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
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
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,
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,
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.