Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And the Survey Says.... part 1

Forming beds for planting. This producer was fairly technified and had drip irrigation installed.

While the 15,000 mile chile chase to the Yucatan, Chiapas, Baja and back was the exciting prologue, we have now entered the real raison d’être of this Fulbright - the opportunity to wander the dusty teracerias of central Mexico and to have a face to face, honest conversation with the Mexican campo. Since my interests lie in the conservation of crop genetic resources and my host institution lies near the heart of dried chile pepper production - it made a lot of sense to tie all of these up neatly and to explore what kinds of chiles farmers were (still) growing, whether or not they were saving seed to plant in successive seasons, and if so, how do they select chiles to save for seed? By exploring some of the esoteric details of this particular farming system, we can explore “larger” topics such as the loss of genetic diversity as it pertains to chile and what this means for the public at large; the ageing of farmers and the decrease of acreage under the plow; the increasing technification of agriculture and the need for increased savvy from producers; the liberalization of agricultural trade bringing farmers in competition with farmers from all over the world. But let’s get our heads out of the clouds for a second, and step down from the steps of the ivory tower and I’ll recount how the survey got off the ground and what the initial responses have been.

Getting everyone on board

Although the chile chase ended in November, the survey was already in its final rough draft and piloted by early December, I was unable to start the survey work until the middle of January. Why? In order for the survey to be administered in a more “scientific” manner, I needed to obtain a random list of producers to survey. In order to get a list of producers of chile (from the state committee on plant health, whose mission is to combat insect infestations in crops), I need to meet so-and-so, to submit a letter to so-and-so, another meeting which gets delayed, and on. Finally, I received the green light and made a random selection of the producer list, taking down names, county and town. List and surveys in hand, I’ve been traveling to small towns and ejidos and I basically stalk individuals, asking about in the small stores and then finding them at their home or in their field. Once finding my “mark,” I introduce myself and the purpose of the survey and as soon as it’s clear that I know the chile farming lingo, the residual doubts about my purpose and origin disappear. Most answers beg follow-up questions and we often cover lots of ground that goes beyond what is on the survey. We talk about the irony that many from the rural parts of Mexico are trying to go the US and here I am, coming from the US to rural parts of Mexico. Many respondents have been in the US, or have kids/brothers/sisters/aunts/uncles/cousins in California, Chicago or Florida. Once, an interviewer’s small field crew came up in the middle of our conversation and basically told him that they were leaving tomorrow para el Norte, that they had obtained papeles. We talked about Hillary v. Obama, the US border wall, the US recession, the lunacy of the new anti-immigrant law in Arizona, and we talked a lot about chiles and chile farming.

Jose with his seedbeds

Sembrar chile es como un vicio” - Planting chiles is like a bad habit

This refrain was repeated to me twice on my first day of interviews. Jose Montellano said this to me as we slowly walked out to his almacigo, or seedbed, where his seedlings were just beginning to emerge. In his early 60s, Jose walks with some difficulty and his gait is a slow shuffle, each huarache-clad foot laboriously placed one in front of the other into the dusty path. Jose plants 2 hectares (roughly 5 acres) of pasillas – long dark chiles that have a raisin-like look when dried and then are used to make moles or sauce – and he also plants about 2 hectares of maize for consumption and sometimes lettuce when he has extra money. We arrive at the almacigo and he carefully unwinds the cords that keep the plastic burlap covering taught over the seedbeds, serving as a modicum of protection against the wind and the cold nights. As he shows me the seedlings and the obvious care that has gone into their planting, he continued to narrate how the chile season proceeds. Each seedbed has around 45 thousand seeds, of which perhaps some 30,000 will get planted in one hectare. Each one will transplanted by hand, into furrowed rows. When needed, water will be pumped up from a well and diverted into the furrows via brick culverts. All application of inputs will be done by hand – insecticide is applied via a backpack sprayer and fertilizer is applied by the handful at the base of the plant. Upon dodging pests and disease for the long 6 to 7 month season, harvested chiles are brought to the secadora, or a commercial dehydrator, which charges for drying and packaging of the finished product.

First class Pasillas

More seedbeds - those are stalks of maize used as the cover.

In addition to the lengthy season, farmers have more reason for concern. In recent years, diseases and pests have been wreaking havoc as many smaller farmers cannot afford the chemical treatments and/or not readily following preventative measures (such as rotation and fallow) and there is increased worry from competition from abroad, namely Peru and China. This increased competition has dropped prices, forcing farmers to sell their crop ripe on the plant to coyotes, rather than paying to have the crop dried and packaged and looking for better prices. Add to this the increase in fertilizer prices, the increase in the electrical costs to power the pump, and this venture is less profitable and desirable than it has been in years past. For many who have the resources, they readily adopt newer techniques such as plastic mulching or drip irrigation, along with the hybrid seeds. Yet for the majority without resources, they stubbornly keep planting, hoping next year will be better, hence Jose’s reference to a bad habit…

More on this in a few days.