John Liu’s documentation of the Loess Plateau restoration has opened people’s eyes across the world to regenerative land management. Restoration can bring back water, wildlife, agriculture and the local economy. It can also return to us our appreciation of beauty and feelings of connection. At our recent ecosystem restoration camp with Vía Orgánica, we saw first hand how a regenerative land project rooted in place and community can be a powerful change agent.
VO began 10 years ago in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. It is affiliated with The Organic Consumers Association based in the United States. Their mission is to promote healthy eating and a sustainable future through the promotion of knowledge and the practice of organic, regenerative agriculture, fair trade, social justice, sustainable living and the protection of the planet.
VO works in collaboration with local producers, ecological designers, and government to be a project that works for the local community. They have a grocery store and restaurant in San Miguel de Allende and an educational ranch and farm outside town. It is this ranch where we spent our two weeks living and learning about the many sustainable models they have created alongside the history and current issues facing people in Mexico.
In Mexico, 86% of farmers don’t have wells on their land. This means that water catchment is the main way water is collected. VO models many ways you can do this. They have rainwater roof collection, earth dams, and roads built at angles in cooperation with the natural land contours so water can collect. They also model ways to grow food with less water such as the Olla Method using buried ceramic pots filled with water. The soil pulls water from these pots only when it needs it. All the buildings at VO have been built with earthen bricks using local materials. We got a chance to make these bricks at camp and I can attest to the insulation of the buildings keeping us warm at night and cool in the day. In addition, VO is modeling a large scale tree-ranging chicken operation with fruiting trees to both supplement the birds diet and build the soil.
Like many places in the world, farmers in Mexico have had to leave the land to survive, seeking jobs in urban areas and across borders. For many family members who stay behind, the money sent back is a crucial piece of their survival. It can be hard and at times impossible to make enough money to live on while growing food. Although small farmers still grow the majority of the world’s food, trade policies like NAFTA flooded Mexico with United States corn starting in the 1990’s. The prices on this foreign corn were so much lower that local farmers couldn’t compete. This corn continues to come into Mexico. It is mostly genetically modified and grown using pesticides, a hallmark supplement to GM crops.
The aftermath of this trade policy was devastating for many in Mexico. There are 64 officially recognized corn varieties here and 21,000 regionally adapted varieties. Some farmers couldn’t support continuing to grow them, thus losing parts of this precious diversity. These native strains are vital to the health of the world’s corn crop. Huge fishing boats from other countries were also allowed into Mexican waters and within a few years and using large nets, they overfished areas that for hundreds of years were the main economy of entire towns. The income earners of these places had to leave, looking elsewhere to support themselves.
The work of VO and their partners are shifting these dynamics by supporting value-added artisanal products that also add bio-diversity to the farmers lands. One example of this is the modeling and encouragement to plant agave cactus between other crops. As a perennial, agave will increase organic matter and bacterial diversity in the soil. In eight years when the plant reaches maturity, agave can be distilled into mezcal, a spirit growing in popularity worldwide.
VO’s educational work is also critical to what makes it such a powerful project. They bring local farmers, college students, community members, children, and restoration campers to learn these techniques. They also have a weekly radio show that spreads this information even further so people who cannot come to the ranch can still access this rich information and apply it to their situations.
Kristal Gutierrez, one of the ranch employees, talks about how her family always farmed organically although they didn’t call it that. When she studied agriculture at university, the focus was on conventional methods, taking her away from the relationship with the land that she had grown up with. When she discovered and started working at VO, she reconnected with the land and her family traditions. Another example of this was the Nixtamalization workshop we attended as part of the camp. This refers to the process of adding mineral lime to corn before eating it. This process increases the bioavailability of nutrients in the corn so that it is a healthier food staple. Traditionally this process was passed down and known widely. Nowadays, it is hard to find commercially made tortillas that have been nixtamalized. VO is supporting the local people who are carrying on these traditions. These people are bringing back the knowledge and with it, pride and reverence in the many corn varieties, traditions and connections surrounding this Mexican superfood.
VO employees approximately 30 people full-time at higher than average local wages across the grocery store, restaurant and ranch. They hope to expand workshops and retreats at the ranch now that they have the capacity to do so. This will support their many projects. It is an honor to be connected to VO and the economic and cultural resilience they are cultivating. We, at Ecosystem Restoration Camps, look forward to a rich partnership with Via Organica and more restoration gatherings to come!