Posted July 20, 2004:
As I drive into San Jose del Cabo, at the southern
tip of Baja California, I find it hard to believe that this
desert next to the sea can be a significant producer of quality
organic produce for the US. Yet during the growing season
from December to April, nearly one semi-truck a day goes north
filled with organic produce grown by small farm families,
and around $7 million a year flows into the local agrarian-based
The partnership between Jacobs Farm Inc.of Pescadero, California,
and the Del Cabo cooperatives, Productores del Cabo and Agroproductos
del Cabo, form a collaboration that may be a model for how
to sustain small farms in Mexico by using private enterprise
and the economic power of American consumers. NOTE:
The two cooperatives, Productores del Cabo and Agroproductos
del Cabo, are very closely related, so I’ll refer to
them as the Del Cabo cooperative. Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo Inc.
is the name of the organic produce company based in California
and will be referred to as Jacobs Farm.
When proposing as a model the relationship between the Del Cabo
cooperative and Jacobs Farm, however, I have to temper the proposal
with a statement by Sandra Jacobs, company founder along with
Larry Jacobs, “No one in their right mind would do what
we’ve done in San Jose del Cabo in order to make a lot
In 1985 Larry and Sandra Jacobs showed up in, at that time,
the little town of San Jose del Cabo. They were travelers
who had spent time in Central America and had an organic farm
in Pescadero, California The idea came to them of getting
farmers in San Jose del Cabo to grow organic vegetables which
they would market in the US in order to add an off-season
component to their supply.
The Jacobs extensively consulted their markets, such well
known organic produce distribution companies as Veritable
Vegetable, about starting an operation in Mexico, and got
“The whole thing was new to the Mexicans in San Jose
del Cabo, and the businesses and officials who we needed help
from – from Mexican customs to Mexicana Airlines, really
were supportive” said Sandra Jacobs by phone from her
A team was put together in San Jose del Cabo. Ten farmers
signed up that first year. The farmers were coached by the
Jacobs and by Mexican agronomists on how to grow, pick, and
pack for the organic market. There was no organic certification
for Mexico back then.
From this was formed the Del Cabo cooperative, which has
now grown to over 300 farmers. Jacobs Farm has grown into
a company with over 60 employees in California.
During the same period, San Jose del Cabo has become one
of the fastest growing resort areas in Mexico, swamping the
original inhabitants – farmers, fishing families, and
a few businesses.
The big task of managing relationships
with over 300 small farms
John Graham, a self-described “Okie” from an
Oklahoma farm, is the San Jose del Cabo coordinator of the
partnership between the Del Cabo cooperative and Jacobs Farm.
Graham joined Jacobs Farm in 1991 after doing stints in the
Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and the
Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as work on fuel-efficient
wood stoves in Malawi in central Africa.
In addition to providing technical support for farmers, the
Del Cabo cooperative purchases many of the inputs needed by
the farmers, like drip irrigation equipment, organic pest
control materials, and seeds. The volume purchases reduce
the costs and the products are provided to the farmers at
cost, so essentially it is a buying club. Additionally, via
Graham and other managers of the cooperative, the farmers
have access to innovative organic inputs and techniques that
have been trialed, researched and comply with NOP organic
Del Cabo also employs field managers, known as zone managers,
who basically see that farmers produce and deliver what Jacobs
Farm needs. There are a dozen zone managers who coordinate
twelve groups of farmers from eight communities in the southern
Baja peninsula. The farming communities have formed around
sites where water is available, often government developed
wells, irrigation canals, and catchment dams. All of the farms
in the cooperative are irrigated by gravity systems, and drip
The partnership between the farmers and the operations managers
is not always easy, “If making money was the only criteria,
we probably wouldn’t be doing it this way, with so many
small farmers living in rural towns, many without telephones,”
says Graham, “Cooperatives are not necessarily the most
efficient way to produce, but it’s a way to make it
possible for small farmers to enter the export marketplace.”
“We work to maintain our supply commitments by coordinating
the production from many growing areas and by trying to overlap
the production so that all the 300 or so farmers have opportunities
to produce and market their crops. By providing transplants
from the cooperative nurseries and by timing the numbers of
plants that are planted throughout the season, we can regulate
the flow of produce.” Graham likes to over-plant by
about 20% of projected needs in order to ensure supply.
The ultimate goal: keeping farmers on the
Despite the challenges of keeping over 300 small farmers
organized, Graham likes being involved in keeping farmers
on their land and in sustaining traditional farming communities.
Much of the land here is being bought by real estate speculators
hoping to cash in on the tourist boom. Farmers are often convinced
to sell their land, as the property values have risen rapidly
over the past few years. The Jacobs Farm cooperative provides
economic incentives and opportunities for farmers to keep
The main crops grown by the Del Cabo farmers are tomatoes, culinary
herbs, and a diverse array of vegetable and fruit crops. The
cooperative also runs a drying facility for tomatoes and mangos
produced for sale on the organic market by Jacobs Farm.
