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Mezcal is also vulnerable to the same problems tequila makers faced in the 1990s. The espadin agave crop, used for about 90% of all mezcal production, is a monoculture and faces the same genetic-weakening - and reduced resistance to environmental threats - as the blue agave. Although several species of agave are permitted for use in mezcal, espadin has become the main choice. But a few concerned growers are cultivating other varieties, including the tobala, for future use.
Updated May, 2011
Cultivation & Agriculture
Standing in a field of ripe agaves, with their sharply pointed leaves. some more than two metres tall, it's hard to recall when they were a mere shoot, an onion-sized plant cut from the mother at about a year old, with maybe 30-50 cm of leaf still attached.
That memory is made hazy by the years required for the agaves to grow to maturity, at least seven for most shoots, but sometimes nine or ten.
Agave are remarkably hardy plants. They grow in dry climates, mediocre soils, never need irrigation, and have enough natural defences that any large predator is usually deterred. The ideal conditions for the cultivation of the blue agave are found in Jalisco's arid areas where there are reddish clays and volcanic silica.
The Blue Tequila Agaves - also known locally as zapupes - however, are vulnerable to the smaller predators - the microorganisms, the insects and the parasitic worms (nematodes). They are even more vulnerable when they are a monoculture packed into fields 1,500-5,000 a hectare (2,500-2,800 is common around Tequila). So the agave crop has to be tended as diligently as any other crop to produce the best plants, perhaps more.
Surprisingly, the modern farm technology that has improved so many other crops and farmers' efficiency, has not made a large impact on the business of growing agave.
Fields are planted by hand, tended by hand, the shoots and the ripe agave are all harvested by hand. The traditions of manual labour stretch back five hundred years, and are passed along from one generation to the next.
In part, this labour-intensive cultivation derives from that tradition: the field workers have generations of indispensable knowledge and understanding passed along from grandfather to father to son, a subculture of agaveros or magueyeros. They know the agave in a manner that defines simple, mechanical solutions. They have spent a lifetime in close company with the plants. They understand the moods of the maguey, the health of the pasture, and the effects the fluctuations of weather, pests and soil have on the crop.
And there is a recognition in Mexico that such traditions have value for future generations. Mexico, for all its modernization, is still all about the people and their relation to the land.
In part, too, it is because in Mexico labour is cheap, cheaper than high-maintenance equipment, which requires fuel that only seems to rise in price, and costly repairs. Coas need little care compared to tractors. Jimadors learn from doing, not from reading manuals or attending school. Tending the same plants for eight to ten years tells you a lot about how the agave grows and flourishes.
But it is also in part because the agave challenges technology. It defies simple solutions at almost every stage. Harvesting the hijuelos, for example, requires a good eye, a sense of timing, and a worker who can squeeze among the rows of maturing agave, pulling out the pups without injuring the mother plant, trim the pup of its excess rhizomes and leaves, and do it quickly.
Harvesting the agaves themselves is tricky business. Looks are deceiving for agaves. Two similar plants, beside one another in the same row, can end up with wildly different piņas once the leaves are all cut away. A mechanical harvester would have to be able to compensate for each different size, many times in a single row. And could a mechanical harvester recognize a bad or infected agave? Somewhere along the line before cooking, humans would have to sort the heads.
Producers who grow their own agave usually have a stock of trained workers from which to draw, field hands with years of experience who return every year. Some of their workers may be permanently employed. Growers who plant sporadically, or who plant to try and cash in on the 'blue gold' may find themselves with untrained or part-time workers, poor field management, and crops prone to infestation or disease.
Mechanized transport in the agave fields did not become the rule in the tequila industry until the 1970s. The practice of mixing agave with corn, and sometimes beans and soybeans as well, for the sake of the soil and to prevent the spread of disease, made mechanization impractical before then, and as a consequence the plants tended to grow too large.
Agave consumption is growing to the point where mechanization of at least some components is a necessity. Robert Denton noted that in 1999 the industry was using 18 million mature plants to sustain operations. And the demand has grown considerably more since then.
Today's agave field workers have had to go beyond the traditional methods and embrace new technologies, if for nothing more than to stay abreast of the growing demand for tequila. Even if the coa hasn't changed, the tools to fight pests or to nourish the soils have. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are as much a part of the workers' arsenal as the coa and the machete. Biological tools, genetic modifications and new ways to process agave fibres that benefit the plants and the factory are next on the horizon.
Plus there's a growing environmental awareness among tequila producers. They are looking for ways to recycle and re-use byproducts, and to return to the land some of the plants they take from it.
Another challenge created by the growth of the blue agave monoculture is soil erosion. The open, weed-free rows between the agaves don't hold the soil as well as a cross-planted field. On the steep slopes and hills where the agave is planted erosion of the topsoil becomes more pronounced, forcing some growers to resort to chemical fertilizers to maintain the nutrition of their plants.
Traditional tequila practices and processes seem to violate the rules of the modern world that demands speed, efficiency and volume throughput. In a world where so much has computerized and mechanized, tequila seems like a throwback, a stubborn foothold in yesteryear.
There is more art or craft in growing agave than science; there are things the field hands know without vocalization; the simple touch of a hand on a spiky leaf speaks volumes to those who know the language of the maguey.
Science intervenes with technology, in dealing with the monoculture's genetics, in fighting pests and assessing sugar levels, but without the very personal eye of the worker who walks the fields every day, without the passion of those producers who pursue the best product they can make, tequila would not have the magic it has today; it would just be another agro-industry.