Sunday, January 10, 2010

Salvador Tinajero and the Organic Garden at Rancho la Puerta

I think it’s safe to say that most Mexican fruits and vegetables we find in our supermarkets are grown with chemical fertilizers, doused liberally with pesticides and herbicides, and have acquired a good-sized carbon footprint thanks to moving them from there to here. I want to tell you the story of a piece of land and the man who manages it that gives me hope for the future of Mexican produce. Like so many small organic farmers in the U.S., he is working against the odds. But unlike so many organic farmers, he has the support of an organization that in 1960 set aside a piece of land which continues to be a testament to the organic principles and practices I hold dear.

The organization is Rancho la Puerta, an amazing spa just south of San Diego, CA in Tecate, Mexico. Founded by Professor E. B. Szekeley, a Romanian-born philosopher and scholar and his young wife, Deborah, the Ranch welcomed its first guests in 1940 ($17.50/week; bring your own tent) and from the beginning offered organic food, a fitness regime, and lectures from people as diverse as Aldous Huxley and J. I. Rodale. The present accommodations are way more luxurious but the pioneering combination of fitness, nutrition, spiritual practice, hikes, and healthy living continues to this day. For four years, we have gone to the Ranch the week before Christmas. From Saturday to Saturday I unplug from my usual routine, take daily yoga classes, learn about nutrition, eat lots of organic fruits and vegetables, and have a spa treatment or two. I return to Berkeley feeling healthy and fit and perhaps a few pounds slimmer.

My very favorite activity is the two-mile Breakfast Hike to the organic garden, Ranchos Tres Estrellas, which leaves the Ranch Lounge at 6:00a.m. You might wonder what on earth would get me out of bed at 5:30a.m. when I’m on vacation. For me, the answer is Salvador Tinajero, the manager of the organic garden. Even more than the delicious breakfast and hot chocolate awaiting us at Tres Estrellas, I look forward to his tour of the garden which I’ve taken six or eight times over the years. He never fails to amuse, delight, and instruct.

Salvador greets us with a smile, wearing a blue jacket and gray pants, with his knife and pruning shears in a leather holster attached to his waist. He can hardly contain his excitement in talking about the organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs he grows on six acres of land at the foot of sacred Mount Kuchumaa. He uproots a broccoli plant, shows us the root structure and the soil, and then hands around the beautifully developed head of broccoli so that everyone can have a bite. He harvests six or seven carrots, washes them and has us notice how sweet they are in winter as we chomp and chew. He talks about planting annuals between perennials in order to draw the good insects, about how the carnivorous spiders help with any potential aphid problem. He delivers this information in accented English, speaking so quickly that occasionally I fail to catch what he says. Never mind, I want to cram in as much as possible before we hike back to the Ranch.

Salvador started working at the Ranch when he was 19 years old and has been at the garden for 23 years, the last six years as manager. In addition to giving the tours, he does the planning, orders supplies, organizes work schedules for the seven guys on his team, and sells any crops that aren’t used by the Ranch. His primary job, he says, is “to grow the soil” and it is crucial to his enterprise. Growing soil involves building compost from organic matter gleaned from the garden itself and from manure. His crew produces about seven tons a year and returns it to the garden beds, year after year. Water is also crucial. Currently the nine inches of annual rainfall is sufficient to water his mostly drought-tolerant crops. But he worries about global warming and how it is already affecting the garden. Higher temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and less rain could all take their toll on the garden’s ability to produce.

He dreams of growing an even greater variety of produce and is always looking for new possibilities. The more diversity the better. He receives requests for new items from the Ranch chefs and from guest chefs who teach at the cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta. Chicago’s Rick Bayless, for example, requested “Mexican oregano.” At first Salvador was stumped. He discovered that Mexican oregano is actually lippia graveolens, a member of the verbena family, and is not related to our supermarket oregano. He found a source for the seeds and grew it successfully. He also dreams of being able to travel to trainings in Mexico or California to learn more about gardening, to meet like-minded growers, and to spread his knowledge about organic farming to farmers in Mexico.

Salvador is passionate, curious, patient, devoted to the land, and committed to doing the best job he can. I appreciate his infectious grin, the twinkle in his eye, and his irrepressible exuberance as he shows us the garden. He pours affection and real love into everything he grows; we at the Ranch, this plot of land, and the surrounding community are all healthier for it. We thank him for his efforts on our behalf and wish him well in reaching farmers in Mexico who might adopt the Ranch’s organic practices and principles.


Ruth S. said...

Hi Catherine,
Funny, I've been meaning to check out your "Keepers" blog ever we all met and hung out together in that marvelous December week at Rancho la Puerta. So, on the first time I check out your blog, here's a lovely FRESH blog post about Salvador and the Tres Estrellas garden. Wonderful photos and text--captures his powerful enthusiasm. Thanks.

Katharine Kunst said...

Ruth, Thanks for writing a comment. If you want to be on the distribution list, send me an e-mail at I'll send you a short note whenever there's a new post. As for the pomegranate molasses, it is also called pomegranate syrup or concentrate. You could also buy a bottle of POM and boil it down yourself to a syrup--but that's a lot of trouble. Katharine