The zone managers keep tabs on how each farm’s crop
is developing. While I was interviewing farmer Hectorio Guillins
in his field of cherry tomatoes interplanted with young mango
trees, a zone manager came by and met with him. The manager,
Mario Cortez, wrote out the maintenance requirements for Hectorio’s
crop of young mango trees, had him sign the sheet, and kept
a carbon copy, illustrating one of the strategies for sustaining
relationships with some 300 farmers. Zone managers meet with
their farmer groups about once a month.
The Del Cabo cooperative farms have been certified by Oregon
Tilth since 1992. The week I was there they were preparing
for an inspector from Ecologica, a Costa Rican company hired
by Oregon Tilth to do inspections in Mexico and Central America.
The cost is high -- several thousand dollars per inspection
-- which is why cooperatives are about the only way certified
organic production can be done by small farmers.
While most of the farmers who grow for Jacobs Farm are based
in southern Baja California, Jacobs Farm also has growers
up and down the 1000-mile length of Baja California –
from San Jose del Cabo to Ensenada. Cropping follows the seasons
from south to north, maintaining steady production through
The planting season in San Jose del Cabo starts in August.
Baja California is part of the Sonoran Desert climate zone,
which gets summer rains in August and September. All of the
farmers bolster the scant rain that makes it into the crop
root zone with irrigation from wells.
Stormy weather makes for tough farming
The growing season is also the hurricane season. Last year
in October, 2003, the area was hit by two hurricanes, each
with several days of hard rain and high winds. Damage to San
Jose del Cabo farmers’ fields was extensive –
many were under powerful torrents of water flowing from the
surrounding hills. Crops and enormous amounts of soil were
washed away. The area still hasn’t recovered.
Nearly all of the farmers in Del Cabo cooperative are ejido-based—farming
on communal lands redistributed to peasants during the 1930s
(see box for details). The San Jose del Cabo ejido
was formed in 1936.
Many San Jose del Cabo ejido owners have sold their
land, although they may be amongst the lucky ones, as San
Jose del Cabo is probably in the top one or two percentile
of ejido land value in all of Mexico, due to the
tourist boom here.
Del Cabo cooperative member Gerardo Coeto, known as “Moreno,”
and his wife Alicia and two teenagers, farm two hectares near
San Jose del Cabo. Alicia’s father was a member of the
272-member San Jose del Cabo ejido, joining in 1954. At that
time many families were asked to join in order for the ejido
to qualify with the government.
Moreno and Alicia joined the Del Cabo cooperative in the
second year that Larry and Sandra Jacobs started organizing
farmers. “Only a few farmers signed up with them the
first year,” said Moreno. “We started with basil
our first year. After we sold all of it, lots of farmers signed
up the next year.”
Moreno and Alicia’s current crops are cherry and Roma
tomatoes, sage, marjoram, oregano, mint, basil, and chamomile.
Compost, compost tea, rotations of cowpeas, corn and sorghum
cover crops all provide soil fertility for the farm. Most
of the farmers in the area use at least two of those crops,
plus compost, and increasingly compost tea for their soil
Moreno and Alicia’s 15-year old son, Andres, and 16-year
old daughter Silvia, both help work the farm. Andres wants
to continue farming when he is done with school. “He
wanted to drop out of school to help me farm, but I told him
to finish,” says Moreno.
Last year’s hurricanes hit Moreno and Alicia’s
farm hard, carrying off 600 small mango trees, 60 lychee trees,
nearly all of their annual crops, and untold tons of soil.
“We had six hectares of crops before the hurricanes,
now (six months later), we only have two,” says Moreno.
The land they inherited sits in a vulnerable area of flood
Pest management strategies are varied in
Pest management strategies that the cooperative farmers use
include various botanical products including garlic and neem,
oils, the old standby Bt, as well as releases of beneficial
insects, resistant varieties, timing of plantings and crop
rotations. All of these methods are worked out by Graham and
the cooperative agronomists in collaboration with the farmers.
Mexican ejido and the second and third
deaths of Emiliano Zapata.”
The ejido, a communal land system, is
a distinctive part of Mexican history. Ejido
lands were traditionally the lands surrounding
native villages. Until the early 20th century,
ejido lands increasingly came under the
control of the formerly Spanish oligarchy and
owners of the large estates, known as latifundios.
Major changes came in the 1930s under President
Lazaro Cárdenas. Along with the nationalization
of the petroleum industry, now known as Pemex,
and the creation of a national labor union, millions
of hectares of land were redistributed to Mexican
peasants under the ejido system.
