Thinking veganically tends to be an uplifting experience, in so many ways. When individuals consider the source, substance and consequences of their food, they begin to lift their gaze from the artificial to the real, from the processed to the natural. Making veganic choices elevates consciousness and heightens the flavorful sensations of every meal.
It can also lift you high into the mountains, on a winding dirt road in southwestern Mexico. That’s what the One Degree team discovered last month, as we set out to find a high quality source of veganic sesame seeds for our new Sesame Sunflower bread. After landing in the capital of the state of Oaxaca, we began a three and a half hour climb skyward on a tightly coiled mountain highway that led us to Colonia San Jose, where farmer Gerardo Pacheco Rodriguez waited to greet us with a smile, a joke and some memorable hospitality.
Gerardo manages Agroproductos Ecológicos de Mexico, an agricultural cooperative that grows the best sesame seeds we’ve ever tasted, using techniques and traditions deeply rooted in a respect for history and community. His family has been farming this land since pre-Columbian times, and the lessons passed down through the generations provide the template for the way the crop is cultivated today. Chief among these lessons is that the farmers in this coop till the land as a way to provide for their families, proudly and honestly.
When the coop’s rich farmland first came into view, we were fascinated by the tall “pinas” arrayed on the fields, cone-like piles of sesame stalks. Workers carried the pinas to a large tarp where others beat the stalks with sticks to shake the sesame seeds loose from their pods. Using a sifting screen, the workers separated the seeds from the chaff, creating a golden cloud that gleamed in the bright sun.
“Almost everything we do here is all done by hand, with a good shovel and sweat,” explained Ponciano Bautista Perez, who works alongside his father in the fields. “The job we do here is hard work, it’s all manual labor, but it’s all natural and we know we created a great product.”
Another important lesson valued by the community is that the old ways should not be easily abandoned for the promise of something untested and unwise. For example, the coop has no interest in exploring the purported benefits of GMO seeds.
“Here in our cooperative we don’t purchase any seed at all,” Gerardo indicated. “Each year each farmer collects some of the best seeds from whatever crop that they’ve cultivated, and around May we get together as a community and actually do a formal blessing of that seed and thank God for it and hope for another productive season.”
Sesame seeds require a warm climate, which is one of the reasons we traveled so far south to discover this quality supply. The other important reason is that, even now, it is often difficult to find farms that are wholly veganic, farms that have given up the use of fertilizer made from animal by-products. Here, in Mexico’s most biodiverse state, sesame seeds have grown naturally for thousands of years, and the crops don’t need animal inputs to thrive.
The farm has not used chemical or compounds since 1998. Saturating the fields with chemicals was not good for the long-term health of the land, nor for the community. Instead of using herbicides, workers cut down weeds and plow them back into the field, adding an extra layer of natural fertilizer. Later, when the crop nears its harvest, weeds are controlled by machetes, a time-tested method.
“Without a doubt, they’re influenced by the idea of maintaining and preserving their land and their environment, and consequently their community, their health and their future,” said Evan Storey, our translator for the voyage, describing the farm’s fidelity to organic principles. Evan was awed by the way this well-run cooperative is able to support hundreds of families, filling the void often left by official institutions.
“I think a lot of people who will be purchasing One Degree products should be motivated by the idea that if they’re paying somewhat of a premium on this product, not only is it higher quality, not only is it going to taste better, but you’re also contributing to a wonderful way of life down there and a wonderful operation,” Evan emphasized. “Treating people with respect and dignity, especially when they’re doing the right thing like they are down there, I think is absolutely important.”
Alongside ancient traditions, the farmers of Agroproductos Ecológicos have embraced our own revolutionary new idea of honest, candid cultivation. “I love One Degree’s idea of transparency,” Gerardo told us. “In fact, while organic certification for example is important, I think actually seeing the way we maintain our lives out here, seeing us work the fields, is even more important. At the end of the day certification is just a piece of paper. But these videos actually allow the consumer to see our reality and how we live our lives day to day.”
“We invite you to come out here and visit us,” added Ponciano. “Come check out the farm and come meet us in person. You’re always welcome.”
In the end, there is one word that best describes the experience of seeing how these remarkable farmers live each day with pride, loyalty and kindness woven into every thought and motion. And that word is: uplifting.
— Charlie Dodge