Cabo's Organic Farms

BY: FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ

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In Northern California, at Swanton Berry Farm, visitors can pick as many organic strawberries as they want for a nominal fee. During the 1940s through the 1960s, San Jose, CA was known as the Valley of Heart's Delight, in which the Santa Clara County city provided 80 percent of the nation's produce. And all along the coast of California, there are pockets of cities like Gilroy the garlic capitol, and Castroville, where Spanish settlers brought the artichoke to California.

The first artichoke fields grew south of San Francisco, near the town of Half Moon Bay, in the early 1920s. And it continues further down in Southern California in cities like Fresno, Merced, Manteca, Oxnard, Delano and so many others, whose rich soil and warm and hot weather, have been ideal for growing produce.

And, of course, that same coastal history of fertile fruit and vegetable fields ends in Southern Baja California, where the Los Cabos region benefits greatly from the organic and fresh produce we consume at restaurants and purchase at local shopping centers like Soriana, Mega/La Comer, Chedraui, and Walmart.

The delicious fresh locally-grown produce is cultivated without the use of chemicals, does not have to pass through customs or has to deal with excess packaging. We reap the delivery process of straight from produce fields as close as Pescadero, 60 minutes away and other BCS communities like Miraflores, San Jose del Cabo, Pescadero, Boca de La Sierra and La Paz. Two of the largest cultivators of organic produce in Mexico are Pescadero and Todos Santos. 

The weather along this coastal region is dry (arid and semiarid) with average annual temperatures that range between 18°C and 28°C (64 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit). This BCS region is characterized by prolonged and severe droughts that are drastically interrupted by autumn storms and hurricanes during the summer. The Sierra de La Laguna is the main source of groundwater supply. 

In a government report from a few years ago, it was found, "that agriculture from this region originally prospered in an oasis ecosystem. There are several small farms and ranches in the surrounding areas, composed of tropical and subtropical fruit trees, palm trees and a variety of vegetables."

And regarding BCS Los Cabos area history, the report states "The origins of agriculture in Baja California Sur date from the arrival of the Jesuits order in the 18th century. They came to establish missions in Baja and convert the natives to the Catholic lifestyle. The Todos Santos mission was established in 1723 with the name, Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz. Over the next 100 years, rebellions and epidemics devastated the indigenous population, and mission efforts of the Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans ultimately failed; however, the town continued to prosper.

"The agricultural boom began in 1842 when the then-governor redistributed clergy land. Success was due mainly to abundant water and fertile soil in this special oasis ecosystem. The crops introduced by the missionaries continued to prosper. Such crops included sugar cane, corn, flowers, dates and tropical fruits such as mango, guava, papaya and avocado. By 1850, Todos Santos had become the state sugar cane capital with a total of eight processing plants in the area. The sugar cane industry continued for 100 years during this period known as the golden age of the town."

In the early 1970s, coupled with the end of the drought in 1981, a diverse variety of crops started to be planted and grown including cucumber, avocado, papaya, mango, tomato and chilies.

The chilies that were the main cultivated crop back then are still being grown. Producers use commercial cultivating aids like inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that they mainly procure from farm supply stores in La Paz. Soil preparations take place using mechanical cultivation practices, like planting in rows or beds usually covered with plastic mulch (black and silver). Poblano chilies and green beans are commonly grown using this production system.

Organic production systems started in this region during 1985 with the arrival of Mr. Ross Vail, an American citizen from California who founded the first company to be certified organic in Baja Sur, Sueño Tropical (Tropical Dream). Their first export crop was basil, shipped to the U.S. Sueño Tropical is currently the largest company growing organics in the BCS region. The company also has conventional plantings in a parallel system. The vast majority of their produce is exported but a small portion is sold locally.

There are several independent small-scale organic producers in the area that sell locally but are not certified organic.

The report further notes that the agricultural production in Todos Santos and El Pescadero area is mainly based on small-scale operation systems of native-local growers.

