Many of my days of late are spent studying “Business for Good” at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle. Recently I was lucky enough to join a small group of people in involved in agriculture, the food biz, and sustainable business in Mexico to experience an excellent example of what it means.
“It is just more satisfying to do business when everybody wins.” That is exactly what happened when self-confessed Napa-based bean lover, author, cook, entrepreneur, and all-around cool guy, Steve Sando aka Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food, teamed up with Xoxoc, a Mexican family-business dedicated to business, community, food, and family based on their rich Mexican heritage of food and culture.
The Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project that grew out of this partnership involves creating a market for heritage beans, Xoxoc products that are based on the native xoconostle tuna, a kind of prickly pear fruit, along with related foods and handmade Mexican products. They are even working with the famed Diana Kennedy to bring a hard to source chile to the American marketplace.
By the standards of big industrial business, the kind of market we are talking about is tiny. But when you look at the big picture, the impact is really impressive. Bringing customers unique and top-quality products that taste great is always front and center. Yet un-trumpeted, and behind the scenes, there is something equally powerful going on.
Steve profiles the great food elements of the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project here and here, and the meals, mezcal, cooking classes, and all-around good times from our trip on his blog here. I’m going to take a different tack, and share what it means from the perspective of energy, green building and real wages for real people.
The Project means that there is a group of hardworking families, like the farmers of Maguey Verde, a small village in Hidalgo State, Mexico, who can now make a living raising heritage beans. Their market niche was quickly being replaced by industrial agriculture and its focus on one or two commercial varieties. Instead of risking a season’s worth of time and effort, just to take the beans to a commodity market that does not prize unique varieties or chemical-free agricultural methods, and where buyers pay the lowest possible price, the Xoxoc farmers can focus on quality, tradition, and production, knowing that their crop is pre-sold. The growers benefit, and so do consumers, who get access to dried beans so fresh and tasty that leading chefs and high-end food magazines extoll their virtues.
Being able to sell your crop is about more than maintaining a family tradition of crops suited to the natural conditions, and grown without irrigation, on communal ejido lands with horse-drawn plows instead of machinery. It translates into things like villages that come together and have enough money to maintain a shared well that for the past couple of years has brought running water to people’s homes. It means the possibility of being able to send your daughter to school past the 6th grade. The 2-horse plow is pretty cool too.
According to Yunuen Carillo Quiroz, one of our gracious hosts, a force-of-nature, and, one of the driving forces behind Xoxoc, they could have built a standard sort of industrial processing facility. Instead they chose to go sustainable, where beauty and good design counts, and the ratio of environmental impact to economic and cultural value is better for everyone involved. They chose traditional construction techniques and materials so they could keep the traditions alive with experienced craftsmen supervising and teaching their methods to laborers unfamiliar with old ways and indigenous materials. Those laborers left with a paycheck and new “old” skills they can bring to the next project and the one after that.
In contrast to the often dark and ugly buildings in the area, the Xoxoc buildings look great and they are designed to make the most of natural daylight. This is handy, especially since the receiving, processing, and packaging areas are not wired. That’s right – the only electricity in the entire facility is for a cutting edge solar-powered dehydrating unit where the xoconostle fruit is turned into dried treats.
Everything else, from washing and peeling the fruit, to sorting and cleaning beans destined for the American market, is done by hand. Doing it this way keeps capital costs down. It also creates good jobs for 11 women, many who are single mothers raising families in an area where employment and money are both in short supply.,
Like every business everywhere, it takes persistence, hard work, and a good sense of humor to make it happen. And where some might say the goal of business is to squeeze a dime out of every nickel, for me, the businesses that do good while doing business are the ones that capture my heart.
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