Entertainment | Restaurants & Dining
|Farmers' Markets May Be Finding Their Niche in Mexico|
Kent Paterson - Frontera NorteSur
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November 29, 2010
They were the beauty and the brawn of the border. A professional dancer who also dabbled in Tijuana horse competitions, Yael Sanchez was crowned Miss Fitness Baja California 2003. Manuel Murillo was a leading body-builder, engaging in numerous championship bouts while training other claimants to the Superman title. Placing second in the Mr. Mexico championship four times, Murillo won the title of Mr. Frontera 2000 and Mr. Muscle Beach of Venice, California, in the same year.
Now residing in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, the lives of Sanchez and Murillo have changed radically. In addition to operating the Organic Superfoods store in the resort city's Emiliano Zapata neighborhood, Murillo and Sanchez recently purchased a 15-acre farm complete with fruit trees, greenhouses and an irrigation system, Their intention, Murillo said in an interview at his store, is to have a "sustainable farm" that produces "real organic foods at good prices."
Even before the plot of land the slimmed-down Murillo jokingly called "The No-Name Farm" is up to full production speed, Organic Superfoods offers a smattering of goodies spun out by its owners, including peanut butter, humus and cactus salad, as well as foodstuffs produced by other companies. In a small freezer, Mexican organic chicken and free-range buffalo meat raised in the southern state of Campeche are tagged for sale.
But Sanchez and Murillo have another promising sales outlet. On a recent Saturday, Sanchez was among nearly 50 vendors selling their goods at Puerto Vallarta's Old Town Farmers Market (OTFM).
Currently located in the Paradise Community Center near the popular Playa de los Muertos, the once-a-week market represents a departure from the prevailing Mexican market scheme in which consumers buy from intermediaries far removed from the land.
Launched in 2009, the OTFM is part of a growing international movement of putting farmers and value-added food producers in direct contact with consumers. The markets have spread like wildfire across the US and Canada in recent years, but still are rare in Mexico.
Exotic chocolate maker Charlotte Semple was much of the initial energy behind the OTFM. A regular customer of a farmers' market in Victoria, Canada, before finding her way to Puerto Vallarta four years ago, Semple quickly missed the weekly social gatherings and interactions with food producers. So the Canadian transplant set out to change things in her new home.
Now serving as the OTFM's director, Semple works with a five-person committee that reviews applications for vendors, all of whom must actually make the products they sell.
"The focus and purpose of this market is to encourage small business start-up," Semple told Frontera NorteSur.
A waiting list exists of 50 prospective sellers, Semple said, adding the current roster of vendors breaks down to about 50 percent Mexican nationals and 50 percent foreign residents.
At a glance, the OTFM is a success. On the market's second weekend day in November, about 1,000 people crammed the interior of the Paradise Community Center to shop, eat, banter and chat with producers.
Some vendors like Alejandra Palomera of Palomera Farms reported selling out product, in her case, lettuce. Selling directly to consumers puts more money in her pocket, Palomera insisted. "This is better for us, because the fruit stores sometimes pay us cheaply," she said.
"We had such a positive response, even last year." Semple added. "I think there was a real need for it." The customers, she said, are a mix of Mexican nationals, snowbirds and immigrants like her, with a small percentage consisting of tourists.
The OTFM is an excursion into the traditional, eclectic and inventive tastes and smells of the culinary world — tamales, jams, chocolates, muffins, salsas, Thai spring rolls, breads, fruits, vegetables, and many more mouth-watering delights.
Headquartered on the north end of Banderas Bay but a market regular, the Carnes del Mundo meat processor sells a big variety of Mexican-produced meats, including its own brand of Longiniza Cubano and ostrich from a Guadalajara ranch.
The OTFM also permits artisans to peddle their wares, and gives non-profit organizations like Puerto Vallarta's Los Mangos Public Library, which does not receive government money, a strategic space to garner crucial public support for their causes.
Not surprisingly, the OTFM is big on promoting environmental awareness and practices. Deborah Brady, a part-time resident of Puerto Vallarta from Petaluma, California, makes different flavored jams to sell at the weekend market.
In between giving samples of her blackberry jam and other tasty treats, Brady said she gives 15 peso discounts for every returned glass jar. The OTFM, Brady added, is asking vendors to use small wooden spoons instead of plastic ones for sampling.
For Semple, the biggest challenge facing the OTFM is finding enough farmers to sell fresh produce.
"This is a huge opportunity for the development of small farms," Semple contended. "We're even trying to get people in town who have avocados that are falling on the ground."
If the OTFM can coax more people to farm, such a development would buck a trend that's defined Mexican agriculture since the early 1990s and the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Edited by Jonathan Fox and Libby Haight, a new study cosponsored by the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) reports the number of people employed in Mexico's agricultural sector plummeted from 10.7 million workers in 1991 to 8.6 million in 2007.
In terms of organic agriculture, prospective growers in the Banderas Bay region and other parts of Mexico, confront obstacles.
Although Mexico's Secretariat of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries now offers some support for sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming, the vast majority of government resources dedicated to supporting agriculture still favor monoculture crop production that almost inevitably relies on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, according to the UCSC report.
As in the United States, prices for organic products in Mexico remain out-of-reach for many consumers. Apart from the typical middle-men markets that persist, the doors of giant supermarket chains like Wal-Mart, which is popping up everywhere across the Mexican Republic, lure legions of financially hard-pressed Mexican consumers searching for low prices.
Yet even Wal-Mart smells a green future, and the mega-chain's store across the street from the Puerto Vallarta cruise ship terminal includes a small selection of organic tea, jams, rice and other products.
Back at their small Organic Superfoods store, Yael Sanchez and Manuel Murillo are wagering that the growing demand for organic foods boosted by the opening of farmers' markets will bear good fruit.
Unlike many other Mexican organic producers, who ship their commodities to the US and other nations, Organic Superfoods intends to remain focused on Mexico. "Exporting is not our objective," Sanchez said. "We want the product to stay here."
For now, Sanchez and Murillo have decent opportunities to build up a local farming enterprise. Joining the same club as the OTFM, community farmers' markets recently opened in La Cruz and Sayulita north of Puerto Vallarta.
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur, Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico