Like a lot of us, the Galicia family was looking forward to 2020. Farming along the city’s southern canals for generations, they are stewards of the chinampa agricultural system, one of the oldest on the planet. For the past eight years they have been slowly converting their man-made plot – built on top of the city’s shallow lakebeds – into a fully organic farm.
When they first started they could barely afford a hose to water the plants. Now they have their own DIY biodigester (a device that turns decomposing matter into natural gas), several biofilters on a small side canal that runs along their property and a large greenhouse that covers one section of the harvest during Mexico’s hottest months.
This is all in addition to the 400 chickens laying eggs in the hen house, a few dozen rabbits, three piglets that have grown into giants in just a few months and several hectares of cornfields, sown mainly for chicken feed but also for delicious esquites – the melt-in-your-mouth Mexican corn on the cob with mayo, chile, salt, lime and fresh grated cheese.
For all intents and purposes this year was going to be the best yet. They had plans to purchase a few solar panels to run a filtration pump for the canal water they use. The family was also going to open up a previously fallow section of the land for growing crops. Then came the pandemic.
“I would say that sales have been down about 50 percent,” says patriarch Don Angel on a cool July afternoon as we walk through his cornfields. Rusty red chickens dodge our feet below and lime green eight-foot cornstalks blow in the breeze.
The family sells to a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project called Yolcan, a pioneering company that connects consumers with 100 percent organic produce. They specialize in providing produce to local restaurants – big names like Contra Mar, Maximo and Pujol – and often Angel is asked to grow the microgreens, baby carrots or watermelon radishes that are in high demand among Mexico City’s gourmet circles. With restaurants closed, a big part of their business has come to a grinding halt, and all those specialty crops are much less valuable.
“We’ve started to diversify our crops now,” Angel explains, “to include things that we eat as well – tomatoes, tomatillos, onions.
“We’ve started to diversify our crops now,” Angel explains, “to include things that we eat as well – tomatoes, tomatillos, onions.” That small shift has given them a tad more self-sufficiency in providing for family meals. Angel and his wife, Aurora, live on the farm full time while their son Ernesto and his wife work on the farm most weekdays. They are also often joined by Don Felipe, Angel’s 82-year-old father.
“My girlfriend and I haven’t been seeing each other lately,” says Felipe of his 50-year-old sweetheart. “We are trying to stay as safe [as we can].”
The nuclear family has so far been spared losses due to Covid-19, but on the day we visit Aurora recounts the deaths of nephews and cousins, and Angel says his ex-wife, her current husband, her mother and father were all sick at once, and Angel’s daughter had to take care of them all. Thankfully they survived.
Living in Xochimilco, one area of the southern canal system, the family is in some ways in a borderland. A boat ride’s distance from the center of town makes social distancing from neighbors easier. But Xochimilco is more like a little town than a city neighborhood and as Angel tells it, many people still don’t believe that the pandemic is real, resulting in apathy toward the measures needed to stay safe, like face masks.
There are downsides and benefits to being so close to the heart of the megalopolis. Due to its density, Mexico City has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country. The city’s traditional markets, particularly the Central de Abastos, Mexico City’s largest wholesale market, have become major points of infection – controlling the spread among vendors and shoppers has proven difficult. According to some reports, the Central de Abastos has seen a drop in sales of nearly 80 percent during the pandemic. This is a sharp blow for many chinampa farmers who sell almost exclusively to the middlemen that supply this market.
But there are also opportunities to be had with such a large local market. Some chinamperos have found ways to expand their clientele, working with local CSAs or trying to expand their reach within their community. Still, with fewer shoppers on the street and within the market walls, no one is having an easy time.
“We’ve sold a little extra produce in Tlapan,” says Angel referring to a nearby part of the city where some of the family lives, “but not enough to compensate.”
And yet, they feel blessed: On the weekends, the grandkids come out to the farm “from the city” to play and see their grandparents. “They just need to run and be outside and get their energy out,” says Aurora. “My son just sprays them down with disinfectant before they get in the truck.”
Those family ties are important at a moment like this. Despite the monetary setbacks, Angel and Ernesto have managed to start work on the new section of land that was previously fallow, just as they had planned for at the beginning of the year. Long, neatly tended beds display pitch-black earth, upturned and waiting for planting.
“We have to keep going,” says Angel with a determined acceptance, “A farm can’t stop. We have to keep working the land, feeding the chickens, rotating the crops.”
The Mexican government, in particular President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has been accused of mismanaging the pandemic. But the Galicias were able to take advantage of stimulus support through a government program offered to small farmers in their area. They are thankful for the assistance and say it’s helped the survival of their farm.
While waiting for the economy to reopen and tourism to return, this little island continues to ring with laughter and as Angel says, they will keep going. Pandemic or no, there are still chickens to feed.