COVID-19 is taking its toll on the international coffee market. With cafes and restaurants closing or not operating at full capacity, less coffee is being sold. The trickle down effect means growers are struggling even more.
This is particularly bad for farmers in Mexico. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Eighty-five percent of coffee producers in Mexico are from indigenous populations, with 95 percent of them considered small producers, with less than 3 hectares.”
Mexico is the 10th largest coffee producer in the world, with 3.7 million 60-kilogram bags a year. While coffee is grown in 15 states in Mexico, most of the production comes from Chiapas (41 percent), Veracruz (24 percent) and Puebla (15 percent). Predominately its shade-grown Arabica coffee that is in the ground, with Robusta accounting for about 15 percent of the crop, according to the USDA.
In 2018, the value of exported roasted coffee from Mexico was valued $31.1 million (U.S.). The country is one of the largest exporters of organic-certified coffee in the world. Coffee is one of Mexico’s most valuable exported crops, with most of it going north to the United States.
However, the International Coffee Organization (ICO) said shipments from Central America and Mexico declined by 4.9 percent to 8.77 million bags from October 2019 to April 2020. For the most part, this was prepandemic, so numbers are likely to only get worse.
“World coffee consumption is expected to decrease by 0.5 percent to 167.81 million bags as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put pressure on the global economy and greatly limits out-of-home coffee consumption. As a result, coffee year 2019-20 is seen ending in a surplus of 1.54 million bags,” according to the ICO.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a dim forecast for coffee producing nations because of the current health crisis.
“COVID-19 effects are expected to stunt consumption growth, as restaurants and cafes around the country are closed, stymying government and specialty producer efforts to increase consumption of high-value Mexican coffee that has been gaining increasing popularity in urban cafes,” the USDA said.
Coffee has been a part of Mexican culture since it was first brought to the country in the 1700s by Europeans.
Even in Mexico, Starbucks is the king of the coffee shop market. There are 10 locations in Baja California Sur. In 2019, Starbucks had 50 percent of the market, followed by Café Punta de Cielo (11.6 percent) and Italian Coffee (10.6 percent).
Do you remember what you last ate? Do you know when you will eat again? Is it easy to satiate hunger pangs?
Be lucky if you answered yes to those questions because 1 in 10 people in the United States do not have enough food to eat. That is more than 35 million people. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem as people struggle to work and students are not at school to receive a free or reduced meals. With unemployment benefits running out, those numbers are likely to increase. It hasn’t helped that food prices have risen dramatically during the pandemic.
The Census Bureau conducted a study in August with results released in mid-September that show food insecurity for children was at 16.8 percent in mid-June and rose to 19.9 percent a month later.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Hunger by U.S. government definition is “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” In simple terms, food insecurity can mean you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.
The Washington Post on Sept. 15 sponsored a webinar about food insecurity. Soledad O’Brien, producer of the movie “Hungry to Learn,” and Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who is in the film, talked about what is going on at college campuses in the United states. The documentary is based on Goldrick-Rab’s study about food insecurity among college students. Results of the fifth study that she has conducted were released pre-COVID.
It was revealed that 45 percent of college students experience hunger at some point. “These numbers can only be this large if there is a systemic problem,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Some students had free or reduced breakfasts and/or lunches in K-12. The federal government does not have an equivalent program at the college level. Those with needs are from diverse backgrounds, it’s not just the poor. It could be that mom and dad are not helping out even though the student came from a middle or upper middle class family. It could be that even in middle class homes money was too scarce to save for college. Many students have jobs that help them put food in their mouths. Most of those jobs evaporated when the pandemic hit, thus creating an even larger problem. So many jobs do not come with a livable wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour; this took effect in July 2009.
Food on college campuses is big business. The movie says, “The college food service industry made an estimated $18 billion in 2018.” Not everyone, though, can afford to dine on campus.
Food pantries exist at more than 650 colleges, including Lake Tahoe Community College. Students in South Lake Tahoe may visit the pantry twice a month and must meet income eligibility guidelines. Most of the food comes from grants and donations.
“It’s really hard to get students focused on studying when they don’t have enough to eat,” Goldrick-Rab said. They are having to choose between going to college and eating.
O’Brien said, “There has to be a federal response to help these students.” In July 2019, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introduced the BASIC (Basic Assistance for Students In College) Act.
Supporters include the American Association of Community Colleges, American Student Association of Community Colleges, Association of Community College Trustees, Center for Law and Social Policy, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, National Alliance to End Homelessness, NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, California Community Colleges, University of California, and the University of California Student Association.
The bill, according to a press release from Harris, would provide “legislation to ensure that college students—particularly those receiving Pell Grants or attending a community college or minority-serving institution—are able to afford basic, day-to-day necessities.” The release goes on to say the act would:
- Establish a $500 million competitive grant program to help institutions of higher education identify and meet the basic needs of students, including food, housing, transportation, child care, health care, and technology.
- Require at least 25 percent of grants to go to community colleges. Grant priority will also go to institutions with 25 percent or higher Pell enrollment, HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions.
- Requires the Department of Education to coordinate with the Departments of Agriculture, Housing & Urban Development, and Health & Human Services to develop and implement an agreement to:
- Securely share data to identify current students who may be eligible for federal means-tested programs, including SNAP, SSI, TANF, WIC, Medicaid, and federal housing assistance; and
- Coordinate efforts to help institutions of higher education enroll eligible students in these programs.
The bill has not gone anywhere since it was introduced.
O’Brien and Goldrick-Rab are encouraged more people are talking about the issue, that educators are recognizing the problem, and that at least one presidential candidate and his vice presidential nominee are raising the alarm bell on the campaign trail.
Based on how much of the produce found in California grocery stores in the winter says “Product of Mexico” one would think agriculture would be a substantive part of Mexico’s economy. Not so. In 2019 it represented 3.47 percent of the gross domestic product.
For government purposes agriculture not only includes cultivation of crops and livestock production, but forestry, hunting and fishing as well.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “In 2018, Mexico’s agricultural exports [to all countries] totaled about $31.5 billion [applying USDA’s definition of agricultural trade to the Mexican Government’s trade statistics]. Mexico’s agricultural imports [from all countries] in 2018 totaled about $28.6 billion. The United States is Mexico’s largest agricultural trading partner, buying 78 percent of Mexican exports and supplying 69 percent of the country’s imports in this category.”
With the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, ag imports/exports between the two countries started to increase substantially.
Mexico’s primary crops are corn, sugar cane, sorghum, wheat, tomatoes, bananas, chili peppers, oranges, lemons, limes, mangoes and other tropical fruits, beans, barley, avocados, blue agave and coffee.
While most of Mexico’s ag land is on the mainland, crops are found throughout Baja. Mexico has nearly 200 million hectares. Of those, 15 percent are used for ag; most of which—58 percent—is for raising livestock.
One thing that sets the Mexico agriculture industry apart from its neighbor to the north is the amount of crops not being grown out in the open. Mexico leads the world in protected agricultural. These structures protect the product from excessive sun and rain. They include high-tech greenhouses, metal hoops covered with plastic, and open-sided shade houses. Mostly it’s tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers that are protected. This is why there are tomatoes in U.S. stores year-round. In Baja the northern state has a number of greenhouses, while in the south crops are usually not covered.
Harina was one of the first words I learned when I moved to Todos Santos. Then I became a bit of an addict. I’ve always liked flour tortillas, but it was moving to Mexico that made me realize I had a problem.
I think I could live off flour tortillas. Not the ones you get in stores in the United States, but the ones that are freshly made at tortillerias in Mexico. They are so light. Right out of the fridge, heated over a gas flame, nuked in the microwave—all good options. Plain, with a little hot sauce, melted butter, of course cheese—more good choices. They could be a snack or filled with something more substantive for a meal. They can be eaten at all times of the day, after all a breakfast burrito is a great way to start the morning.
Most restaurants in Baja offer maíz (corn) and harina (flour) tortillas with various meals. They come in a stack in a warmer; sometimes for the individual, sometimes for the table to share. I would eat them plain, or wrap whatever my main meal was in them, or dip them in the beans. Seldom would any be uneaten. When taking food home, I was sure to put any leftover tortillas in the to-go container.
What makes tortillas so much better in Mexico is how few ingredients are used and how fresh they are. No preservatives are added, which means they need to be consumed rather quickly. Not a problem.
I’ve always been a fan of flour tortillas, though I’ll eat corn if that’s all there is. My favorite place for flour tortillas in Todos Santos is California Star. It’s a non-descript tiny market that had my sister not introduced me to I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to pop in there. It’s a must stop for her when she first gets to town. The roof has rebar coming out in case they ever want to add another story. A dog often paces up there, barking at those below. I’m always amazed it doesn’t jump down because there is no barrier to keep it from doing so.
The tortillas are made behind the counter, with the operation going on during business hours. The balls, which look like a perfect ice cream scoop, are placed on a flattening device that makes impeccable 6-inch circles. From there the worker tosses them onto a hot griddle, where another employee flips them over before placing them onto a cooling table. They are sealed in plastic bags and sold for 30 pesos ($1.38) for 10.
Plenty of stores in Baja sell tortillas. But if you can, buy them from a tortillerias for the real deal.
In Baja California Sur, people don’t say pick me up some sparkling water. They name it. Bring Topo Chico.
Besides drinking it straight, many use is as a mixer. Locals and gringos are regularly seen buying Topo Chico it in Todos Santos. It seems to be a staple in most people’s diets.
This marks the 125th year the company has been in business. While its roots are in Mexico, the beverage is a cult favorite in the United States as well. The water flows naturally from a limestone spring in Monterrey, Mexico, on the mainland. The name comes from the nearby mountain, Cerro del Topo Chico.
According to the Topo Chico website, the water “can be used for quenching thirst, assisting in the digestive process, and it’s a great hangover remedy.” Although it is naturally carbonated, more carbonation is added to restore any that had been lost in the bottling process.
The sparkling water sector is big business, with it expected to be a $5.5 billion industry in 2020. The Coca-Cola Company in 2017 decided to tap into that market by purchasing Topo Chico for $220 million. The negative of this acquisition is the price went up, at least in the United States. The positive is that the water is now more widely available. It can be ordered online through Amazon and WalMart.
Coca-Cola is expanding Topo Chico’s reach to be an alcoholic drink. A hard seltzer will be available in some parts of Latin America later this year, and in the United States in 2021. Coke’s first venture into the alcohol market was in Japan in 2018. The non-alcoholic beverage also comes in lime and grapefruit flavors.
Vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, Kahlúa—then blend. My favorite milkshake, my favorite way to drink that coffee liqueur.
While Kahlúa was first created in Mexico in 1936, it isn’t that popular in Baja California Sur. Sure, all the bars are stocked with it, but beer and margaritas seemed to be the adult beverages of choice. Maybe it has to do with the price or it could be because it doesn’t seem like a thirst quencher, plus not everyone likes the flavor of coffee.
But clearly someone is drinking it. According to statista.com, “The coffee liqueur, which is manufactured by Pernod Ricard, recorded volume sales of 1.6 million 9 liter cases worldwide in 2019.” Kahlúa became the No. 1 selling coffee liqueur in the world in 1980 and still has that honor today. It was first imported to the United States in 1940, and can be found in most countries now.
The company has grown from its humble beginnings. Pernod Ricard USA, according the kahlua.com, “is the premium spirits and wine company in the U.S., and the largest subsidiary of Paris, France-based Pernod Ricard SA., the world’s second-largest spirits and wine company.” The creation came about when three guys in Veracruz, Mexico, decided to blend their interests. Two were growing Arabica coffee and the other was a chemist.
The price probably has something to do with it taking seven years to get the brown liquid into a bottle. This has to do with it taking six years at times to get the best coffee bean. Then there is the creation of rum. The coffee is roasted, blended with the rum and that then sits for four weeks before bottling.
While at first Kahlúa was drank straight—neat or on the rocks, and still is—it is now common to mix it with other liquids. It was in Brussels that the Black Russian—Kahlúa and vodka—was created. In 1955 the White Russian (Kahlúa, vodka, cream) was first made in Oakland, California. Calgary, Canada, is credited with the birthplace of the B-52 in 1977—Kahlúa, Irish Cream and Triple Sec. There are countless other ways to mix Kahlúa.
The sweetness of that soft, almost velvety flesh is something to wait for each season. For those in the United States, it can be a bit expensive. For those where mangoes are grown, they can be as routine and abundant as backyard tomato and zucchini plants.
Such are the hazards of the world. Often it’s an overabundance of some crop in one location and a dearth in another. Thank goodness for the import/export markets.
While mangoes can be found this time of year in stores in the United States, many are littering the ground in Todos Santos. One social media post from this enclave in Mexico was looking for people to give the fruit to. It’s that prolific. Trees can be so full of these orbs that people sometimes leave what have fallen to the neighborhood critters.
Todos Santos in 2007 started celebrating the mango with an annual festival in late July. COVID-19 is canceling so much fun throughout the world. The main season for the fruit in Mexico is July-September.
Mangoes are a such a versatile fruit in addition to being super healthy. Peeling them and then eating them straight is a great start. Making them part of a fruit salad is a good option. I’ve had them with yogurt, frozen them for smoothies, and made frothy margaritas. My friend, Jill, in Baja shared some of her jam with me. I used it on ice cream, too. Street vendors often have slices for sale.
