Via Organica! Tour of an Organic Mexican Dairy

This article was sent to us by Victoria Schneider, the Eugene co-chapter leader.  Victoria and her husband Tom are spending the winter in Mexico.

By Victoria Schneider

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

My husband Tom and I have escaped to Mexico this winter to the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende deep in the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains.  As life happens when one’s life interests remain constant, Tom wandered off into the Saturday Organic Farmers Market, which supports all the local organic growers in the area, both Mexican and Gringo (the collective term for non-Mexicans).  As he made his way through the market, he bought naturally-leavened, whole-grain bread, several fabulous types of raw-milk cheese and a few veggies. He struck up a conversation with several people and he found out about Via Organica, a sister organization with the Organic Consumers Association, whose director lives here in San Miguel. They had a day long trip organized to visit their roof top display garden over their organic restaurant, their city-supported demonstration garden on the outskirts of town and a tour of one of the few truly organic dairy farms in all of Mexico.  He signed us up to take the tour right away. That’s our Tommy!  Always supporting a good cause!

Just a few mornings later we began our day with a beautiful organic breakfast with the other participants. An interesting group of residents and visitors had gathered. One young woman was employed by the city of Pittsburgh as the Inner City Garden Director. Her job was turning vacant land within the city into vegetable gardens. Her project was only a year old, but funded long-term. She was all eyes and ears!

After breakfast, the educational director Jennifer Ungemach gave us a tour of their roof top gardens. Vertical gardening is big here with much sun hitting brick and adobe walls, and ground space being very precious. She had the experience of spending 5 years living and working in Cuba and wrote her master thesis on the role of civil associations on supporting sustainable agriculture. The roof-top garden was a simple and effective set up using hard plastic crates filled with organic compost, worms and dirt. There on the roof, among the crates and containers of growing greens and herbs, the director of the Organic Consumers Association, Ronnie Cummins, gave a heartfelt talk about the increasing numbers and the new directions of small family farms in Mexico. They can’t afford the high prices of Monsanto seeds or the bovine growth hormone and seem to be a trend to returning to the traditional farming practices of their forefathers. They increasingly feel that they will have to solve their own problems and return to simpler ways with the borders more effectively closed to the U.S.  In this arid area, they do have difficulty with irrigation and depend on the natural rain cycles. But rivers are polluted and many are channelized and run too fast so water tables are dropping. The soil is depleted and cover crops are not a widespread practice to protect the precious top soil during the 6 months of the dry season.  Still, there is hope that the cost effective, simple methods offered by Vía Orgánica and like-minded organizations will awaken a new generation crop production and carbon sequestering. We felt grateful to be listening to such an inspired human being. This is literally ‘grass roots’ organizing.

But the tour was on and we all loaded up into a big travel van. On the outskirts of town, we made our way down a dusty road, winding through giant cacti to the demonstration garden. It was large, well composted garden and full of all kinds of projects. The green house had all ages of plants, some for sale, many grown to maturity for the high end restaurants in San Miguel to meet the demands of the discerning tourist.  Their great challenge is the seasonal 50-degree temperature swings from night time freezing cold to day time in the 80’s.  They had implemented an ingenious practice of burying lovely clay pots, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, down to its lip in the soil, approximately two per square meter. This practice comes  from ancient Chinese practices. They fill these two to three times weekly and this was the only watering done in most of the green house beds.  This is winter weather now and almost everything had to be covered outside for frost protection. They had Oregon’s usual winter crops: onions, garlic, fava beans, beets, carrots, basil, cilantro, chard and kale with many plants ready to set out from the green house.  The operation had some government and foundation support and is run by both paid and volunteer Mexican workers. Not self supporting yet but close. A total of 750 campesino farmers have participated in their permaculture trainings in just 2 years.

Then on to the main event: the organic dairy. Located more than an hour’s drive through the varied country side and small towns, it gave us time to visit with our interesting travel companions. The diary owners were Mexicans who decided it was in the best interests of their future to change their 600 acres into an organic diary 8 years ago. They began building their top soil and to plant some fields with alfalfa and others with a 5-grass mix especially for dairy cows. They decided on Jersey cows for the higher butter fat content, with their first 40 cows and one bull shipped from Canada.  Well-recognized for their adaptability, the Jersey’s thrived and multiplied into their current stock of 1000 animals.   The diary follows state of the art practices with field rotation, grazing and milking practices. Manure is collected, methane made to provide some of the power needs and the balance sprayed back on the fallow fields. A strict grazing rotation is adhered to with the use of solar-powered electric fences which concentrate the cows in a section before moving on. This is key to carbon sequestration according to the OCA. An estimated 80% of their calories comes from grazing and makes the milk some of the best I ever tasted.

The milking room was spotlessly clean and plays classical music on large speakers so their girls enjoy their milking experience, twice each day.  In high-tech features, each cow has an ankle-mounted pedometer which not only identifies who they are and how much milk they gave at the last milking, but also how far they walked! The computer dispenses a 4-grain mix for each specific cow depending on their needs or health. The carousel system circles in 12 minutes and if they are not empty, they just let them go around again all the while Bach and Mozart covering the sound of the machinery noise. Now these are happy cows! This farm’s site is in Spanish but has great pics:

I asked, of course, about raw milk availability. Our guide said the government does not allow for raw milk sales, but they are allowed to sell it to the workers, which the workers, of course, preferred!  We then trundled back to the farm’s entrance to enjoy a lunch in the shade of a palm covered casita with milk, cheese and yogurt samples from the diary. The ice cream was delicious too!

Our time was well spent getting to know these dedicated organic-loving people here. We felt inspired to help in some way, so I offered to give classes on Cultured Foods as a fund raiser. Seems that they expected enough Mexicans would sign up that my booklet of recipes would need to be translated.  This really got me excited to think I would be able to reach this Mexican community and give them the tools to make Cortido the old fashioned way!

Since I was in my teens, I have dreamed of becoming fluent in Spanish. Well, dreams do come true and life is long. Both Tom and I are dedicating ourselves to studying. We are going to school at the Warren Hardy Spanish School.  Professor Hardy is a great teacher with highly developed skills for teaching people for over 50. We are loving it! This is our opportunity to continue to help WAPF-friendly non-profits move forward as we fulfill dreams of our own. We intend to stay here until the time is ripe to return to the States, but don’t expect to see us any time too soon!  If we the opportunity arises, I would love to mentor a WAPF Chapter Leader here in San Miguel.

BTW, early the following morning while walking up our street in San Miguel, on my way to school, I saw a truck with large dairy-looking cans in the back. I asked him in Spanish if he was selling raw milk and he gave me a big smile and said he was!   The women of the neighborhood had their pots ready for him to fill right from their doorways, their young children with wide eyes holding onto their mothers aprons in tow.  This is a dispersed distribution system at its best! A sweet reminder of how natural and life-giving the humble cow and her raw milk provides great nutrition for humanity around the world and right here in my Mexican neighborhood!

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