Custom Search
Double-click here to change image
Cherry Tomatoes
Orgainic farming and how an American helps


Written January 1, 1988

Winter had not been cordial to Marin County.  Karin couldn't remember it being so cold.  When she heard her husband pull into the driveway she rushed to open the door for him, but couldn't suppress a smile when she saw him all bundled up in an overcoat, his hat pulled down around his ears, clutching a large, brown paper bag against the frosty night.
      As he hurried toward the warmth of the kitchen, she demanded, "What's in the paper bag?"
      "I had a craving for a salad tonight and stopped by the store for some fresh vegetables.  Look at these!  Aren't they great?"
      Tumbling onto the draining board were two heads of butter lettuce and a head of romaine; a large Bermuda onion; a couple of healthy looking green cucumbers; three perfectly ripened tomatoes; and a container of bright red cherry tomatoes.
      Karin rinsed off a cherry tomato, bit through half of it, and stuffed the remainder into John's mouth.  "These are beautiful...and sweet. They're beautiful, John, where do they grow cherry tomatoes in February?"
      John smiled knowingly, "The produce manager said they come from Mexico. Aren't they great?  He said they're organically grown on the very tip of Baja California Sur."
      "They're beautiful.  They're vine ripened, too.  I wonder how they get them to us so fresh?"

      The telephone rang with impatience.  "Global Organics, John San Agustin here."
      "Good afternoon, Mr. San Agustin, this is Sal Ferranti.  Are you the broker for the Del Cabo Produce label?"
      "Yes, Sir, we are the exclusive broker."
      "Good.  I've got a produce stand over here in Marin County and my pal at Greenleaf said he was buying cherry tomatoes through you.  What's the carton price?  I'll be needing a couple dozen cartons a week; all I get lately is complaints from the housewives because I don't have any cherry tomatoes."
      "I'm sorry, Mr. Ferranti, Greenleaf and Veritable are taking everything the growers can ship.  I'm getting complaints because they can't grow more, Maybe next season.  Give me a call in October, maybe Del Cabo will have increased their production by next season."

      A Mexicana 727 sat on the tarmacadam, glistening in the bright Mexican sunshine, her jet engines whining shrilly as the passengers filed aboard for their return flight to San Francisco and fog.   The passengers were surprised to see a large refrigerated truck pull along side the cargo bays.  A dozen Mexican laborers and airline personnel commenced to pass cardboard cartons from the refrigeration unit to the hold of the giant aircraft.  Beside the truck stood a Mexican customs official who was attempting to converse over the noise of the jet engines with a middle aged

