Mercado Organic Farm

Looking out upon his fields in Rosario de la Frontera, farmer Daniel Mercado sees rows of pure organic chia, and something more: Squares of red and black. Kings, bishops, white knights. Strategies that glide through diagonal patterns and storm across vectors of imagination.

For Daniel, the landscape is a vast chessboard, and farming is a daily grand tournament where the elements, pests, weeds and nature herself come to test the depth of his knowledge and the iron of his resolve. It’s a game he loves, from opening gambit to the final royal pursuit.

“I love to spend my time looking at weather patterns and other things that will influence the growing of the plants,” he says. “I look at each field like a chess game, and I need to choose where to place my figures so that I can adjust, and win the game. I need to see which kind of weather patterns I have in these fields, and decide where and when to plant; I need to make sure I finish harvest on time, that the crop is growing and that insects and weeds will not prevail.”

Here in Argentina’s far northwest corner, nature has prepared a wide range of complex variables to consider. “This area here has 48 microclimates,” Daniel notes. “They are formed by differences in the altitude. We have mountain chains that will cause the air before the chain to rise and to rain in that area, so that the soil beyond this chain will be dry. Depending on the distance between these mountain chains we will find different areas of precipitation, some very tropical like jungles with 2,000 millimeters rainfall per year and some dry areas with 50 millimeters per year. This allows us to grow plants like beans in the dry areas and lemons and cane sugar in the tropical ones.

“There are three main things that make organic production complicated. First, the amount of rainfall. Too much rain will cause fungus to spread. The way we manage this is to determine the proper distance between the plants and try to drain the soil so that the water does not saturate the ground.

“The second is insects. The main countermeasure here is to use fields that are separated by natural corridors. Insects prefer to remain in these kinds of natural havens. Once the insects that can damage the plants start to mature in the corridor, and they complete their first cycle, usually predators start to grow as well and will control the bad insects that cause losses. It takes a certain amount of time until good insects are such a large number that they can control the bad insects. The trick is to have plants that will be resistant enough and keep growing until the good insect population comes to save us.

“The third part is the weeds. We manage weeds by seeding plants that will compete against those weeds, not only for space but for light — plants that are higher and grow faster. Then we also seed directly into the soil so that we disturb the ground as little as possible. If the weeds are taking over, then it will require certain measures to go there manually and remove them, or to take them out with machinery in the empty spaces.”

An example of this approach was on display in a field recently sown with red beans, a plant he favors in the intricate crop rotations that masterfully restore and fortify the soil. “This is virgin land, so the beans grow quickly, faster than any weeds. We grow the beans in small plots of land so that any weeds that do try to take hold here, or any sickness, will not spread throughout the field. Using this technique, we have seen superior yields.”

Daniel’s journey to this place and time was guided by a passion he has always carried with him, the certainty that he belongs on the land. “I’ve never pictured myself working in a space surrounded by four walls — I’ve always imagined myself out in the fields, raising my own crops. That’s why I studied agricultural engineering in college, and after graduation traveled north to a region known for its rainforest ecosystem. There, I experienced nature’s delicate balance firsthand and learned the importance of farming sustainably, in concert with the natural environment.

“Sustainability is why I have chosen organic farming. As we take from nature, we must always respect its balance and give back to the land, working hard to keep fields and the surrounding environment healthy. When I look out on my fields, the very first thing I feel is a great responsibility. By farming here, we are impacting the area’s biodiversity, and so we have a duty to grow crops that will benefit the land, adding nutrients to the soil. In some cases the crops we grow enrich the soil more than the wild plants that originally grew here. This is very important to us, and we constantly test to make sure the land is in balance, so that we never take more than what we are adding.”

There is one rare trait that sets Daniel apart from many notable chess masters of the recent past: humility. “I believe that without God, nothing is possible,” he says. “When I leave to go to work I pray to God that he will get me to the fields and bring me back. All the fruits of my life are dedicated to God. I know also that this abundance is 90 percent not my own work, but rather due to the work of the people with me. Those are the ones working hard in the fields, making sure everything is done correctly. And every success is also due to my family, who wait patiently for me to come back after the long drives from the fields to home.”

A legendary grandmaster once defined chess as “a place where art and science come together in the human mind and are refined and improved by experience.” That place sounds a lot like Rosario de la Frontera, where Daniel Mercado stands before an organic mosaic of his own creation and claims victory with each harvest. His art is in the splendor of a plant reaching skyward with vigor and purity. His science is in the knowledge that renews the soil and keeps the ecosystem sustainable. But it is his mind that holds the greatest beauty of all: the courage to win gracefully, and to always give thanks.

— Charlie Dodge