Old Farming Ways Find New Value Amid Shutdown

Traditional farmers have seen sales soar as consumers — forced by COVID-19 closures and increased prices — turn to them for food and other staples.

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Old Farming Ways Find New Value Amid Shutdown

Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Alan López-Portillo Barroso, an urban farmer in Mexico City, makes compost with California earthworms. Traditional farmers such as López-Portillo have found a ready audience for their products during the coronavirus pandemic.

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Beyond the bustle of this country’s capital, birdsong rises above the streets in a rural area. Behind one house lies an ancient treasure — a field bursting with corn, broccoli, spinach, squash, gourds, and other fruits and vegetables.

The cluster of crops make up a milpa, a chemical-free cultivation system used by Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years. Now such age-old agricultural traditions have a new purpose: boosting growers’ income as they supply healthy food to consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We plant the same squash that our great-great-great-grandparents did, the same corn, the same tomato, and other plants from seeds — local, native and ancestral — that have been passed down for many, many generations,” says Alan López-Portillo Barroso, 37, an urban farmer from Xochicalli In Teotl, a community in Mexico City that focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles.

After the coronavirus arrived in Mexico in late February, the government urged people to stay at home. The move halted many daily activities, including some markets and bazaars.

Food prices rose, and consumers scrambled to find affordable, healthy products. Into the gap stepped merchants who offered hundreds of all-natural goods, from beers and peanut butter to deodorants and toothpastes.

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Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Alan López-Portillo Barroso, an urban farmer who is part of the Xochicalli In Teotl community in Mexico City, says he chooses the best seeds for his milpa, in which multiple crops grow together without chemicals.

Traditional farmers, who shun pesticides and use methods such as milpas or greenhouses, are thriving too. They have sought to keep their produce affordable by, among other things, giving food away and trading it for customers’ own products and services.

“When the pandemic started, both the producers and the consumers saw that there were no longer markets to sell or buy their products,” says Víctor Bernal García, a traditional grower and economics professor who calls himself a permaculturalist — someone who, among other things, builds systems that are both environmentally sound and economically practical. “So, they began to look for alternatives. Just through word of mouth, what we’ve done has really grown.”

When Bernal García needed fruit for his online customers, a producer brought melon, papaya, coconut and more to Mexico City. It all sold in one day, he says.

Andrea Salinas Dehesa, a founder of grocery cooperative Despensa Solidaria, says the pandemic shut down the three Mexico City locations that used to sell its products.

“We made the decision to not expose ourselves, to stay inside and keep working on our project,” she says. “We started selling online and saw that there was a big demand there since people couldn’t go out.”

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Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Traditional agriculturalist Víctor Bernal García (left) hands Madai García fruit he ordered from growers in the Comunidad Multitrueke Mixiuhca, which brought papayas, coconuts, melons and more. Bernal García says the group’s produce sold out in one day.

Before the coronavirus, she says, the cooperative sold 200 products; it now sells more than 370. And the number of producers she works with has climbed from 29 to 35.

None of this surprises López-Portillo, who began growing and selling food cultivated on a milpa a decade ago. A milpa, usually distinguished by stalks of corn towering over other crops in the field, allows growers to produce food on a smaller scale and at cheaper prices, he says. And because farmers don’t use chemicals, he adds, crops are healthier.

“When you grow an organic apple, for example, you increase the nutrients up to 30%,” says Ma. Nieves Trujillo Tapia, a biochemistry professor and researcher at the Universidad del Mar.

Joaquina Flores Caballero once worried that agrochemicals used on fruits and vegetables would sicken her. Then she started buying from Comunidad Multitrueke Mixiuhca, a group whose members sell and exchange all-natural products with each other directly. Her fears vanished.

“These foods are of higher quality,” she says. “I know they won’t affect me.”

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Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Alejandro Cano, who works for Despensa Solidaria, helps prepare orders that consumers made online. The grocery cooperative moved to digital orders after the Mexican government’s coronavirus restrictions dampened in-person sales.

Some traditional growers say the pandemic’s restrictions have revived their flailing businesses by forcing them to change.

Norberto Gómez Saldívar belongs to a family of farmers from southern Mexico City. Until six months ago, when he signed on with Comunidad Multitrueke Mixiuhca, the 56-year-old hawked his products out of a wheelbarrow.

On a good day, he sold half of his fruits and vegetables, he says. Now, using Multitrueke’s online social networks, he sells out regularly.

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Other growers say all-natural farming costs too much. Juan Gil Rosas sticks with urea-based fertilizer, made from a chemical compound that, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, contains the most nitrogen content of any fertilizer. Incorrect use can release ammonia and nitrates into the air, exacerbating acid rain, poisoning ground water, and destroying the ozone.

“I don’t use compost because it’s more expensive for me,” says Gil, who sells apples, peaches, corn and other produce. “The fertilizer is already expensive, but the government gives it to us cheaper.”

But some traditional growers say their success has forced them to hire help. That’s a bright spot in a country that, in June alone, saw 83,000 people lose their jobs, according to government figures.

López-Portillo says he has hired six people since the coronavirus outbreak. María del Socorro López, a mushroom producer who grows her produce in a greenhouse and sells them online, says she also quickly needed assistance.

“I hired a person to help me produce the mushrooms because so many were being ordered,” López says. “[Customers] are going to keep on ordering.”

Mar García is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mexico City. She specializes in reporting stories that transform rote narratives about Mexican art and society.

Translation Note

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.