PAN-AMERICAN ADVENTURE: The state of Nayarit, in Western Mexico
In Agave country … and no one can afford to grow it!

In the tequila country of Western Mexico, Don meets a farm family mending fences, and learns a lot about local corn, local booze, the best ropes, the economics of the Agave … and about the poignancy of a man’s abiding love for his horse.

By Don Lotter

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 was tequila.

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 here.

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 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, 6.

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 Spanish.

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 in droughts.

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 away.

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.

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 of Nayarit.

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.