Each native-local grower holds between 1 to 4 hectares (2.5 to 10 acres) of land dedicated mainly to growing poblano chili peppers and green beans. Culinary herbs such as sage, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chives and mint were planted last season in 10 percent of the farming areas in Todos Santos and 14 percent of the planting area in El Pescadero.

Pescadero continues to cultivate strawberry, pepper, green bean, tomatoes, eggplant, corn, cucumber, beet, carrot, zucchini and herbs: basil, chives, oregano, marjoram, mint, coriander, rosemary, tarragon, sage and thyme.

The majority of land dedicated to agriculture in the region is under the ejido ownership system. This land corresponds to communal land granted by the Mexican government for agricultural purposes.

Members of the ejido are entitled to use the land for their own benefit but they do not directly own communal lands. However, ejidos are able to grant title of specific parcels to individual members. Within the ejido there are three different categories of land property: individual parcels, common use property and community development property. Individual parcels owned by ejido members are the most common type of land possession for the agricultural producers in Todos Santos and El Pescadero area. About 35 to 40 percent of the members from both ejidos, Todos Santos and El Pescadero, are principally engaged in agriculture, followed by fishing and ranching.

Producers reported that they do not often receive technical support. They have learned from years of experience and what has been passed down through generations. In some instances, they are resistant to change. Farm supply companies provide loans, seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides

to the producers to grow their crops during the autumn-winter season.

CONAGUA (National Commission of Water) is the federal agency that regulates the use of fresh water. Ejidos are in charge of well management. Water use is based on a rotating system; a person is designated to control each user’s turn.

Ejido irrigation is based on an hourly rate of $60 pesos in

Todos Santos and $35 pesos in El Pescadero. The ejidos also sell water to individuals that do not have easy access to municipal water, due mainly to the lack of water infrastructure outside of these urban areas. Water is managed according to the water requirements of each crop, but normally, producers get a certain number of hours a week to cover their demand.

In 2001, a Wall Street Journal reporter said, "Thousands of feet above sea level, far from any paved road, lies some of the cleanest farmland in North America; perhaps the perfect place to satisfy the world's growing appetite for organic fruits, vegetables and herbs."

A buyer for an organic agribusiness, John Graham, added that "It would be hard to find a more pristine environment anywhere." 

Ken Armstrong, founder and owner of Ouroboros Farms, decided to give aquaponics a try in 2000 and now has a successful operation underway in a rented greenhouse just east of Pescadero. The theory behind aquaponics is that fish produce organic, nutritive waste that can be used to fertilize hydroponically grown plants. Plants love it and flourish. The water is used in a closed circuit where plant-growing water is circulated with the fish tank in a cycle that uses 90 percent less water than conventional farming. The end result is fish to harvest, healthier plants, and less cost to grow the plants.

The execution of this process is not nearly so simple. One problem with aquaponics is that plants like slightly acidic water, fish like it neutral, and the bacteria that help make the whole system work requires lots of pH adjustments.

Another challenge is the bugs. It is farming after all and bugs love to eat plants, especially aphids. He uses ladybugs, midges, and wasps to eat the aphids. No chemical pesticides are allowed in an organic operation. In fact, Ken says it is cleaner than traditional organic because the fish are sensitive to even organic pesticides such as neem oil. Hence, this operation is truly “beyond organic.”

The reason “organic” gained national standing as a trusted set of farming practices was entirely due to the grassroots efforts of pioneering farmers and groups like California Certified Organic Farmers founded in 1973 to promulgate and enforce a common set of organic standards (similar efforts were underway in many other states and in Mexico at the same time). 

Farm-to-table restaurants delight with local ingredients and garden dining continues to grow.  A salad with crisp lettuce and vegetables, gathered fresh from the restaurant’s on-site organic garden, is all the rage now in this health-conscious world. In Los Cabos, bright orange carrots snap when bitten into and burst with natural sweetness.

