By SUE VIGNOLA
It has been many years since our first meeting with our organic mango supplier, Rusty Brown of Fine Dried Foods, which took place at his office and warehouse in Santa Cruz, California. Now, ten years later, we are driving through Mexico heading to one of three processing plants Fine Dried Foods operates here. Rusty is fortunately on a trip to the plant too, arranged to coincide with our visit. Called Mazazul Organics, the plant is located just outside the town of El Rosario, roughly 100 kilometres south of Mazatlan. After driving from Guadalajara, we arrive in El Rosario late on a white-hot Friday afternoon. El Rosario was once the richest town in the state of Sinaloa due to the local mining operations but now this area is one of the most prominent states in Mexico for agriculture.
Fine Dried Foods (and Mazazul Organics, its Mexican counterpart) is comprised of a group of shareholders committed to fostering sustainable agriculture in developing countries. Rusty, as the company’s leading light, not only manages the office and warehouse in Santa Cruz, California, but also custom designs all the equipment used in the processing plants here in Mexico. After completing university with a background in alternative engineering, Rusty was the recipient of a U.S. government grant to build solar-drying equipment in Hawaii. Being young and adventurous at the time, Rusty decided to spend a few years travelling through Europe and Asia before returning to the U.S. and forming Fine Dried Foods.
Rusty welcomes us. A quick call to Rusty and we are directed a couple of kilometres out of town where we're greeted and ushered through the gates of Mazazul Organics by the security guard, Rudy. With the temperature hovering at 37ºC, the workers have all gone home and all is quiet in the shimmering heat.
From the balcony of his modest but blissfully air-conditioned second floor office, Rusty and his wife Faydra welcome us and introduce us to Mazazul's plant manager, Jesús Cantú López. Jesús (pronounced “hay-zoos”) is a Mexican national short in stature but big in personality and who thankfully speaks excellent English! Being late in the day, we arrange the schedule for our visit to begin with a tour of the processing plant first thing in the morning. We then park the motor home in a prime spot in the plant's yard, enjoying the luxury of our own private campground for the night complete with Mazazul's high-speed internet!
Saturday morning blooms bright and sunny like almost every single day during our stay in Mexico. Waiting for Rusty and Faydra, who are commuting from Mazatlan, we head to the gate to have a chat with Rudy, the security guard. Rudy tells us he's been with Mazazul Organics for nine years which is when Fine Dried Foods acquired these four hectares and began building its first processing plant in Mexico.
At the mango processing plant. After Rusty’s arrival, we begin the plant tour by donning hairnets and being shown through the processing plant by Rusty and Jesús. This being the “off season,” with the area’s mango trees just finished blooming, the plant’s approximately seventy full-time employees are busy packaging dried mangoes into small retail packages for one of their private label contracts. During the busy harvest season, Mazazul’s full labour force often reaches up to seven hundred. The workers earn average Mexican wages but the added benefits almost double the amount of earnings compared to those available elsewhere in Mexico.
The main fruit processed here is everybody’s favourite: the luscious mango. Mangoes grow in abundance in this part of Mexico as well as in the south, assuring a fairly consistent supply from the differing growing seasons. Mazazul also handles organic dried bananas, pineapple and papaya. Rusty informs us organic pineapple is always in short supply, and much of the fruit is brought in from Costa Rica where Rusty has a small plantation managed by local people. Rancho Vignola is hoping to secure a supply of this fabulous pineapple for this fall's ordering season.
Healthy expansion. As we marvel at the impressive equipment required for processing, Rusty tells us that “the key to product quality is consistency in processing,” and to have consistency means having the right equipment for the job and keeping it well maintained. Improvements to equipment and processing systems are ongoing at Mazazul Organics. They are currently installing a reverse osmosis water system, although Jesús assures us the plant’s water source is already of good quality being from the treated water system in nearby El Rosario and very low in solids.
