PUEBLA, MEXICO — For as long as Abel Sánchez Tapia can remember, his family — shepherds and farmers — lived at the mercy of the tepetate, a volcanic soil common in central Mexico. Each year, they would blanket the stubborn rock with a thin layer of compost, then plant a subsistence crop of corn and beans.
Today marks a turning point. Heavy machinery has broken through the cemented layers of tepetate. Once the land is cleared, Sánchez will embark on a new kind of farming, one that brings a sense of hope: “It has never been possible to grow anything else on this poor land,” says Sánchez, 74. But now, “we are going to grow agaves.”
Sánchez’s efforts are supported by a monthly stipend of 5,000 Mexican pesos ($247) from Sembrando Vida, or “planting life,” one of the most ambitious rural anti-poverty programs in Mexico’s history. The government program, which began in 2018 and runs until 2025, aims to re-green deforested areas by paying more than 400,000 farmers in 20 states to cultivate trees and native plants such as agave. The prickly succulent has long been valued for its medicinal properties and as a source of sustenance, but it’s now prized as the primary ingredient in tequila and mezcal.
PATRICIA ZAVALA GUTIÉRREZ, GPJ MEXICO
For Sánchez, Sembrando Vida, which targets small producers, has life-changing potential. Prior to the program, he and his family struggled to meet their basic needs. The stipend represents the bulk of Sánchez’s monthly income, covering food and other essentials as well as the cost of seeds and fuel. A flourishing agave farm, he says, could benefit his four adult children, all of whom have medical needs that have been neglected for lack of funds.
“This is the first time the government has really looked at the rural people,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that agave cultivation is not a quick fix. The plants, which can grow 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, take seven to 10 years to mature. The heart, or piña, of a single agave can weigh up to 200 pounds, and a liter of mezcal requires 8 to 10 kilograms (17 to 22 pounds) of piña.
With the support and advice of Sembrando Vida technicians, Sánchez is following the ancestral crop-growing method of milpa, alternating his agave planting with peach trees, guaje beans and two types of edible cacti: nopales and pitahaya.
Sánchez says the wait for the agaves will be worth it — eventually he can sell his harvest to mezcal distilleries, a burgeoning business. Tequila is made solely with blue agave, but mezcal draws from a broad range of the more than 159 species of agave in Mexico. Like Champagne, which comes from an authorized area in France, authentic mezcal is distilled only in designated regions of Mexico.
PATRICIA ZAVALA GUTIÉRREZ, GPJ MEXICO
Sánchez’s land falls within such a region. He is planting agave papalometl, also known as cupreata, prized by artisanal mezcaleros for its earthy, smoky flavor. The global mezcal market, valued at $727 million in 2019, is expected to grow to more than $1 billion in 2027, around the time Sánchez expects his first agave crop to be ready.
Agave farming represents just a small part of the Sembrando Vida program, which has come under fire for what some critics say is a lack of oversight. Last year, the World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit with a large operation in Mexico, issued a report that found in certain vulnerable areas, the program appeared to be contributing to the loss of forests.
“The program could have a negative impact on forest cover and the fulfillment of the country’s carbon mitigation goals,” the report says. But it also suggests that Sembrando Vida could achieve its goals by mitigating any early “negative impacts of the program and reinforcing compliance with its environmental objectives.” Javier Warman, forests director at the institute, says they are now studying areas that didn’t receive Sembrando Vida support in order to compare conditions.
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Government officials declined to comment. But in December, former Secretary of Welfare Javier May Rodríguez said in a report that the government was near its goal of planting more than 1 million hectares.
Local mezcaleros hope that through the program, farmers like Sánchez will provide a new source of agave. The Meza family, in the town of Santiago Coatepec, Puebla, has produced artisanal mezcal for 60 years. Their distillery, 60 Fierros, Arreando Mulas, won top honors in two recent national contests, besting scores of competitors, including some from neighboring Oaxaca, Mexico’s largest and best-known mezcal producing region.
The mezcal-producing agaves of Puebla carry their own proud tradition, Alondra Meza Hernández says. Her family’s business, which translates as “60 Irons, Pulled by Mules,” was named after her grandfather. People would see him and say “here comes 60 pieces of iron” because he always carried a lot of tools, she says. The Meza family uses five types of locally sourced agave in their mezcal, resulting in a distillate that is smoky, herbal and grassy.
The plants Sánchez envisions as his primary crop are now mere seedlings in his nursery. He collected and germinated them himself. They will take up to a year to reach a size suitable for the field and several more years to be ready to sell.
Sánchez doesn’t know whether he will live to see that day. What’s most important, he says, is what he’s creating for his family. He imagines his children encouraging their own children to continue the tradition: “Do it because this is a gift from your grandfather.”