Most countries that grow mangoes are in tropical areas, which makes Todos Santos a natural location. Based on where they are grown it makes since Asians eat the most mangoes at 29 percent, then Hispanics at 28 percent, Blacks at 16 percent, whites at 12 percent, other is 7 percent. The first documented cultivation of mangoes was in India about 2000 BC.
In metric tons the top mango producing areas are:
- India—15.19 million
- China—4.35 million
- Thailand—2.6 million
- Indonesia—2.13 million
- Pakistan—1.89 million
- Mexico—1.85 million
- Brazil—1.25 million
- Bangladesh—0.89 million
- Nigeria—0.85 million
- Philippines—0.8 million.
While Mexico doesn’t grow as many mangoes as some countries, it is exporting the most, according to mexicanmangoes.com. About 21 percent of the product is shipped out of the country. Dehydrated mangoes are growing in popularity, too.
Antioxidants in mangoes are a good deterrent against breast cancer, leukemia, prostate, and colon cancer. Eat an entire mango to get 25 percent of the daily vitamin A and beta-carotene requirements. They help lower cholesterol and manage insulin levels because of the low glycemic index.
People in the United States are beginning to consume more mangoes. In 2000, the average person ingested 1.75 pounds of fresh mangoes, while in 2018 that ballooned to 3.17 pounds. It represents a fraction of the more than 115 pounds of fruit consumed per person in the U.S. per year. People in the Western states are eating the most mangoes.
According to thepacker.com, “Mexican mango shipments to the U.S. have increased from just 277,000 metric tons in 2015 to 368,000 metric tons in 2019. Mexican mango shipments to the U.S. in 2019 were nearly 5 percent higher than 2018 shipments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Throughout the world there are more than 500 mango varieties.The more popular ones in Baja California Sur are Kent, Ataulfo (aka Manila), Manzano, Criollo, Machete, Papayo and Tempranero de Mayo.
Even though Mexico is credited with being the birthplace of avocados—with some saying they were being consumed as early as 550 BC—the popular Hass (rhymes with pass) variety is a California creation.
Still, Mexico grows more of this fruit than any other country. “In 2018-19, production of avocados in Mexico amounted to 2.18 million metric tons, an increase of 9 percent in comparison to the previous year. Production of avocados in the country is projected to increase to 2.26 million metric tons in the marketing year 2019-20,” according to Statista. The state of Michoacán, which is between Guadalajara and Mexico City, grows the bulk of the avocados.
The United States is the biggest importer, with about 1.7 billion pounds of avocados coming from Mexico every year. U.S. consumption is skyrocketing, with 2.45 billion pounds of avocado eaten in 2018. This compares to 2000 when 542 million pounds were ingested. More avocados are consumed on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day; about 200 million pounds. Canada and Japan are the next two biggest consumers of this Mexican produce.
Avocados are such big business for Mexico that this crop was deemed an essential business during the shutdown because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. (This compares to breweries in Mexico which all had to stop production.) Today the export business is valued at $3 billion, which is double what it was in 2014. Each year more land is turned over to avocado growers. In 2017-18 there were more than 231,000 hectares of avocado trees in Mexico, whereas in 2013-14 there were 168,110.
Not everyone is excited about the growth of the avocado industry because of what it is doing to the environment. For one, it takes a lot of water. It can take 270 liters or about 71 gallons of water to grow 1 pound of avocados. So, to grow all the avocados just for the Super Bowl it takes 54 billion liters of water. Another concern is orchards are encroaching on forests in Michoacán and are threatening the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
According to Business Insider, “Avocado prices have rocketed in recent years by up to 129 percent, with the average national price of a single Hass avocado reaching $2.10 in 2019, almost doubling in just one year.” One reason these orbs cost so much is because it can take up to five years before a tree bears fruit. The expense of all that water is huge. Heat waves and other weather factors play a roll as well.
California is the No. 1 state in the U.S. for avocado production, with Florida and Hawaii contributing a small percentage. Avocado trees were first planted in Florida in 1833 and in California 23 years later. Still, Mexico has an advantage with the ability to grow the fruit year round. This is one reason why it produces three times what the Golden State does. California’s season is February-September, peaking in the summer. In 2019, California grew about 109,000 tons of avocados, whereas in 2018 the figure was 338 million pounds. The drop in tonnage was blamed on weather. This year the forecast is for 369 million pounds from California trees.