Mexican dressed in dusty cowboy boots and a weather-beaten straw sombrero.
      "What have you got going out, Pablo?"
      "Six hundred cartons, Senor."
      "Six hundred cartons?  That's over three thousand kilos, Pablo; I don't think we have enough room for the whole shipment on this flight."
      "Senor, por favor”, our families have picked and packed these tomatoes only this morning.  We must get them out today.  They are ready for the tables.  You have to help us, amigo.
      The custom's official smiled warmly.  "I know, Pablo, I know.  You rancheros have been working very hard. El jefe at Mexicana told us to do everything humanly possible to get your vegetables on board.  No problema We'll work it out somehow. We'll manage to get them to the gringo's tables for you, Pablo. Don't worry."
A 1961 Chevy pickup groaned and rattled over the dusty, gnarled roadway and pulled along side an adobe, thatched roofed, one room dwelling some fifteen kilometers east of San Jose del Cabo. The driver eased out of the pickup and surveyed the surrounding countryside. The fields looked good.  The rows were straight and the plants were green and lush.  Fernando was doing a magnificent job with his hectare.
      "Hola Fernando," he called, "how many cartons have you ready for the
      Fernando stepped around the corner of the adobe, wiping perspiration from his weathered neck. He had a gentle smile and an easy manner about him; he was the most respected of the ejido (eh-Hee-doe) farmers. "I have only fourteen cartons, Nacho.  Many of the vines were not ready to give my family their tomatoes today."
      They loaded the cartons into the pickup and Nacho signed the receipt. As Nacho clambered into the pickup he shouted over his shoulder, "Senor Jacobs told me to remind you that we have a flight going up again on Friday and a refrigerated truck leaving on Tuesday.  You must tell your plants to spend more time at growing, amigo.  We have only five more months of season."Gracias, Nacho. I will have my wife speak with them. Adios."
Larry Jacobs and Steve Farrer sat on the running board of an old Dodge truck, squinting against the glare of the midday sun, watching Sandra Berlin instruct the daughters of the ejido farmers to sort and pack the cartons that were to be shipped via Mexicana that afternoon.  Everyone was being well trained and the process was progressing like clockwork.  They had never worked with a group of people so energetic, so eager to do their jobs right, and so happy to do what they were doing.  The experiment, Larry had always considered it an experiment, was successful beyond his wildest imagination. 
      Steve laughed heartily, "You know, Larry, the way things are going, we might even make some money this year."
      Larry caressed his beard gently, only his piercing blue eyes belying his humor, and answered softly, "Money?  You mean you got into this deal for money?  I thought we were down here just to have a good time.  You know... hanging around the beach, surfing, doing a little snorkeling, downing a couple of cervezas...that sort of thing.  Money?  No way, Steve, no way."
Cabo organically grown in LOS CABOS, B.C.S. MEXICO
collaboration withJACOBS FARM and STEVE FARRER
Larry Jacobs, owner of an herb and flower farm in Pescadero, California, decided to take a vacation in the fall of l985.  As a change of pace, he flew to San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur.  The vacation turned out to be a busman's holiday that would change his life forever; and the lives of hundreds of Mexican dirt farmers who were scraping an existence from the soil of that inhospitable peninsula.
      After "beaching it" for a couple of days, Larry rented a car and drove into the valley north of San Jose del Cabo "to have a chat" with some of the local farmers.  What he found was appalling.  The soil was rich, but the methods were from the distant past.  He found that the yields per hectare (10,000 square meters or 2.471 acres) were adequate, but the quality of product was unacceptable to the North American end users. Furthermore, all the farmers were growing the same crops; when it was time to harvest, the price of the produce was unnaturally depressed due to the jaws of supply and demand and the farmers were not receiving an income commensurate to their ardent labors.  Jacobs suggested some alternative methods to the farmers he talked with and wished them good luck. Jacobs returned to his native California and experienced an excellent harvest from his farm in Pescadero, but he felt continually troubled about something.  Eventually, he knew what he had to do.
      The following fall he bought several cases of seed, threw them into the back of his pickup, and drove the elongated peninsula to San Jose del Cabo.  He explained to his newly acquired Mexican friends that he wanted to experiment with some of the seed.  They agreed.  Voila!  The plants fairly leaped from the earth.  The quality of the vegetables was good, the sugar content was high and most importantly the farmers were not using chemicals in any of their fields; the impoverished farmers couldn't afford chemicals.
      As the 1986/87 season wore on, more and more of the farmers were coming to him for advise.  Larry Jacobs had started his own private peace corp.
      The area from La Playita to San Pedro is designated as the Ejido San Jose del Cabo.  Ejido land is land that has been set aside by the Mexican government for the sole use of Mexican nationals.  Native Mexicans and their families may live on the land and they may work it, but individuals may never own the land nor are they allowed to sell it; the land always belongs to the Ejido.  The Ejido members elect a board of governors and it was the board of governors who came to Jacobs with a proposal before he returned to the Bay Area.  The 1987/88 season, from mid November through mid June, would be the start of "a grand experiment" that would alter the vegetational makeup of the Los Cabos area and the lives of a score of families living there.
      There were, as always, skeptics within the ejido community and only 20 families agreed to participate in the cooperative effort, but they were especially successful their first season.  They shipped 20,000 cartons of organically grown produce to the broker in San Francisco and received top dollar for their labor.  The adviser become a guru.
      This past season, 1988/89, there were 50 families and 100 hectares (over 247 acres) committed to the ejido "experiment" and they shipped in excess of 80,000 cartons by Mexicana, a nationally owned airline, and by refrigerated trucks to destinations in San Francisco and Fallbrook, a townin north San Diego County.  Furthermore, the list of farmers wishing tojoin the cooperative continued to grow.  Two other ejido groups on the peninsula, Boca la Cierra and La Rivera, have expressed a desire to participate.  If accepted, an additional 100 hectares will be added to the cooperative effort.
      This Cinderella story, however, has not been without distress. Convincing Global Organics that del Cabo could deliver the goods" was no easy task, but it was minuscule when compared with the bureaucratic red tape that was to be unraveled before the State of California would accept the shipments: strict regulations enacted under the California Health and Safety Code, Section 26569.11, demands that no "chemically synthesized materials" be used in ground preparation or during the growing cycle.  Once having solved those problems, however, others would rear their ugly heads.
      The packing cartons necessitated English identification and the most efficient and economical carton manufacturers are in California.  Now comes the problems of importation documentation and the cost of duty; the Maquiladora avenue of approach (duty free importation and exportation of raw materials and finished products) imposed too many restrictions and regulations on a business dealing in perishable products.  The customs officials in La Paz, however, minimized the problem. Because the vegetables are vine ripened, timely shipping is imperative. Mexicana was eager and willing to transport, but the cost of shipping to the San Francisco market was draining the Ejido's capital.  The wholesale produce houses in California pay on a 'net 30 days' basis while Mexicana operates on the age old Mexican tradition of cash and carry.  Mexicana officialdom saved the day for del Cabo by extending the Ejido a $6,000 line of credit that helped them through the 87/88 season when only 20,000 cartons were being exported.  During the 88/89 season, however, the Ejido shipped nearly a ton of fresh Basil a week, a fraction of the total weight of other products being carried by Mexicana aircraft; at one point during the season the Ejido faced a terrifying cash-flow crunch.  An emergency telephone call was placed to one of the San Francisco wholesalers who was asked for payment of an invoice that was not contractually due. "He agreed to send me $32,000," said Jacobs, "but it takes my energy away from problems that are much more important to resolve."
      What problems are those?  Early into "the experiment" Jacobs became dissatisfied with the yield per hectare and called a competitor of his who owns a farm in Davenport, California, and who grows tomatoes in Indio, California.  Steve Farrer, a soil management expert, could not believe what he was being told.  He boarded Mexicana flight 971 from San Francisco and became immediately immersed in the yield problem.  During the past two seasons Farrer has taken on the responsibility of planning and programming planting and has locked horns with the inherent fertility problems.
      The problem: the soil shows a high pH factor, but the growth cycle produces a low yield; therefore, "what are the limiting factors inherent in the Los Cabos soil."  A soil sample was sent to Cal Poly, where Jacobs received his agricultural degree, and shortly thereafter, gossip traveling faster than light, an elderly, distinguished looking gentleman strolled

