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Mexico's Famous Floating Gardens Return to Their Agricultural Roots

On Sundays, the canals of Xochimilco are a riot of activity. Birthday parties, family picnics and rambunctious tourists cheerfully crowd the famous site, 17 miles from the center of Mexico City. Colorfully decorated gondola-like boats called trajineras play bumper cars as they pass mariachi bands floating to their next customer and beer vendors hawking the spicy beer concoction called michelada.

But weekdays, calm descends and the garden’s age-long purpose—as a place to cultivate crops—comes into relief. Ricardo Rodriguez, a 41-year-old pioneer in Mexico’s urban agriculture movement, is my guide through the quiet backside of the chinampas (floating islands) where Rodriguez helps the local farmers who are revitalizing traditional agriculture.

Rodriquez has nothing against the usual eating, drinking, and partying that goes on in the park. But he is quick to emphasize, “That’s just one of the three parts of Xochimilco.” The second part is the commercial farms that propagate huge fields of flowers using pesticides. But the third, he explains, is the ecological reserve of Cuemanco, where organic fruits and vegetables are grown and sold through his business, De La Chinampa a Tu Mesa (From the Floating Island to Your Table).

On a table in the center of Rodriguez’s boat is a bounty of agricultural products sourced entirely from De La Chinampa’s farms: salad overflowing with assorted greens, tomatoes and onions; fresh white cheese made from the milk of cows that graze here; guacamole from avocados grown on trees in nearby higher ground; and under a hefty lid, still-steaming mushroom tamales.

The man-made islands, built from fertile, lake-bottom soil by the tribes that settled here between the eighth and tenth centuries, once produced enough food to feed all of Mexico City. The Canal Nacional, navigable to the city center, brought produce from the islands to the Mercado Jamaica.

When the Spanish arrived in 1519, they drained many of the lakes, shrinking Xochimilco’s agricultural capacity, and forbade the cultivation of indigenous products like chia, a seed favored for its nutritional properties. (A pitcher of water on Rodriguez’s boat is flavored with chia.) In 1985, an earthquake that damaged much of the city further destroyed many of the canals.

Nowadays the path from organic farms on chinampas to Mexico City tables presents a challenge. The farms produce more than 70 products, including 5,000 to 10,000 lettuces and two tons of purslane each day, large quantities that necessitate selling through the wholesale market. As a result, these local, organic crops get lumped together with conventionally farmed and lesser quality products. “We are looking for new ways to sell, because the traditional ones aren’t working.” Rodriquez says.

One of the less traditional approaches is to offer a CSA-style home delivery subscription and online purchasing. The farms also sell directly to some leading chefs, including Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil and Enrique Olvera of Pujol.  “The people who know are chefs and media,” he said, but local citizens haven’t yet caught on to the advantages of De La Chinampa’s offerings.

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