Even in Mexico it is the Hass avocado that is most popular. Worldwide this varietal makes up 80 percent of the world market, while in the U.S. Hass account for 95 percent of avocados consumed. Rudolph Hass in 1926 purchased avocado seeds from a nursery in Southern California that was sourcing seeds from several locations. Hass grafted the immature trees with the Fuerte avocado to create a new avocado that he named after himself. This Hass avocado was much different than what most people had been used to consuming because it was black instead of green, with rough skin instead of smooth. The inside was a better tasting product that was creamier.
Anyone who has been to Todos Santo will tell you there is something sweet about this pueblo in Baja California Sur. Maybe it has to do with its roots being in the sugar cane business.
In the late 1800s until the 1950s this town was the sugar cane capital of all of Baja. The last mill closed in 1965 or 1974, depends on whose history one believes. Much of the brown sugar was shipped to mainland Mexico. Several mills were scattered about town, with remnants of some still visible.
If it weren’t for a drought, this industry might still be thriving. The aquifer dried up in the early 1950s, causing the sugar cane plantations to wither. Sugar cane is considered a water-thirsty crop; after all, it is classified as a grass. For reasons no one is quite sure about the water table came back to life in 1981 and has remained viable. While many crops are planted in the area today, the sugar business has never been resurrected.
The exact number of sugar cane mills, or molinos, varies depending what one reads. Information given out during the Historic Home Tour of Todos Santos earlier this year says there were five. They were:
- San Pablo: This site had the first steam motor mill which belonged to the Markerou brothers, on the property of Enrique Max Estrada, now known at La Cachora.
- El Rinconceto: Owned by Don Jesus Amador.
- El Cerro Verde: Owned by the Dominguez family.
- El Central: Located in front on the hospital on Calle Juarez; owned by Jose and Manuel Santana Villarino. They brought the first iron-cane crushing mill to Todos Santos. It came from San Francisco via Cabo San Lucas. A boutique hotel is being built on this land, which is incorporating remnants of the mill into the design.
- El Molino: It was owned by Don Abraham Salgado Villalobos. It reportedly closed in 1974.
One of the best places to see some of the local sugar cane history is at the old El Progresso site, which today is known as El Molino. The remains are on land used as a small hotel and for residents in a neighborhood that used to be a trailer park.
A brick chimney from the mill is at least 40 feet tall. It looks in good enough shape that it could be used today. Five vats are rusted, with weeds growing in them. They sit idle, seemingly resting where they were left on the final day they were used.
The El Molino site is part of the biennial Historic Home tour. Docents share information about the history of Todos Santos’ sugar cane heyday, how the cane was turned into sugar, and then shipped from the old port to mainland Mexico.
Sugar cane was brought to the mills in 1 meter increments in a cart. The shoots were sent through a press to squeeze out the juice. That juice was then steamed or smoked to make the brown sugar. Fires were built with debris from the cane. The chimney sucked heat through the vats. The process was much more complex than this.
In the vats that still exist are wooded slabs with holes in them about the size of an egg. They would be filled with sugar and shipped in that manner. Some of these traditional brown sugar cones are still available in area stores.
Cookbooks aren’t just for learning new recipes. They can be picture books, history books and so much more. Such is the case with “Not Food for Old Men: A Mexican Culinary Adventure” (Sime Books, 2015).
While it has expected chapters like Salad, Soups, and Tacos; Seafood; and Desserts and Cocktails, there are also sections about whale watching, all of the chefs who contributed to the book and more. The book includes how singer Jim Morrison was a regular visitor to Ensenada. I now know the Caesar salad was first created by chef Livo Santini at the Hotel Cesar in Tijuana.
The disappointing section was on the Hotel California in Todos Santos. It says the Eagles song by the same name is about this lodging establishment. That is completely wrong. The Eagles sued the Todos Santos hotel for trademark infringement. The lawsuit was settled in 2018. Hopefully, future editions of the cookbook will set the record straight.
The cookbook was part of a package I “won” as the high bidder at the Gastrovino event a year ago this month. While there are not a ton of recipes I would use because of being a vegetarian, I’m still not sure I’m ready to pass the book on. Often I can substitute meat/fish for something else like tofu or a portabella mushroom. Mexican spices, sauces and all those peppers are delicious. Plus, there are a few drinks I’d like to try like the Kiwi-Jalapeno Margarita.
While I didn’t read every recipe, all are in Spanish and English. Most of the translations are good, and when they weren’t, I could figure it out. For instance, one place it says to strain things in cilantro when it should have been a colander.
The photographs are outstanding. More have to do with scenes in Baja than the food. All are inspirational to get one cooking cuisine from Mexico.