DEL CABO ORGANIC: Mining a Wealth of Untapped Farming Skill

11 Aug, 2013

Every day in the US and Canada—especially in the fall and winter months—consumers purchase fresh, tasty organic produce from Del Cabo Organic. But Del Cabo would not exist if founder Larry Jacobs and his wife, Sandra Belin, had not forged a vital connection between seriously isolated yet skillful farmers and the thriving organic market. For his vision, Jacobs is one of the recipients of this year’s NRDC Growing Green Awards.

Keen Observation

It was back in the early 1980s that Jacobs and his wife—already successful organic entrepreneurs with their Jacobs Farm in Northern California—made an observation in the southern region of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

“What my wife and I saw at the tip of the Baja was a community of farmers who lived in the same ecosystem, the same climate,” Jacobs told Organic Connections. “When they grew tomatoes, they all grew tomatoes. When they had beans, they were all harvesting beans, because those plants were based on weather cycles. The sign at the entrance to town said it had a population of ten thousand—but a lot of those ten thousand were small-scale farmers. Hence there would be no place to sell any excess of what they were growing for themselves except at a very low price, because everyone and their cousin had the same crops.”

Jacobs had already seen that this was a unique group of individuals. “There are many places today where families raise a crop on a small acreage,” he continued. “It is actually incorrect to label them as poor, deprived, suffering people; that’s not true in most cases. They might not have as much money as someone working in, say, San Francisco, but they have other things that people in big cities might not have. They’ve got sunshine. They’ve got lots of good water. They’re eating fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re trading with their neighbors. They’ve got a little bit of cash from what they’re selling. But what they don’t often have is access to the larger markets.”

Jacobs had seen the skill with which such farmers operate. “Almost everywhere you go in the world, people who are making a living on small parcels of land often have very high skill-sets for what they’re doing,” Jacobs said. “If you parachuted in the smartest entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, they’d have a hard time making a living in these locations where the Internet doesn’t work most of the time, the television is intermittent and the electricity goes on and off. These guys all figure it out and succeed, raise a family and go on.”

Jacobs and his wife put that information together with what they already knew about their own native country. “It was a time when the organic market was just opening up,” Jacobs pointed out. “There was no winter production of summer vegetables available in the United States and Canada. This is a place where tomatoes grow really well in our wintertime—it was just a question of getting them exported in good condition. It would provide a bigger market for the whole community, and coincidentally a community that was being targeted by the Mexican federal government to become a major tourist center because of the beaches. The kinds of jobs that were becoming available were washing dishes, making beds, waiting tables—skill-sets that farmers didn’t have. It struck us we could create an economy that could really work for these guys.”

Del Cabo Cooperative Is Born

“When we first started, it wasn’t crystal clear what this thing would look like,” Jacobs related. “Earlier on, my wife and I had spent three or four years doing rural development in Guatemala, running a very small nonprofit. We had the epiphany that the nonprofit world had some limitations in its ability to improve the quality of life and the standard of living. Instead of creating opportunities and building economic drivers in businesses, it in some ways did the opposite: it created dependencies.

“So for Del Cabo we wrote a very short business proposal that consisted of teaching a group of small-scale growers to farm organically some crops that were similar to what they were doing, some others that were different, for a market that was outside their area. It had the specific purpose of creating economic opportunities and creating better choices for the families in the area.

“That started with eight families in 1985. It more than doubled every year for the first five or six years, and today it consists of well over a thousand families in four different states in Mexico.”

Organic Means Everything—Personally

Del Cabo cooperative is a natural extension of a personal passion for Jacobs. From his boyhood he loved growing things, and in college he had a half-acre garden that helped supply his university’s food co-op.

But it was a traumatic experience that solidified his decision to never use chemical pesticides. “When I was in my early twenties I had a tree nursery,” Jacobs recalled. “I didn’t have any formal background in horticulture or any of the plant sciences at the time. In order to sell nursery plants, you had to have a regular inspection from the county ag inspector. If there were insects on the plants that were considered pest insects, you weren’t allowed to move that nursery stock from one place to another.

“One inspector found aphids on the trees I was growing and told me that I would have to get rid of the insects before I continued selling the plants. Coincidentally he had the answer, which was, ‘Come to my place and I’ll give you what you need.’ He had a little side business selling pesticides and ag chemicals. I came back with a brown glass bottle that had a skull and crossbones on it. I had no understanding of what today would be a normal precaution in using these materials. It was a summer day and I was wearing cutoff shorts and no shirt. I passed out.

“It had a very visceral impact on me. I needed to find a way to deal with the insects and stumbled on a gentleman in Ventura County who was raising lacewings, a predatory insect that feeds on aphids. He gave me some guidelines on how to manage that particular pest without the chemicals. He sent me some of the insect predators that he was raising. When the county inspector returned, there were no more aphids.”

Jacobs has applied these natural scientific approaches ever since. “Because of the growth and capacity of the Del Cabo cooperative, we have a team of researchers and a breeding team that breeds for flavor and disease resistance for crops that grow under organic conditions in specific areas,” he said. “That includes an entomologist and a team of agronomists that work on best plant spacing, and best mixture of plants in the field to optimize different insect populations that you want to attract.”

Going Global

Del Cabo products are now available far and wide. “You can find Del Cabo products most predominately in the western part of the United States, but they’re available throughout the country and up into Canada—more so in fall, winter and early spring,” Jacobs said. “But oddly enough we’ve even bumped into them in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”

While that may seem odd now, it may not be in the near future as Del Cabo goes global. “A new company is forming in Guatemala today,” Jacobs concluded. “We’re doing the same thing in Tanzania. In fact, you just caught us two days after getting back from Tanzania.”

Their program is one that will bring local farmers throughout the world into supply chains that will help them thrive, so it’s a win-win situation for farmers and consumers alike.

For more information on the Del Cabo cooperative, please visit www.delcabo.com.

Visit Jacobs Farm at www.jacobsfarm.com.

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