Heirloom Tomatoes, Garlic and Chiltepines – 36 Hours in Northern Sonora

Overlooking the fields of the Rio Sonora at Banamichi.

Why go to Mexico?  For me, the reasons vary and mostly have to do with encountering and seeing things I don’t come across here in the States.  And since I figure life becomes much more interesting through experiences that contrast to one’s everyday life, it’s easy to rationalize taking a trip south.  And I can assure you, Mexico is full of all kinds of things you don’t see north of the border.

In contrast to what one reads or watches from the news media, there are many counter examples that reveal another side to Mexico, one that many positive stories to tell, many of them from the state of Sonora.  I know this is a rather trite thing to say, but one wishes that the news media would at least find a few more positive stories to report than all the negatives.  The Sonoran economy looks pretty good, there’s a growing/educated middle class happening, the police and the Federales are more polite and friendly than I’ve ever seen in my life, American tourism has been down, but Mexican tourism is growing and when it comes to drug related violence, Sonora has been very quiet.  Travel there has been fun and enjoyable.  Clear, nothing is certain nor forever, but for now, things look good in the north.

This story is about some of those good things and those that concern the growing list of cooperative ventures of between individuals and companies both sides of the border.  Last week, my son Kalin and I, took a two-day trip into northern Sonora to accompany my friend Phil Ostrom of Patagonia Orchards, a company from the Nogales area that imports organic produce from Mexico.  Philip not only buys, he helps sponsor growers who are trying to make the transition into organics providing them whatever is needed from seeds to equipment.  I enjoy taking photos for him that can be used for the promotion of his produce and on this trip I also wanted to make a connection to a family that I thought would add to his expanding list of growers in Sonora.

We crossed the border at Douglas, AZ into the town of Agua Prieta, Sonora.  At the wheel is Philip’s driver and translator for all things in Mexico, Miguel Davila. Acquiring any kind of permit in Mexico can take time especially since Mexico has become hyper-vigilant about making sure one’s paper-work is all in order.  And of course, it was a day that Philip had one of those flaws that resulted in about an hour delay to resolve.

I waited outdoors in the parking lot which is bordered by the “great” border wall of the U.S.  To say the least, it’s not a great place to wait.  The wall is imposing, standing next to it easily evokes everything negative one has ever thought about it.  But I thought to myself, why not try something different and throw out all opinions and preconceived ideas I previously had about it and put into practice all those good self-improvement things I read and try to see it in a different light.  So I turned it into an exercise in seeing in the spirit of Thoreau who said, “the question is not what you look at, but what you see.”  Here’s a little different look at the border wall.

Fence dividing Agua Prieta, Sonora and Douglas, AZ.

Our first stop was the tiny town in the Moctezuma Valley called called Fronteras, to connect with grower David Arriola and his American partner. Jack Davis.  In years past, David had worked for Jack, a former builder, in the States, but with the recession and the accompanying slow-down in building, they decided to team-up and grow organic produce on David’s family land in Fronteras.  They supply Philip with organic heirloom tomatoes and zucchini.

Jack Davis second from left, David Arriola, Philip Ostrom and Miguel Davila, David's son to the far left.

David is the hands-on grower, Jack and Philip keep him abreast of unfolding organic technologies such as the combined foliar spray he uses from kelp and EM (Effective Microorganisms), promising seeds and all important financial backing which most recently provided David with an older, but in good condition, John Deere tractor.

David Arriola with the new farm tractor.

David showing his EM (Effective Microorganisms) and Tomato Seedlings.

A little further down the road, just beyond the town of Esqueda, a recently completed road takes one out of the Moctezuma Valley across a rugged landscape of up and down hills and mountains to the Rio Sonora Valley, coming out just south of the town of Bacoachi.  Not far down the highway, call it that if you like is the town of Chinapa where we met up with with garlic growers Antonio Madero and his son Francisco.  After introducing Philip to them last year, he was able to get them certified as organic growers.

From Left: Francisco Madero, Brother, Antonio Madero and Philip Ostrom

Antonio is from the older generations that still farm this valley, which in my opinion, as well as that of ethno-botanist Gary Nabhan, is the one remaining place in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico that has many of the elements of subsistence agriculture still in place.  And one might also say, that with some conscientious changes, potentially one that could be sustainable.  In that vein, Antonio is one of those old time growers who never knew he was growing organically, I’m sure he hadn’t heard the term until last year.  He simply never used any form of chemical fertilizer or herbicides, relying on his mule for any needed work with the plow.  I still laugh when I remember Philip wanting me to ask him during his initial interview last year if he had ever grown any GMO seeds. Good winter rains had made for an outstanding garlic crop this year.

Antonio in his garlic field and Philip sampling the new garlic crop.

In contrast to large-scale organic producers and most other contexts of modern agriculture, business on the Rio Sonora still has a marvelous informal and casual atmosphere about it.  Our discussions took place outside in the shade of a large Mesquite tree with a serving of squash empanadas and Rio Sonora coffee.  And of course, punctuated with a chattering of children’s voices and their laughter.

