by Kitty Brosnan
As we left Guadalajara, we drove through a beautiful residential neighborhood called Las Cañadas, with its white stucco mansions trimmed with red clay roofs. It seems that many of the people living here, other than doctors and lawyers, are government officials and Narcos – ie. Drug lords. One big happy family! Drugs are a national problem and there’s an ongoing war among the government, police and drug cartels. We all found the irony quite amusing.
We were on our way to visit Teocintle, a producer of nopal or cactus tostadas, located two hours north of Guadalajara. Off we went, twisty mountain roads edging precipitous drop-offs with beautiful Rio Santiago in the distance far below. Crossing the river further along you begin to see the pollution - waste from a nearby factory has unfortunately made its way into the water. Not so pretty anymore. We drove on through dry mountains and farms, which are soon to turn green once spring arrives.
Arriving in Cuquio, where the Teocintle facility is located, we learn of the region’s interesting history. Cuquio and the area to the north are different than the neighboring regions. The German and French left their mark at some point. The people look physically different – taller and fairer skinned. An obvious result of European influence.
Teocintle is a cooperative – 16 owners, mostly women, and all with equal shares. They produce nopal or cactus chips and tostadas, made from a mix of 70% nopal and 30% native non-GMO corn. Our goal was to visit, poke around, meet the producers – ultimately to verify their Rooted Foods application. Candidate companies need to meet specific criteria including authenticity, local sourcing, social responsibility, environmental stewardship, and local ownership.
The company initially started by producing corn tortilla chips and tostadas but given the high level of competition by larger corporations, it was too difficult for Teocintle to succeed. So they decided to change the recipe and incorporate nopal, creating a unique product. Nopal, or cactus, is everywhere and has been used for many things, ranging from food to medicinal purposes. The final ingredients used by Teocintle include corn, nopal and salt. And of course, oil for deep-frying. Betsy had tried the chips at a food convention and just loved them. She was determined to import them – the Rooted Foods seal of transparency is an added bonus.
Manuel, one of the cooperative’s owners, and the driving force behind the project, was prepared for us. He had all the necessary paperwork for us to review, and even put together a formal presentation, but there was one problem. They have been forced to stop producing the nopal chips due to lack of finances. Their three major clients – large regional chain stores - had refused to pay them. Welcome to business in Mexico. The chips and tostadas are a tough sell in Mexico to begin with – they are very high in quality, higher in price than regular corn chips, and less well known. They don’t have the level of appeal in Mexico as they would in the US. A great product, great people, but no production. Making it difficult to export, to say the least.
Manuel walked us through the production process, step-by-step. After the facility visit, we had the opportunity to meet one of the corn suppliers, a family of 6 siblings. We met two of the siblings, Manuel and Margo. The farm was small with the basic necessities. The requisite puppies, chickens, (very vocal) roosters, and one cow were in attendance.
The native corn they cultivate is technically organic, but they have been unable to obtain certification because of the expense - a typical barrier to small farmers worldwide. Also typical of small farmers in developing countries, the product is organic because the farmers cannot afford fertilizers. Their frustration in seeking a fair price for their “organic” corn led them to join Manuel and other community farmers to create Teocintle – which, unfortunately, is now struggling.
Next we headed for the cooperative’s Nopal farm. A very bumpy dirt road, which could have passed as a driveway, brought us to a small pueblo, past the one room schoolhouse and on to a dusty dead end. A precarious walk led us to the nopal farm on leased land. Cactus everywhere! Manuel demonstrated how the leaves would be cut and which parts would be used for the chips. A cactus farm is a quite a sight.
After this visit, it was abundantly clear that all of the necessary components are there. Yet Teocintle finds themselves in a catch 22. Without capital, getting ready for export is nearly impossible, but without the export market, there is no capital. With a bit of cash, the chips and tostadas could be produced and shipped to the US where they would, no doubt, be quite successful. The resulting jobs and income for the citizens of Cuquio would allow this ambitious coop to implement the many social and environmental projects on their to do list.
Back to Guadalajara – over a margarita (of course) – Betsy and I begin to scheme ways in which to bring Teocintle chips to the hungry and adventurous American market, and support the farmers of Cuquio.