EXPERIENCE | What I learned about sustainable farming in Mexico on a UW trip

Paul explaining his farming techniques at Rancho Acayali Agroecológico
Photo by: Mandie Yantha

On one of our first days in Mexico, we took the city bus to the colourful town of Colonia Ursulo Galvan, Xico in central Veracruz, to meet Paul, a local farmer who runs Rancho Acayali

Once off the bus we walked a short distance past many colourful homes and a Mexican cowboy riding a horse down the street against a lush, green, and mountainous background. Paul’s home, also known as Rancho Acayali, was covered in plants and flowers, making the structure barely visible except for the vintage van parked out front. 

As we walked down the stairs to enter the property, we were delighted by the sight of various trees, plants, fruits, and vegetables of various colours and sizes, and many species unknown to us. 

We could hear the Tlanyahualapa stream in the background, that runs through the property, which sits on one and a quarter hectare of land.

Paul explained that he came to Mexico two decades ago after graduating from university in England and never left. Inspired by a growing permaculture movement, he has created a sustainable farm using organic and native seeds for self-consumption and for sale. 

He lives and works on the sustainable farm that he maintains and operates himself, selling his crops and coffee at the Coatl Bioregional Market, in Coatepec, Veracruz (which we also visited). On-site he has a compostable toilet, a woodstove, solar panels for electricity, homemade furniture, and handmade compost for his farm. 

Paul passionately explained to us how he uses the intercropping milpa system, used by the Mayans with his vegetables in rotation in the open field.  He showed us around, pointing out each plant variety, explaining what each one is and its uses, and why each crop is important for both consumption and agriculture. 

He grows garlic, cactus, vegetables, fruits, spices, and has an edible forest and diversified coffee plantations. He challenged us to identify various crops, but sadly many of us were not able to recognize some of our favourite foods in his garden bed. 

Paul explained that when he began growing traditional crops many locals commented that they had never seen or knew of them.  Many of the crops sold at traditional markets are staple foods that are typically exported.  Interestingly, Mexico provides North America with a variety of crops such as avocados, mango, tomatoes, banana’s, and coffee only to name a few. 

Many farmers do not have the ability or knowledge to grow traditional crops due to the consequences of colonization, as many Indigenous groups were expelled from their land.  Paul hopes to help change this by various initiatives. Paul has a large seed bank with over 100 seeds varieties and conducts training for schools, groups, and individuals to introduce or deepen permaculture knowledge. 

After our extraordinary tour, Paul and his partner were kind enough to share snacks of homemade wine, cheese, and spreads, which we quickly devoured. We were all very impressed with the large farm that Paul tends to himself and his passion to live sustainably off the land. Many of us jumped at the chance to take a tour of where he ferments, bottles, and packages his tea, coffee, and spices. 

I bought coffee grown by Paul and it has been a splendid part of my mornings, one of the best coffees I’ve ever had. 

Tasting Paul’s homemade wine at Rancho Acayali Agroecológico
Photo by Margot Whittington

To get to Agrosol co-operative farm, you have to drive through a low river that runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Along the way you drive by fields with horses and goats or “las cabras”. Agrosol is a farm cooperative that was created over 30 years ago by a German man named Jürgen Gläser. 

The farm operates on 17 hectares of land and is completely sustainable. After feeding us a delicious homemade lunch of beans, rice, tortillas, chayote, and salad, Jürgen gave us a lesson about sustainability while we drank delicious coffee grown and roasted on the farm. 

The “co-op” aspect of the farm refers to the fact that everyone who lives on the farm works and participates in the upkeep and maintenance of the farm, getting paid in return with free shelter and meals. 

Visiting the Goats (Las Cabras) at Rancho Agrosol
Photo by Mandie Yantha

The farm employs 20-25 interns who spend a year or two gaining farming knowledge and skills specific to biodynamic farming practices. Jürgen claims that spending a year on the farm is important because it takes time to change people’s mindsets about sustainability.  

The farm’s training focuses on biodynamic practices, teaching students how to sustainably balance livestock growth and crop cultivation. 

The farm also implements various sustainability initiatives including the use of composting toilets, feeding food scraps to livestock, and recycling water using a small dam. 

We saw giant pigs feasting on taro (not for human consumption we learned quickly, as one classmate leaned in for a bite). 

We also saw the farm’s piglets, cats, and goats and got to hold the goat babies – the one I held really took to me and fell asleep in my arms, much to his mother’s dislike. Following that, we went on an adventurous hike, which was very steep going downhill and included an area where we had to be quiet around the beehives so as not to disturb the bees.  

A Mother Feeding Her Babies at Rancho Agrosol
Photo by Juhi Shah

Along the way, we learned that Agrosol employs polyculture techniques, which involve planting multiple crops in the same area in order to enrich the soil, and growing plants that are suitable to the local conditions. 

We saw areas where banana plants drop their leaves and fertilize the soil for the cocoa bean plants, a process known as cover crops and grazing. We also got to see where the coffee is harvested and roasted, and the greenhouse where flowers and vegetables are grown in cooler months. 

Agrosol aims to teach people how to use the land to be self-sufficient and simultaneously eco-friendly. We loved Agrosol for their sustainable mentality and initiatives and the beautiful land and animals, not to mention the delicious meal and freshly roasted coffee.