Rusty tells us the company is experiencing so much demand for its natural dried fruit that they desperately need to expand their capacity and build plants in other locations in Mexico. In exchange for the guarantee of jobs, the Mexican government has agreed to help with financing for the building of another processing plant in Veracruz. Jesús says that he is currently negotiating with the government on the finer points of the contract, but is satisfied it will be a beneficial deal for all.
Our field trip to the mango plantations. With the plant tour completed, we climb into a pickup for the hour-long drive to the mango plantations. Our driver is Mazazul’s agronomist, José Lorenzo Jimenéz Palacios – Pepe for short. Pepe keeps up a constant stream of chatter in rapid Spanish during the drive – most of which I think I get the gist of! Richard and Rusty are riding in the pickup’s box under the beating hot sun – a familiar form of travel in Mexico. Pepe, who completed his studies at the University of Culiacan to the north, informs me mangoes are one of the main crops in these parts with chili peppers a close second. This was evidenced by the huge fields of red and sometimes almost black chili peppers we passed, as well as by the lovely smell of toasted chili peppers wafting through the air. After driving through a shallow river, we find ourselves on the dusty road to the remote village of Chemetla, founded around 1533 and definitely not on the regular tourist route! Although our meeting was not pre-arranged, a few enquiries and a walk around to a dusty side road reveals the man we're looking for: organic mango farmer José Luis Nava.
A trim, grey-haired man with piercingly clear eyes, José proudly tells us he comes from a large family of twelve children, some of whom are engineers, doctors and lawyers. His sister, an archeological expert, was recently called in to a dig at a plantation where Indian graves had been found. He informs us that hundreds of years ago the nearby river was so much higher that the Spanish invaders were able to arrive by boat from what is now Baja California and chase the local Tortoramis Indians up into hiding in mountain caves. The caves are still there, marked by a huge well-maintained staircase which winds up the side of the mountain.
Hopping back into the pickup, Pepe drives us out to one of the many mango plantations, farmed organically and naturally irrigated by the river. Although too late in the season to see the springtime flowering, save for the dried remnants, we are able to see and touch the little green mangoes that will reach their full size sometime in June. As we stand in the shade of the mango tree, with the sound of the river and children playing in nearby caves, Pepe fills us in on the growing of mangoes in an organic plantation.
Mango methods, organic-style. First and foremost, the orchard floor must be kept clean. As in other orchards, nitrogen-rich green manure is used as fertilizer (in this case, beans are planted then turned into the soil to create the green manure.) For insect control, microscopic larvae called crysopa are released from white paper cones hung in the trees. As they mature, the predator insects crawl throughout the tree and eat any “bad guys” which may be present. The crysopa release is repeated 15 days later to ensure a thorough saturation of the tree.
Leaf-cutter ants are a big problem in Mexico and can destroy trees if not controlled. Luckily, they are distracted by the “green manure” beans growing on the orchard floor. Sometimes organic insecticide use is permitted but must always be pre-approved by the organic certifying body, in this case CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers.) Organic growers can also check with OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute), an agency that regulates the use of organic insecticides. CCOF regularly sends inspectors to Mexico to certify organic orchards, a very costly but necessary expense in organic farming. Fortunately for the growers, Fine Dried Foods covers these expenses and are reimbursed at harvest time with a share in the hopefully bountiful crop!
During mango harvest, Rusty explains that the team has to do multiple cuttings to ensure the mangoes are at the perfect ripeness for picking. This is becoming more complicated in these times of global warming. Rusty says, “Climate change has definitely mixed up the formerly defined seasons, making the harvesting of the crops more of a guessing game.”
The day is wearing on and the heat intensifying, so it’s time to rejoin Faydra and head back to the plant. We drive into El Rosario for a late lunch at the town’s best eatery where Rusty points out the walls graced with photos of the town’s famous singer, Lola Beltrán. It’s been a delightful and informative day, and we are glad of the opportunity to get to know Rusty and Faydra better as well as to learn so much about mango-growing in Mexico. When we see those beautiful packages of dried mangoes arriving in the warehouse this fall, we’ll have powerful memories of this hot, dusty day under the mango trees in a tropical paradise.