he planted squash in between the trees, the kind of squash
that spreads over a 100 square foot area.
All of the corn stover is ground into meal using a tractor
PTO-driven grinder and fed to his cattle.
The guavas and plums Osbaldo sells out of his 25-year old
Chevy pickup, taking them around to stores and other buyers.
The cattle he sells when the prices are high.
A brand new 6 by 7 foot 480 watt solar array lay near his
house, for pumping water from the 42 meter deep well. Osbaldo
qualified for World Bank funds for small farmers to put in
solar power for irrigation. He paid the equivalent of $3,300
while the World Bank paid the rest of the $16,000 total cost.
Before solar, he paid $10 a day in electricity to run the
pump. According to Osbaldo the solar panels can pump 34,000
liters per day. Drip lines and sprinklers irrigate the fruit
trees. Osbaldo’s corn is on unirrigated land farther
I asked Antonina about what they used to grow around here
in the old days. She said everyone used to grow corn, beans,
and squash, and some grew Agave for cash.
Antonina’s father used to make tequila. He would take
a half dozen five to ten year old Agave plants and
harvest the boles, the nearly foot thick center of the plant.
These are crushed and boiled in a barrel to extract the sweet
sap. This sweet mixture of sap and water is fermented for
a few days, distilled, and then aged in wood casks. Osbaldo
kissed the tips of his fingers and gestured as to the fineness
of his father-in-law’s tequila.
|"I asked Osbaldo how it was for
a local farmer to grow Agave. He shook his head in disfavor.
“Since 2000 the price has fallen from (the equivalent
of) $1.50 per kilo of Agave bole to $0.40, and the growers
are locked into ten-year contracts.” In so many
words, he said they are losing their shirts."
The tequila industry basically uses the same process, but
instead of boiling the boles in vats they steam them in huge
closed chambers. While visiting a tequila plant in the town
of Tequila, I tasted the freshly steamed Agave and
it was full of delicious, sweet juice.
Tequila can only be made from the blue agave, Agave tequiliana
Weber var. azul. Mescal, a drink similar to tequila
that is traditionally from around the state of Oaxaca, is
made from several other species of agave, such as the larger
green agave. Mescal traditionally comes in clay jugs
with a worm in it.
Some tequila factories add molasses and water to the fermentation.
Tequila made this way can’t be called “100% Agave”,
one of the marks of distinction for tequila. The other mark
of distinction is the time in casks – it is añejo
if it spends a year or more, and reposado if more
than two months.
I asked Osbaldo how it was for a local farmer to grow Agave.
He shook his head in disfavor. “Since 2000 the price
has fallen from (the equivalent of) $1.50 per kilo of Agave
bole to $0.40, and the growers are locked into ten-year contracts.”
In so many words, he said they are losing their shirts. The
Agave also needs expensive fungicides which the farmer
must pay for. From making about $1,800 per hectare in the
1990s, the Agave growers are now making about $500.
More money can be made from corn, according the Osbaldo, which
was surprising to hear.
It is interesting to note that while the price of Agave
has fallen by two-thirds, the price of tequila has fallen
little, if any.
Agave is also a crop that leaves the land exposed
to erosion. This was easy to see just looking at the Agave
cropland surrrounding Osbaldo’s. Rill erosion was evident
on the Agave land.
Osbaldo said that Antonina’s father used to make the
finest rope in existence from the Agave “leaves”,
which are filled with long, fine fibers. He had had a wooden
apparatus, no longer seen anymore, which he used to separate
the fibers. Osbaldo said that agave fiber ropes are the best
kind of rope for lassoing and sell for $100 or more.
Antonina described another alcoholic beverage that they occasionally
make, made from corn, called tejuino, known in other
parts of Mexico as tesguino. It is a traditional
drink of the Huichol people, who are the original inhabitants
Corn is germinated in a pit in the ground and then ground
with a traditional stone grinder, called a metate.
At this stage the thick, liquid mash is known as atole.
In a clay pot, chilis are heated, dry, until they carbonize,
and then are tossed out. Water is added and the atole
is boiled in these pots, which still have the chili flavor.
This is then fermented for five days into tejuino
and drunk as a beer-like beverage.
That night Osbaldo stayed up late drinking with a friend
in the moonlight on his porch. From my camper I could hear
him talking about his horse. At one point his voice broke,
something I wouldn’t expect to hear again for many years.