Wine, olives, and nopales in Baja California

On the second leg of his Latin journey, Don Lotter takes us from the maquiladora or border towns, to lush wine and olive plantations, to hard scrabble nopal cactus farms … and the long, empty roads of southern Baja.

By Don Lotter

June 16, 2004:

Mexico. Despite the years of NAFTA and immigration agreements, Mexico is still a radical change from the US - roads, traffic, businesses, personal interactions, food – everything.

I love the energy level here. I’ve always enjoyed the Mexicans – they have great spirit and a sociality that, to be frank, leaves us northerners in the dust (as we leave them in the dust when it comes to orderly streets and efficient businesses).

The new and the old Mexico are evident side-by-side. Mexicans in SUVs talking on cell phones drive into a modern mall parking lot, while a half a block away indigenous women sell handmade gorditas (little tostadas) from a wood fire. Men in cowboy hats (sombreros seem to have disappeared years ago) who seem to have nothing to do sit around nearby.

Tecate is one of the smaller maquiladora towns – border cities where U.S. companies set up factories, called maquiladoras, to take advantage of the cheap labor … about a dollar an hour. I see names like Rockwell and Quaker State on the modern factory buildings.

Some 3000 factories line the border from California to Texas, employing over a million Mexicans, generating some $12 billion annually. U.S. companies not only get cheap labor – they escape the U.S. environmental laws. It is estimated that 60% of hazardous materials sent from the U.S. to the maquiladoras go unaccounted for – in other words, they get dumped, mostly in waterways.

The waterways around maquiladora cities have been found to contain unacceptable levels of petroleum, naphthalene, total xylene, chromium, copper and other toxic materials.

Welcome to global free trade.

School buses filled with workers depart from the maquiladora factories at 5:05 to take them home to the vast mud street colonias of hastily thrown up housing. It is estimated that the maquiladora wage of $8-10 a day is less than a third of what it takes to sustain a family. Yet these workers would much rather, it is said, be here than working in fields. The income in the agriculture sector is less and the work much harder.

Welcome to the Sicily of Baja

Only a few miles south of the maquiladora sector the scenery changes from slum-ridden urbanization to empty scrub lands with occasional agriculture. Lack of water keeps people from settling out here.

The first real agriculture I see is olive groves and well-kept vineyards as I approach the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s premium wine country. Northern Baja California is much like Sicily or North Africa climatically, and these two crops seem to do well.

The olives are often on unirrigated hillsides, while the vineyards, for the most part, are in the bottom-lands and are irrigated with drip lines. This is all fairly large scale agriculture. Most of the wines that Mexico produces are made here – Santo Tomas, Domeq, and La Cetto are the three big producers.

Mexico has 3,500 hectares of table wine grapes and nearly two dozen wineries, most of them in the valleys of northern Baja near the Pacific. Wine grape production has shrunk drastically from a high of 47,000 hectares in 1982. It was that year that Mexico deregulated the wine trade and allowed Chilean and other wines to be imported with minimal tariffs.

Mexicans who drink wine, mostly the upper and upper-middle classes, are proud of their domestic wines, and despite there being no taxes whatsoever on Chilean wines, 40% of wine consumption in the country is of Mexican wine.

Like the Napa Valley, the wine producing region around the Valle de Guadalupe is just inland from the Pacific, which gives the cool nights necessary for good red wines, but is far enough from the ocean to get the necessary hot, sunny days.

I found Doña Lupe’s organic farm on a side road while looking for the larger La Cetto winery. Hand-painted signs pointed the way down the olive tree lined dirt road to her farm.

Doña Lupe Wilson has farmed here for 34 years. Her late husband, an American, started the farm, and now Doña Lupe and her son Daniel, continue to work the 30 hectares. Wine grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon and Ruby Cabernet (a UC Davis bred wine grape), are the main crop, with olives a second crop.

In their Spanish-style tasting room, the Wilsons serve local cheeses, homemade bread, and grape preserves along with their wines. One of the grape preserves is an interesting combination of amaranth seed and grape.

Four wines are made – a sweet wine from raisined grapes, a honey-grape sweet wine, a Ruby Cabernet/ Cabernet blend, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I really liked the Cabernets. The sandy soils, Pacific air, and hot days in the Guadalupe Valley clearly impart a terroir to the wines, which are big and robust.

“We don’t put a lot of water on the grapes”, says Daniel, “so the flavors are undiluted.”

“We pioneered drip irrigation here about 25 years ago,” says Daniel. “When the owner of the big winery next door saw us putting out drip lines, he laughed at us. The next year, he was using drip himself. Sprinkler irrigation is just too wasteful of water for Baja California.”

A struggle for water has developed between the wine growing region and the city of Ensenada, which wants to pipe the water down to the city. A plan is said to be in the making to develop a wine production corridor which would include a plan for preserving the wine region’s aquifers. Conflicts between rural and urban areas for water are common in Mexico … and nearly always, the urban interests win the water. Dried up and abandoned areas which were formerly populated with small farms are commonly seen near cities all over semi-arid parts of Mexico. If wine production and consumption weren’t associated with the empowered classes in Mexico, we all know who would win the water war there.

While I was in their tasting room, several upper-middle class Mexican families from Tijuana came in, tasted wines, and bought Doña Lupe’s products. It was Easter weekend, which is a big holiday here, and people were touring the wineries of the area.

