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 of money.”
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 positive responses.
“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 Pescadero office.
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 standards.
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 wherever possible.
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 land
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 their land.
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
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
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 year.
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
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
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
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 amendments.
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
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 plain.
Pest management strategies are varied in Del
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
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 system.
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 NAFTA process.
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”
“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
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.”