Emiliano Zapata’s battle cry, “The
land belongs to the people who work it,”
was the anthem of the ejido movement.
Farmers who I recently talked to still quote the
words of Zapata when referring the ejido
By the 1990s Mexico’s 28,000 ejidos
accounted for half of the national territory,
albeit consistently the worse half.
Over the five decades since their inception however,
the ejido system became deeply corrupt.
Much of ejido land ended up, once again,
under the control of the oligarchy and latifundistas.
Eduardo Galeano, in his classic book of the 1970’s,
The Open Veins of Latin America, about
the exploitation of Latin America by oligarchical
and European powers, called the corruption of
the ejido system “the second death
of Emiliano Zapata”, who was betrayed while
pursuing a truce and killed.
In the early 1990’s, under the infamously
corrupt (for his involvement in the drug trade)
presidency of Carlos Salinas, the process of privatization
of ejido lands began and continues today.
Forest and water rights, while in the past simply
sold illegally under the pre-1990s system, are
now being sold legally under the privatization
process. Bill Weinberg, in his densely informative
2000 book Homage to Chiapas, calls the
privatization of the ejidos “Zapata’s
third death” – it being simply the
legalization of a corrupt process.
Under the privatization of ejido lands,
small farmers, if they end up with any land, have
often sold their land for pennies on the dollar.
Working hand and hand with this process has been
NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and
the market-driven fall in corn prices –
the crop that traditionally has been the backbone
of the Mexican small farmer. (Actually it is difficult
to call the fall in Mexican corn prices market-driven,
since it is cheap corn from heavily subsidized
US farmers that is responsible for the low prices.)
It is estimated that six million farmers will
have sold or abandoned their ejido land and fled
to the already overcrowded cities as part of the
Del Cabo has promoted the planting of neem trees in the southern
Baja region – nearly every Del Cabo farmer I visited
had them lining his fields. The neem trees have turned out
to be an excellent windbreak, but it has been difficult to
process the seeds for pest control. Graham has found it more
cost effective for Del Cabo to buy neem products.
“We’ve tried extracting neem, but the time involved
in harvesting seeds and making a water-based extract that’s
only effective for a short time, and then trying to get it
out to 300 different fields, in most cases wasn’t practical,
so we now buy a product processed in India,” says Graham.
Making a difference in the Del Cabo economy
The Del Cabo farmers are paid every two weeks, usually before
money from the sales show up in the Jacobs Farm accounts.
“By paying growers regularly, in addition to providing
services and training, we’ve been able to give them
the economic stability to become reliable producers who are
dedicated to organic agriculture” says Graham.
“We are generating significant amounts of money that
goes into local rural economies via crop receipts, employment
of administrative staff, farm workers, packing shed personnel,
and agronomists, as well as supporting local businesses,”
says Graham. Many of the packing shed workers and the Del
Cabo most of the administrative staff come from the families
of the farmers.
Trucks loaded with Del Cabo organic produce make the 24 hour
trip along narrow two lane blacktop road to the US border,
then on to the Jacobs Farm warehouses in Los Angeles and South
San Francisco from where they are distributed throughout the
US and Canada.
With the new US bioterrorism law, more work needs to be done
for every shipment. US Customs needs itemized lists of what
is included in any shipment 24 hours ahead of the border crossing.
Plus they require 24/7 phone access to someone in the exporting
company. Also, new food safety laws and requirements from
both Mexico and the US add to the complexities.
Breeding varieties suitable to organic
and Baja Sur conditions
One of the things that keeps Graham going after many years
in this work is developing new cultivars. The week I was there,
tomato breeder Kanti Rawal was there from California. Rawal
is a well-known tomato breeder who converted to organics since
leading the effort to breed the first genetically engineered
tomato, the Flavr-Savr, for Calgene Inc. (later bought by
Monsanto). Rawal is working with Jacobs Farm to develop cherry
tomato varieties that are adapted to organic management and
to the Baja Sur conditions.
“Commercial varieties of tomato are bred for conditions
in California and Florida, and they aren’t necessarily
well adapted for this climate,” says Rawal.
Basil is another crop they are working on developing locally
adapted varieties for. Currently Graham and Rawal are trialing
66 varieties, collected from various parts of the world, for
general performance and quality as well as Fusarium
and nematode resistance. They will be evaluated and selected
over several plantings and then subject to a breeding effort
over several years.
John Graham shakes his head and exhales when talking about
the challenges of working with small, traditional farmers
to provide a US market-quality supply of organic produce –
but he waxes philosophical, “Making money in agriculture
isn’t easy. We could probably be more profitable by
monocropping organically on large tracts of land, but by working
with farmers and their families, growing a diversity of crops,
we all feel like we’re contributing to building rural
communities by making small farms viable.”