The beets are deeply delicious, with a mineral-rich taste of the earth in which they were grown. Giant scallops and still-squirming chocolate clams are sourced from an aquaculture farm north of La Paz and served raw or grilled over fragrant mesquite wood. A plump chicken with crispy roasted skin, raised free-range on a ranch just outside of Santiago, is a taste people don't forget. 

Once upon a time in Mexico, all dining was farm-to-table. Chefs used only fresh, local, and organic ingredients in the creation of every dish they served. Throughout the country, restaurateurs relied wholly on small, nearby farmers, ranchers, and fishermen to procure what was needed on a daily basis. But with the eventual introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, factory farms, and food service companies in the 20th century, restaurants around the globe began to focus less on local sourcing and more on economic profits. 

Located on Flora Farms’ 10 acres of lush grounds and organic gardens, Flora’s Field Kitchen makes use of produce, dairy, and proteins grown or raised at the farm. Chef Guillermo Tellez – a protégé of famed restaurateur Charlie Trotter – works closely with the farm’s gardeners and ranchers when designing his menu.

Hortaliza Hierbabuena co-owner Marcos Ramirez had a vision in 2012. “I turned my car down a dirt road looking for beach access to the Pacific Ocean,” he reminisces. “It dead-ended in the basil fields of El Pescadero. I knew immediately that I wanted to build a restaurant here.'' Hierbabuena’s garden envelops the restaurant’s outdoor dining patio and open-air kitchen and was designed to provide diners with a sense of where their food came from. ''A lot of farmers here are looking to grow more organic produce and are going back to the old practices. It’s become a positive trend, and now, more land is being used for farming. And when you have such fresh products, you don’t really have to do too much with them,'' said Ramirez. 

Hortaliza Hierbabuena’s menu is based on whatever ingredients are available on a daily basis. Standouts are a beet salad with arugula, pumpkin seed, and fresh local cheese, a creamy house-made hummus, a roasted Poblano chile relleno, and the catch of the day — grilled and served in a hearty mole verde atop pico de gallo. 

Elizabeth Ibarra was a groundbreaking businesswoman in 2016 when she began to run a 20-acre farm, grow some of the region’s finest produce, and won the distinguished title of Entrepreneur of the Year in Baja California Sur. Her 24-year career has spanned all across Southern Baja California from Ciudad Constitución to Ensenada and finally, Todos Santos.

"I grew up in a family with no connection to farming, so it wasn’t until after high school that I first experienced it. When I found a job at a local corn farm in Ciudad Constitución. I took one look at the cornfields and quickly fell in love with agriculture. Being from a desert climate, the color green just seemed so beautiful to me. Even today, I am still so impressed by the soil’s ability to produce food.

"Once I was ready to start my own farm in 1999, I came back to Todos Santos and started exporting my produce to the United States. What I like about Todos Santos is the climate here supports a huge variety of plants and vegetables for at least 6 to 8 months of the year. We have more stable weather compared to the rest of Baja — not too windy or extreme — and that’s very good for greens, eggplants, tomatoes, or chili peppers. Because this land used to be ocean floor, the soil is not as naturally fertile here as, say, Chile, but we can still build a very healthy, suitable soil over time," she added. "The soil we farm on is like a stomach — you need to keep it healthy in order to grow healthy plants. Organic farming keeps your soil full of natural nutrients, which then allows you to grow healthy produce with better flavor. It also makes the plants more resistant to diseases and pests.

"We also use friendly flora. Pests are more attracted to leaves than the fruit itself, but if they don’t have anywhere else to go they will go for the crops. That’s why we add distracting crops that pull insects away from your produce while also attracting more beneficial insects like bees," concluded Elizabeth.

During this pandemic crisis, organic farmers are delivering box orders so the Los Cabos community can continue enjoying their fresh organic fruits, vegetables and spices.