PAN-AMERICAN ADVENTURE: On the trail of sustainable farming in Latin America

Final reflections on U.S. agriculture before bowling into Baja
In a new, year-long series, ag researcher Don Lotter seeks out organic and sustainable successes in Latin America. But first, a final ramble down California’s Central Valley, a $25 billion a year agricultural powerhouse—totally dependent, ironically, on Mexican labor.

By Don Lotter

Editor’s NOTE

From the moment we revived New Farm as a web site, we envisioned a Latin American section, in both English and Spanish. Farming in the U.S., Mexico and Central America are so inextricably linked, both economically and politically, that we wanted to give U.S. readers an understanding of the issues and realities south of the border … and we wanted to give Latin American farmers and innovators a forum for sharing successes, identifying challenges and hopes, and making connections.

Now we’re finally able to make good on our promise. Don Lotter, who gave us our first taste of Latin American coverage with a series of profiles of farmers in Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Cuba, has agreed to spend the next year touring farms in Mexico, Central America and selected countries in South America. He’ll be doing 24 to 30 profiles of Latin American farmers—and he’ll also be putting together a resource listing of organizations, individuals, websites and publications in Latin America that support sustainable and organic production and marketing.

We also hope to translate all of these articles and resources into Spanish, beginning perhaps as early as this summer. (On a related note: We’re partnering with Heifer International to develop a web page for immigrant farmers in the U.S., and those who serve them. A big component of this site will be resources for Hispanic farmers in the U.S., in both Spanish and English. Expect something later this fall.)

So, why Don Lotter? Don is a trained agricultural researcher with a Ph.D. in agronomy from University of California at Davis. He’s also an entertaining writer and a keen observer of farming methods and markets, and the social and political matrix that farming is imbedded in.

Sounds pretty heavy, but it isn’t. Just relax and enjoy as Don climbs into his 25-year-old Toyota mini-RV and tootles down the Central Valley of California, on his way to Baja and points south. One minute Don is explaining the threat of grazing to California’s costal hills—and offering intelligent solutions--and the next minute he’s stalled on a bridge in Southern California, the victim of gas theft. It’s going to be a wild ride down the Baja, across Mexico and into Central America. I’m looking forward to every minute of it.

Chris Hill
Executive Editor
New Farm

Interested in reading Don’s earlier stories on Latin America? Click here.
You also might want to check out his series on farming in Canada.

Disaster waiting to happen: The California Poppy covers a rangeland hill next to Interstate 5. The Interior Live and Valley Oaks that formerly covered these hills were cleared a century ago for grazing. Areas of erosion can be seen. The large eroded gully to the right of the center of the photo has been revegetated.

Posted May 13, 2004 The drive south down Interstate 5, from Davis, my hometown north of San Francisco, is a déjà vu. Nearly 30 years ago, in late March of 1976, I caught a ride to LA for the first leg of my first journey to Latin America. I was a junior in Agronomy at the University of California Davis and had landed a small scholarship to train in the bean program at the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. But first I needed to learn Spanish, so I was heading to Cuernavaca, Mexico where some of the first Spanish language schools in Mexico were located.

The feeling of trepidation of facing a big unknown, a knot in the stomach that comes when leaving the security of home, of knowing that many taxing challenges lie ahead, were the same today as they were in 1976. Only now I’m 52 years old, driving a small RV, and wondering if I’m up to it. It’s one thing to plan the trip with friends over beers, and another to set out alone, with so many unknowns ahead.

Will the 25 year old Toyota Dolphin RV hold up on the Mexican and Central American roads? What if I break down late in the day in the middle of nowhere? How aggressive will the thieves be?

Will the 25 year old Toyota Dolphin RV (it’s actually called a mini-RV) hold up on the Mexican and Central American roads? What if I break down late in the day in the middle of nowhere? How aggressive will the thieves be in the poor countries like Guatemala?

The 1976 trip started out difficult – I went through a bout of acute loneliness in a seedy hotel in the Mexican border town of Mexicali before boarding the train south. Then, there was the stressful learning process, without knowing a word of Spanish, that I needed to bribe the train conductor in order to get a sleeping bunk for the 3-day trip.

But the six-month sojourn ended up being one of the best of my life. The I-Ching has a saying that goes something like, “Difficult beginnings can have great endings.” I have since made many trips to Latin America, spending some two years there.

As I drive south, I tell myself the I-Ching saying.

The California Central Valley: agricultural juggernaut.

The trip down the I-5 highway passes me through one of the richest agricultural areas in the world, the great Central Valley, whose agricultural worth is over $25 billion annually. The Valley’s agriculture produces fully a quarter of the nation’s food (this is probably either by value or weight, but definitely not calories) and uses a third of its pesticides on its 300 crops. I pass almonds, walnuts, citrus, peaches, apricots, pasture. I smell the enormous feedlot at Coalinga before I can even see it – a solid square mile of cattle standing on hills of their own manure.

The only obvious new crop from 30 years ago is pistachio, which has spread from northern California to the San Joaquin Valley.