into the del Cabo packing shed carrying a large, black, medical looking valise.  Enter Dr.Everette Dietrich, a world renown entomologist, who quickly came to the crux of the problem.  "We needed to find a means of making the soil's environment compatible to the continuous reproduction of micro organisms.  The little critters that plants feed on. Experiments are currently in progress to determine the feasibility of spraying fungi and micro organisms onto the soil before they disc down the corn and Cow pea crops that are grown during the off season as ground cover for the purpose of revitalizing the soil.
      "All in all," Jacobs suggests, "we may be expanding a little too rapidly for our families."  More and more varieties of product are being requested by the market in California; good news for del Cabo, but not necessarily beneficial to the well being of the farmers.  Certain ejido families feel comfortable growing one kind of produce but uncomfortable when asked to grow another with which they have had no experience.  It is a learning process for some, but a very real threat to others who have been growing a specific crop for generations.
      One thing is certain, the Ejido San Jose Del Cabo will not want for gainful employment in the future; the housewives in Marin will continue to demand fresh, healthy, organically grown vegetables.  In addition to the Basil and eight varieties of red and yellow cherry tomatoes being shipped five times a week, the ejido land is also yielding excellent table tomatoes, yellow plumb and yellow pear tomatoes, zucchini, green peppers, green peas, sugar snap peas, several varieties of eggplant, and a couple of varieties of lettuce.  The soil and climate, according to Jacobs, is perfect for growing herbs as well because it is easy to control the moisture content of the ground.  He would like to enter that market next season.
      What does the guru see in his crystal ball?  "A lot of work...mainly. Maybe some day make a little money.  But mostly," he pauses and looks longingly toward the fields, "I'm looking forward to the day when every one of those ejido families will become self sufficient."
      His most pressing problem, and his most dangerous foe, is liquid capital. As the ejido cooperative continues to expand and as the shipments continue to increase in weight, the unpaid invoices continue to accumulate and horde the ejido's precious capital.  Jacobs and Farrer have invested a considerable amount of personal funds into "the experiment" and immeasurable time and energy.  There is a growing fear among ejido farmers that the cash problem may derail their expanding operation; that it may force them to return to their old methods of farming and marketing.

      Hopefully, someone will offer a solution,Hopefully.  Fernando sums up the situation with humility and clarity, "Si,Senor, our ejido families need to grow cherry tomatoes . . . for the tables of the norteamericanos."