Doña Lupe’s farm is in a great location near the two large wineries that attract tourists. This is undoubtedly the secret to their survival. My guess is that 90% of Doña Lupe’s customers discover them while visiting La Cetto, as I did.

Olives are grown for both oil and the fruit in Baja. The olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae), the Mediterranean region’s worst olive pest, invaded about eight years ago and devastated the olive groves here. Conventional farmers now spray dimethoate for the pest. Daniel Wilson uses neem-based products.

Two old Spanish varieties of olive make up the majority of olive plantings in Baja – the Manzanita, which is mainly used for preservation, and Mission, which is mainly for oil. The Wilsons have their olives pressed for oil at a local press which uses a modern centrifuge method for extraction.

I have tasted many types of olives, having been married to an olive lover who grew up in Italy, and I can say without hesitation that the Baja olives are good, and sell for a third of the price of olives in California.

While not yet certified organic, Daniel plans to do so soon.

Cactus cash crop

The drive down the length of Baja California is spectacular at times – 1000 miles of desert and ocean vistas. Only a few hundred miles south, I encounter the first boojum and ocotillo plants – the unique spiral-like plants endemic to Baja, as well as huge saguaro and cardón cacti.

As the main north-south road begins to cross the Baja peninsula, the land is rocky, dry, and sparsely populated, with only the occasional collection of small farm shacks.

It was here that I passed small farms with plots, no bigger than a half acre, of nopal, the Opuntia cactus that is a favorite food of the Mexicans.

Nopal has traditionally been an important crop for its penca, the fleshy cactus “leaf” (cladode is the botanical term), which are eaten sliced and sauteed with onion; as well as for its fruit, the cactus pear. It is also traditionally an important livestock forage crop, and is still cultivated for cochineal-carmine dye.

Diet and health authorities, as well as the Mexicans, attribute a number of health properties to the consumption of nopal pencas. It is especially noted for its hyperglycemia reducing properties.

The nopal was intensively cultivated in Mexico and Central America for several centuries after the Spanish conquest for the carmine dye that is derived from an insect, the cochineal, which infests its cladodes. Cochineal-derived carmine dyes fetched high prices in Europe until the development of aniline dyes in the mid-1800s. Carmine dye is still produced from Opuntia for natural red dyes used in foods. Most of the production, however, now takes place in Peru.

There are over 100 species of nopal in Mexico, and a half dozen of these are cultivated on over a quarter million acres all over Mexico.

One morning just before the Easter weekend while I was in Ensenada getting my car worked on, an indigenous woman, obviously from the countryside, showed up with a sack of nopales. She had probably taken the bus in from the countryside with all the nopales she could carry with her granddaughter. The women from the surrounding businesses quickly bought all she had. The nopal is an important part of any Mexican feasting weekend, such as Easter is.

Adriano Medina was applying herbicide to his nopal crop when I stopped and initiated a conversation with him. To my chagrin, he said the herbicide was paraquat - one of the most toxic agricultural chemicals. However it is powerful, and cheap in Mexico. Use of paraquat is highly restricted in the US because of its toxicity. Adriano was applying it with no gloves and only rubber boots and a piece of crude plastic to shield his legs from the spray.

Adriano, who looked to be in his late 20s, farms about a third of a hectare of this dry, unpopulated land, land for which a hardy, low water crop like nopal is ideally suited. This would be ideal land for a young startup farmer like Adriano - low value, possibly even free under homesteading laws in Mexico. He and his family live on the farm. The land has a well.

"Right now I sell my crop in Ensenada and Tijuana, but the price is very low," he said in Spanish. "I would like to take it to the United States. They say that in cities like Chicago and Ohio (sic) nopales sell for 15 to 25 dollars a box. Here in Mexico I only get twelve pesos (about a dollar) a box."

"The problem is that I need to get a visa to drive into the United States." He said he has a truck, but a visa would probably be the least of his problems. Since the US bioterrorism laws kicked in, the obstacles to Mexican farmers transporting their goods to the US have multiplied (I will discuss this in my next article about the Del Cabo organic farming cooperative).

Contrary to my preconceived notion that a native cactus would have few pests, nopal has a host of insect pests. Adriano said that a moth worm (probably Cactophagus, the Opuntia Borer) infests nopal and must be sprayed.

Another serious potential pest is headed toward Mexico from Florida - the cactus-feeding worm Cactoblastis cactorum. Native to Argentina and introduced into the Caribbean decades ago, Cactoblastis is one of the star organisms in the annals of biological control. It was introduced into Australia to fight an invasion of exotic Opuntia. It pretty much wiped it out there.

Lonesome Don on the long empty roads of southern Baja

Driving the long hours of nearly empty but at times beautiful land, I don’t know what I would do without the 48 hours of books-on-tape I brought. Larry McMurtrey’s Comanche Moon, part of the Lonesome Dove series, keeps me company – the land is the same as that set in the book.

In the southern Baja city of La Paz I pay my second bribe to the federal police – for driving through an intersection whose light had just turned yellow. I’m beginning to get a feel for the interaction. They started with numbers like $70. I got them down to $20. As with the first interaction in Ensenada, it ended with smiles and a handshake and repeating each other’s first names.

It is generally all pretty harmless – they have power and want some money – you have it and give them some in order to not spend a few hours at the station – which would end up costing the same anyway, in the form of a formal ticket.

Next time I’m pretty sure I can get it down to $10 or even $5 – everything in Baja is generally more expensive. I can count on getting plenty of practice – my mini-RV with California plates will increasingly stand out as I go south.