It is estimated that as many as 90% of agricultural laborers in California's Central valley are illegal immigrants, nearly all from Mexico.

The Central Valley agricultural economy is intimately connected to Mexico, although this is generally not widely spoken of. It is estimated that at least 50% and as many as 90% of agricultural laborers in the valley are illegal immigrants, nearly all from Mexico.

While on the one hand our agricultural economy is totally dependent on this illegal migrant labor, we demonize the immigrants when it comes to their relatively small cost to society – the small percentage of criminals, some public health expenditures, etc.

California agriculture’s neglected stepchild: coastal hill rangelands.

The I-5 highway was put on the very west side of the Central Valley, right at the bottom of the western coastal hills. The hills have been denuded of 95% of the oaks that formerly covered them, in order to produce forage for grazing cattle.

My ecology background has made me aware that hilly rangelands are one of the most unsustainable parts of California’s agriculture. It is every bit as backwards as many areas I see in Third World countries, where we send advisors and money to “develop” them. The amount of money we spend to help other countries stabilize their rangelands is far more than we spend on our own.

Trees on hillsides would take a couple of years of irrigation, a substantial cost for rangelands, but once established, land values would increase substantially.

Land slips and gully erosion are evident all over the on hills I pass.

What land managers don’t seem to realize is that it just takes a few “perfect storms” over a couple of centuries before these hills lose most of their soil and end up looking like the rocky hills of the Mediterranean, denuded of trees and overgrazed 2000 years ago.

The perfect storm scenario starts with a drought year that allows only stunted range plant growth. Cattle then graze to stubble what little pasture gets up. Then in November the first rains of the season occur as a big two or three day rainstorm, usually an El Nino year. The storm happens early, before any plant growth can occur to protect the soil. This has happened before, and the erosion damage is enormous.

The California native oaks that covered these hills–the Interior Live and Valley Oaks—are not conducive to producing cattle, as they are evergreen, throw heavy shade and prevent growth of range grasses, which are now nearly all Mediterranean annuals that evolved under heavy grazing and open sun in Europe.

The ecology of California range forages is to get a spurt of growth at the beginning of the rains in November, when the temperatures are still fairly warm. During the winter months, there will be small growth spurts on sunny days. Then when temperatures warm up in the spring, another growth spurt occurs before things dry up.

Seventy percent of coastal hill range plant growth occurs during these fall and spring windows of warmth and wetness.

Early in my graduate career at UC Davis I proposed a study to look at the potential for putting grazing-friendly trees on these hills – trees that would also stabilize the slopes. I found the potential “ideal” agroforestry tree to be the honey locust (Gleditsia), a common street tree in California. The honey locust has a nice, open canopy that lets through a fair amount of light.

Honey locust in California has the unique trait of shedding its leaves quite early in the fall – the result of an infestation of a leaf miner insect. This opens the canopy to sunlight during the critical November period of warmth and wetness. Honey locust is also a late budder in spring – which fits with the other growth window, allowing sunlight penetration while things are warm and still wet.

Honey locust is one of those uncommon legumes that does not nodulate or fix nitrogen. Nevertheless, it produces copious amounts of pods which provide additional fodder during late summer and fall when grasses can be depleted. The shade in the summer is good for livestock.

The establishment of the trees on hillsides would take at least a couple of years of intermittent irrigation, a substantial cost for rangelands, but once established, land values would increase substantially.

Forage-friendly trees would give a multidimensional aspect to the rangelands. Winter and spring would produce grasses and forage, summer and fall would have tree shade and pods. Overall biological diversity would be significantly increased.

Thinking the gas gauge is broken, I run out of gas while crossing a busy intersection of Whittier Boulevard in LA.

Unfortunately, I attempted this research proposal during the years when the University of California budget was slashed more drastically than ever before (as is now occurring again), and it was never funded.

Additionally, there were some concerns amongst the purists about putting a non-native tree on California rangelands. Honey locust is native to Tennessee and the eastern Midwest.

However, my view is that the hilly rangeland system is profoundly unsustainable without its oaks, and a solution is badly needed. The land owners want something that is going to pay, and they aren’t going to put in native oaks without hefty subsidization. California native oaks in the past haven’t allowed profitable grazing.

There are millions of honey locust trees in California cities. All of our agriculture is characterized by introduced plants.

First glitch in the best laid plans …

The challenges of the journey south start before I even get to LA. Someone siphoned all of the gas from my full tank during one of my rest stops. Welcome to southern California (most of us northern Californians consider it another state and hardly ever go there). Gas is over $2 a gallon, and my ’79 Toyota has only a flimsy plastic door over the gas cap.

Thinking the gas gauge is broken, I run out of gas while crossing a busy intersection of Whittier Boulevard in LA. Believing the problem to be a failed fuel pump, I get towed to a friend’s house in Whittier. We diagnose the problem, buy a locking gas cap, and am on my way south to the border.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: First stop in Baja—just a few miles south of the maquiladora factories on the border, Don stops to chat with wine grape and olive growers … then further south for conversations with nopal cactus growers.