Franciso's brother and nieces.

An hour down the river, passing the towns of Arizpe and Sinoquipe, we pulled into Banamichi and La Posada del Rio Sonora, owned by friends Darrin and Cheri Jones.  //www.facebook.com/pages/La-Posada-del-Rio-Sonora/310626398963347 

Having brought with us several garlic bulbs from Antonio and Francisco’s fields, Patti, the hotel cook, prepared for us the traditional Rio Sonora garlic soup, which you can prepare as follows:

Caldito de Ajo

1 quart of water

16 cloves of garlic – finely chopped

2 tsp of Mexican oregano

8 – 16 chiltepines crushed (according to taste)

Salt as desired

Saute the garlic in a little oil until tender, then add the chiltepines and cooking cooking for another minute or so.  Avoid burning the garlic.  Add the water followed by the oregano and allow to simmer for a few minutes.  Lastly, the salt to taste.

While Philip and Miguel made an early trip to the Agua Caliente hot springs just outside the town of Aconchi, Kalin and I wandered around town saying hello to a handful of people and looking for anything interesting to photograph.  Here’s a couple or the morning images.

Window in old adobe building, Banamichi, Sonora.

Parking lot, San Judas store, Banamichi, Sonora.

To conclude our trip, we spent the afternoon with Chay Maldonado and his wife Armida, in the town of La Estancia.  Philip had been wanting to expand his Sonoran offerings to include the wild chiles known as “chiltepines.”  Chay, in addition to farming, has several ranches located at slightly higher altitudes where the chiltepin is commonly found.  Needless to say, organic certification shouldn’t be an issue.

Miguel Davila, Philip Ostrom, Chay Maldonado discussing chile seeds.

A given when visiting the Maldonado household is that one is certain to be fed something exquisite and representative of the traditional Rio Sonora foods.  In addition to running a cake business from the front of her house, she is a fabulous cook.  During the last year we have been helping her edit, layout and translate an English/Spanish edition of a cookbook she wrote on the traditional foods of the Rio Sonora Valley.  Hopefully, it is something we’ll finish in the near future.

Armida Maldonado in her kitchen.

As our discussions continued into the afternoon, Philip decided to venture into an organic green chile partnership with Chay, assuming that his fields will be certified for organic production.

Rio Sonora fields, Chay Maldonado's heirloom Sonoran wheat on the left and Antonio Madero's garlic on the right.

With all the activity centering around chile and since we were in the town of Estancia, there was only one way to conclude our day in the Valley and that was at the home/workshop of Gabriel Enriquez, who is known through much of Mexico, for his chile and “pinole” products, La Reina de las Flores, that include everything from dried and roasted chile powder to chile ristras or sartas on the Rio Sonora (strands), a chile/salt mixture for fruit and beer (Ta-Ingonn), pinole (roasted ground corn powder with cinnamon and sugar).   Enrique is what you’d call “almost over the top” jovial, energetic and in love with what he does.  Not quite ready for organic, he gave us about 20 reasons why it was too difficult, but he was more than ready to work with Philip and turn some of the chiles that Chay was growing and turn them into “ristras” for sale in the States.  One more link in the chain of connections north and south of the border.

Gabriel Enriquez with his chiles.

Hospitality is pretty much a given regardless of who you are visiting along the Rio Sonora, depending upon the time of day and that can be anything from coffee to a full blown meal, sweets, beer or the region’s mescal Bacanora.  In this case, it was a sampling of all his products with the added enjoyment of walking through Enrique’s backyard orchard, a common feature in many Rio Sonora households.  There was just about every kind of fruit tree that grows in the area, a Mulberry with a full load of fruit, all types of citrus, bananas, a mango tree, pomegranate, a large prickley pear cactus for the pads and fruit and a columnar cactus- fruit producing as well.

Backyard orchard at home of Gabriel Enriquez

With no time left, we had more than maxed out our two-day time slot and by late afternoon it was time to head home.  Traveling with Philip in Mexico, one is almost guaranteed some sort of added adventure.  We closed out our trip with Philip’s gas gauge on his relatively new Dodge truck malfunctioning.  That is to say that it registered ¼ full when it was actually empty.  And of course, this happened on a relatively remote section of the Rio Sonora highway as daylight was winding down and if you know that road, there is little to no traffic.  And of course  (once again}, in the remote areas between towns, there is little to no cell phone reception.  But miracles do happen and I’ve come to think, that even more frequently when you choose to believe in them.  We weren’t there more than 5 minutes before the white Suburban of Francisco Madero, whom we had been with the day before doing garlic business, pulled up with his father Antonio and mother on their way to the Moctezuma valley.  They drove Miguel to the town of Bacoachi to pick up 10 gallons of diesel, thank God the new diesels self prime and within a few minutes we were on our way.  Safely home by 10 pm.

Refueling the Patagonia Orchard's Dodge pickup.

All the above photos taken with the iPhone, write or call me if you are interested in a course next fall.


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