replanting agave

There’s a middle school in Zaachila…


There’s a middle school in the Oaxacan community of Zaachila that is located atop the city’s dump site. The students there are learning to grow agave from seed. SACRED is underwriting the program by purchasing 10,000 of the plants each year, and gifting those plants to mezcaleros and agave farmers in need of plants.

The community of Zaachila, some 25 minutes south of Oaxaca Centro, includes the city’s only sanctioned garbage dump. Oaxaca has a robust recycling program, though few people actually utilize it. So the dump is full of recyclables, which can be collected and turned in for money. People have been diving into that dump to do just that since the 1960s, and at some point, they began building lean-tos and other temporary shelters on that same land — squatting — to be closer to their funding source.

That community is now some 12,000 - 15,000 people. And because they are squatting, they don’t receive the same level of government support that other communities receive. One consequence is their middle school — Telesecundaria El Manantial — ran out of water early in their year.

The teacher of the agricultural class solved this problem by changing the curriculum to focus on a plant that doesn’t require a lot of water: agave. He comes from a family of agave farmers in the Mixteca region, so accessing seeds was as simple as visiting his home.

After the first crop of seedlings was harvested and replanted into individual bags with soil, the school contacted SiKanda, a Oaxacan nonprofit that supports projects in Zaachila and other communities populated by these informal recyclers. SiKanda — who had already received some small grants from SACRED — contacted us to see if we had any interest in the plants.

Of the thirty or so agave varietals that are commonly used to make heirloom agave spirits, Tobala (agave potatorum) is highly sought after. The plants take eight to 12 years to reach maturity, so they are less commonly farmed than a variety like Espadin, which can be harvested after six years, in some communities.

SACRED purchased a couple thousand plants from that original crop (note 1 and note 2), gifting them to mezcaleros with whom we’re friendly. But then we also made a commitment to support the continuation of the program into the 2018-2019 school year. Agave “babies” generally cost the equivalent of between 25¢ and 50¢ each, and that price doesn’t cover the costs incurred by the school. So our commitment was to purchase at least 4,000 of the plants and as many as 10,000 at a price of one US dollar each. We fulfilled that commitment in November 2018 with a $4,000 purchase and a $6,000 purchase.

We are now (as of November 2018) distributing these 10,000 Tobala agaves to families in Oaxaca, and discussing renewing the commitment for the next crop, which should be ready early 2019.

Some of the first Tobala babies purchased from Telesecundaria El Manantial, planted on the property of a maestro mezcalero in Miahuatlan, Oaxaca

Some of the first Tobala babies purchased from Telesecundaria El Manantial, planted on the property of a maestro mezcalero in Miahuatlan, Oaxaca