Giving U.S. restaurants the chance to savor native maize from Mexico’s low income farming communities

Farmers in the Central Valley, the Southern Highlands and the Oaxaca coast are participating in joint programs with MasAgro (the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture program) to improve native maize. The grain produced has found a new niche market in exclusive restaurants offering fine cuisine in Mexico and the United States.

In April 2014, seven Oaxaca farmers entered this sophisticated market when they sold between 100 kg and two tons of landrace maize to Jorge Gaviria and Kate Barney,Limpieza de grano founders of Masienda, a New York based company which prides itself on buying native Mexican maize at up to 25% above market value. The aim is to provide sustainably produced, high quality grain with exceptional flavor to chefs, some of international standing, who transform it into tortillas and dishes less known in Mexico, such as polenta, offered in the restaurant Betony in New York.

“I sold Jorge half a ton of just the yellow,” said Ángel García Martínez, a farmer from San Marcos Tlapazola, who produces white, yellow and blue maize of the “bolita” variety in five hectares in the district of Tlacolula, in the central valleys of Oaxaca. “I harvested about three tons of yellow and I sold him half a ton. Over there in the square they’ll pay six pesos a kilo and Jorge paid me 7.50 a kilo, adds Don Angel, who estimates yields of a ton per hectare, “when things go well.”

Don Angel is one of the farmers taking part in initiatives to improve landrace maize and has been given advice from specialists at the National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research (INIFAP) collaborating with MasAgro’s Maize component. Don Angel has worked specifically with Flavio Aragón Cuevas, “We went on an INIFAP course, where they advised us how to store the grain, how to select it and how to cross plants to get better yields,” said Don Ángel.

The joint improvement initiative headed by Mr. Aragón with specialists from INIFAP in Oaxaca was crucial to opening up the gourmet market in Mexico and the United States to farmers of native maize, points out Martha Willcox, Maize Landrace Improvement Coordinator at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT.) These are farmers in municipalities under the National Crusade against Hunger initiative, such as Santa Ana Zegache and Tututepec, collaborating on improvement projects with MasAgro Maize at CIMMYT.

“We work closely with Flavio Aragón, Humberto Castro and Martha Willcox in Oaxaca because they have a history of collaboration in these communities and have earned the trust of farmers, particularly in indigenous communities,” stressed Gaviria, explaining that their grain procurement activities in Mexico “depend largely on staff at CIMMYT and INIFAP who want to explore this market and who have their own development strategy with the project.”

The strategy is part of the MasAgro – Maize, “Participatory project to improve maize landraces in marginal areas of Oaxaca.” According to Dr. Willcox, the project seeks to raise maize production to ensure food self-sufficiency in communities participating in the National Crusade against Hunger (CNCH).  “The project opens up a market for the extra grain produced by small scale farmers and is key to motivating them to increase production through participatory plant breeding and uptake of better agricultural practices,” states Dr Willcox.

“In Oaxaca we have around 35 varieties of maize, of a total of 59 in the country. However the native varieties have specific problems that need addressing and the idea is to improve them with the farmers,” explains Mr. Aragón when chairing a demonstration day of 170 maize landraces in Tututepec. 140 farmers here took part to select maize that adapts best to food and production requirements. “We’ll start the genetic breeding program with the maize you have selected as the best, because you will be the breeders of native seed with us,” said Aragón in his welcome speech.

Those responsible for the collaborative breeding program of landrace maize at CIMMYT and INIFAP are convinced that participating farmers can obtain average yields of three tons per hectare with good agricultural management. “With one hectare well managed you’ll easily have enough production for food and some to sell, but you have to manage it well,” Aragón told the farmers.

According to Gaviria, Masienda is prepared to offer a higher price for this surplus for more than the “standard maize sold in bulk at prices fixed by the Chicago market.” This was a very attractive option for Enrique Olvera, chef at Pujol in Mexico City, a restaurant that specialized guides feature as one of the best in the world. In fact, according to Gaviria there is no doubt that the “market started with Enrique Olvera,” who recently opened the restaurant Cosme in New York, where part of the rich variety of maize landraces in Mexico comes from Masienda.

The young entrepreneurs involved in the project which began in April 2014 believe that there is very good potential for the market. “A restaurant offering let’s say 100 meals buys between 500 and 1000 kilos of maize per month,” calculates Gaviria, who hopes to add another 50 restaurants at least to his client list this year.