Transcript From NPR's All Things Considered with Larry Jacobs, Michelle Norris and John McChesney

Profile: Agricultural cooperative in Mexico where small farmers are reaping huge profits

Source: NPR All Things Considered
Jun 11, 2007

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. In some parts of the Mexican countryside, heavily subsidized imports from Canada and the United States have forced farmers to abandon their farms and have created social unrest. Despite this, there's one place in Mexico where small farmers are finding success. NPR's John McChesney visited an agricultural cooperative on the Baja Peninsula, where the farmers are quite pleased with the lucrative market they've found exporting goods to the United States.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

Just north of the city of San Jose Del Cabo, near the tip of the Baja Peninsula, you'll find the packing plant of the Sociedad de Organicos Del Cabo.

(Soundbite of packing plant activity)

McCHESNEY: In this huge room, nearly 200 women are sorting bite-sized tomatoes and packing them in plastic clamshell boxes. Larry Jacobs, who organized the Del Cabo cooperative in the late 1980s, describes what's going on.

Mr. LARRY JACOBS (Cooperative Organizer): On this table, they're packing sugar plums, which is a red grape type of tomato. This table over here, they're packing on-the-vine cherry tomatoes for the Trader Joe pack that we do. And on that table over there, you can see it's a variety we developed that we call Honey Bunch, which is a grape-type tomato and it's a bright yellow.

McCHESNEY: Quick hands trim, sort and drop the tomatoes into the boxes. At another table, bunches of basil are being prepared for the cooler. The women even apply bar codes and labels by hand. This absence of automation is deliberate.

Mr. JACOBS: When we first started, we felt that it would be better to do things by hand because we were trying to generate employment for people. There was nothing happening out here in 1987. There was a need for employment.

McCHESNEY: And that's the central principle of the Del Cabo co-op: enabling people to make a decent living from small-scale agriculture. Larry Jacobs and his wife, Sandy, came here in 1987 on the last leg of a vacation from their farm in the San Francisco Bay area. Unlike most tourists, they took an interest in the tiny farms in the region. Most were growing for the local market of only 10,000 people. Everyone was selling the same thing at the same time and no one was making a living.

Mr. JACOBS: And that visit, we sat in our hotel room- it was across the street from the church- and drafted a proposal to the local county government. And it was a one-page proposal. And the gist of it was to teach small growers, small-scale growers, in the area how to farm vegetables organically for the winter market in the United States.

McCHESNEY: Jacobs and his wife were no strangers to poverty outreach programs. They'd worked for a grant-funded small-farm project in Guatemala encouraging the use of efficient wood-burning stoves. They had seen that as soon as the grant money dried up, such projects usually disappeared. From that they decided that creating a self-sufficient business was more likely to succeed.

But it wasn't easy. In the first year of Del Cabo, they could only persuade nine farmers to participate. Manuel Castro was the official to whom the Jacobs made their pitch back in the '80s. He's the county secretary of agriculture today.

Mr. MANUEL CASTRO (County Agriculture Secretary): (Through Translator) Eighteen years ago, I did not believe in Lorenzo. Many people did not believe in Lorenzo. But he was persistent, constantly asking. That probably helped him because I, frankly, did not think organic farming would go anywhere. I thought it was a crazy idea, but he prove us wrong. And really, I admire him. I applaud him. He came here alone, alone against the world.

McCHESNEY: In those first years, Jacobs and his wife traveled the sandy back roads in an old flatbed truck delivering seeds, proselytizing, instructing and learning from the locals. Before the co-op started, the average farmer here had an annual income of only about $2,000. The original nine farmers grossed 5 or $6,000 in their first year by letting Jacobs sell their produce in the United States. Word got around, and the next year membership had grown to 20 and then to 50. Eighty-one-year-old Leo Aripze(ph) is one of the original members. He sits outside the packing plant sipping coffee. His deeply lined and stubbled face break into a grin when you ask him what's good about the co-op.

Mr. LEO ARIPZE (Co-op Member): (Through Translator) (Laughs) The main good thing is that it's organic. We don't use pesticides, period. Of course, it's good to be part of the co-op. You make more money. If you work hard, you make more.

McCHESNEY: Today, the cooperative has 147 full voting members and another 200 or so associate members. Finance manager Jesus Herera(ph) says the earnings are very good indeed.

Mr. JESUS HERERA (Finance Manager): (Through Translator) On average, the co-op member makes roughly $21,000 a year. We've documented this over the past three years. Entire family's farm and some of our best family producers make 15 to 18,000 every two weeks.

McCHESNEY: Members who produce less make less, but the co-op's average income is something most small Mexican farmers can only dream of. And there are other benefits for members. The co-op can buy agricultural supplies much more cheaply than individual farmers, and on top of that subsidizes 50 percent of what the farmers need. And medical care is provided, as well. So many people want to join that full membership has been closed.

Mr. JACOBS: There's an overfill of cherry tomatoes there.

McCHESNEY: After driving out the twisting, two-track road across white sandy river washes, we come to the fields of Carlos Ruiz(ph). Larry Jacobs points to vines heavy with the jewel like fruit.

Mr. JACOBS: They get up to six feet high. And then this is a field- it looks like Sweet 100s. Let's walk over there. There's another field, a newer field.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

McCHESNEY: Wary of the rattlesnake we had just seen on the road, we walk over to where Martin Ruiz(ph) is chopping weeds for his father. What does he think of the co-op?

Mr. MARTIN RUIZ: (Through Translator) I think it is a very good thing because all of us who did not finish school are working on the land and we are making a living.

McCHESNEY: There are a number of ingredients in this recipe for success. Probably the most important is the marketing arm Larry Jacobs provides in the United States. Jacobs was farming organically in California before he organized the co-op, so he'd established a brand on the ground floor of a booming market. Del Cabo now pulls in annual revenue of $20 million. Guadelupe Baltieras(ph), president of the co-op, smiles as he nods towards Jacobs sitting across a room in the packing plant.

Mr. GUADELUPE BALTIERAS (Co-op President): (Through Translator) We would not be making any money if it were not for your marketing program. And without you as a person, the co-op would not function at all.

McCHESNEY: Jacobs' approach is dramatically different from that of other US organic companies. They have either bought their own land and hired workers, or they've contracted with large Mexican landowners to supply their needs. David Runsten, of UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center, says the hassles Jacobs has faced make it clear he was concerned with more than his bottom line.

Mr. DAVID RUNSTEN (North American Integration and Development Center, UCLA): Certainly dealing with all these small farmers has been a headache all these years; nobody would argue with that. And so I think his approach was that, `Well, this is why we're here; we're trying to help these people.'

McCHESNEY: Is this approach repeatable in other parts of Mexico? Senior Castro, from the co-op's home county, is proselytizing in other Baja counties and says there is interest. But organizations of small growers require patience and dedication, something that governments and corporations often don't have.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

McCHESNEY: Sitting at an old picnic table beside a field of cherry tomatoes, Larry Jacobs says he's making a very comfortable living these days, but that's not the best part.

Mr. JACOBS: The best moments are the small moments, and they're the quiet moments when, like this gentleman whose field we're sitting in come up and say, `You know, this is--I want to just thank you. This has been really good.' You can't get paid for doing stuff like this. There's no amount of money that makes you feel that good.

McCHESNEY: John McChesney, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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I just purchased your Sugar Plum Grape Tomatoes and they are without rival the best tomatoes of any kind. Thank you for the heavenly organic produce.

—Paul from Berkeley, CA