In “Heart of Agave,” Ted Genoways takes us to the desert frontier of tequila production in Jalisco, Mexico, where an optometrist-turned-farmer is changing the fate of a village with organic agave. The story is online today and in print at our media partner, Mother Jones.
“In the early 1970s, when the United States flooded the world market with cheap corn, many Mexican farmers turned to herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides as a way of improving crop yields and staying competitive,” writes Genoways. So “locals thought [Murillo] was nuts” when the 58-year old, Berkeley-educated, California-based optometrist took over his grandfather’s farm in Agua Negra and planted organic agave.
“Everyone told Murillo it was too cold, there was too little rain, and the soil wasn’t red enough—not enough iron to sustain agave,” Genoways writes. But the stark conditions surrounding the small town actually made all the difference, encouraging the plant to produce more sugar and granting signature sweetness to Murillo’s tequila, sold under the brand Alquimia. Since the first harvest in 2000, Alquimia has taken home 35 gold medals in international taste contests.
But the drink’s most impressive achievements may be beyond the bottle. Murillo hired locals to do work by hand for which most conventional operations would have used toxic chemicals. He taught village farmers organic methods, encouraging them to apply the techniques to all their crops, not just agave. As the “gospel” spread, Agua Negra farmers began to make a premium on their organic agave harvests. This allowed them to plant more subsistence crops, such as corn and beans, to better feed their families. And given that most of the world’s tequila is dominated by multinational companies, like the Japanese-owned Sauza, Murillo’s vision for something better has placed an artisanal tradition back in local hands.
“I can only do so much on my grandfather’s rancho,” Murillo told Genoways, “but if I can recruit my neighbors and they recruit others, then we will have a movement.”
In Agua Negra, at least, the impact is clear. As Genoways explains, “In 2003, 78 percent of households in Agua Negra had at least one member living in the United States—many in California,” where they could earn nearly “four times as much in the fields of the Central Valley as in those around Agua Negra.” But now, thanks to Alquimia’s success and the rise of other small, organic agave producers in the area, clapboards are coming off once-closed storefronts and people are returning home. The town is coming back alive.