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Pandemic triggers worldwide sale of tequila, profit for agave farmers?

The Zeferino González and Oscar González do not see that “tequila fever” reflected in their pockets due to the coronavirus

MEXICO.- It’s summer in El Arenal and Zeferino González knows that it is the hardest time for the cultivation of agave, the plant that after seven years of care after sowing will serve to make the tequila. In Jalisco It is now “The storm”, when it rains, time of abundance and betting, we must clean the grass, put fertilizer, insecticides, vitamins.

At the command of a group of workers, Zeferino is watching day and night that everything goes as it should because carelessness leads to pests and lack of quality of the agave Tequilana weber, blue variety, the only one allowed for the production of tequila according to the Official Mexican Standard.

In just over 10 hectares with 30,000 plants, Zeferino keeps alive the tradition of three generations of agave farmers that his grandfather began decades ago when he had a good eye to bet on a crop despite the fact that he was only a muleteer who took out the baskets with the stalks of other peasants.

Workers from El Arenal, Jalisco.

“I wasn’t good at studying and what was left for me was to continue doing what my father also did,” says Zeferino in an interview with this newspaper.

As a good market connoisseur, you know that it is a good time for tequila despite the COVID-19 pandemic. It was heard on the news since last July 24, when the International Tequila Day because in 2006 UNESCO rdiscovered that day that the agave landscape of Tequila, Jalisco, would be World Heritage.

It is known that this year sales will break records around the world in the entire production chain, from the furrows to the export companies, passing through the 700,000 families that make a living from this activity and they only have to make hypotheses.

“They drink to forget the confinement,” some say. “To rejoice in life amidst so much sadness”, say others.

In any case, Despite the crisis, the production of tequila in Mexico was 128 million liters in the first semester of this 2020, 4% more than the same period of 2019, with an increase of 3.6% in exports.

The increase in world tequila consumption is not something new. Production has grown at an average of between 5% and 7% annually for 15 years, with a record 330 million liters in 2019.

Of this total, the main buyer is U.S with more than 88% of sales since Mexico, followed with Germany, Spain, Canada, France, Australia, Kingdom United, Latvia, Japan and Italy. In recent times, Australia is growing significantly and currently has a demand of almost 2.5 million liters a year, according to data from the Ministry of Economy.

“The international fever” – as the Tequila Regulatory Council that encourages respect for the appellation of origin in the almost 70 countries where it is sold — contrasts with the drop in interest in Mexico where consumption is declining in competition with the beer that is ahead of it today: 52% of Mexicans they prefer it to 26% tequila.

But that is another matter.

Marginalized from the boom

The production and export chains have made trade go far beyond the national. Currently some farmers who only did rainfed crops such as corn and beans are mutating to blue agave in the municipalities that have the denomination of origin: all those of Jalisco and some of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Oscar Gonzalez, 29, a farmer from Ciudad Guzmán, Jalisco, says that he was focused on these traditional products until two years ago he attended an agricultural opportunities fair in Guadalajara and, between forum and forum, he was convinced of the benefits of agave.

That it does not need much water, that it grows better in hot land and that there is a shortage of the plant due to the voracious thirst for tequila in the world compared to the cultivation that needs patience: for a plant to reach the precise maturity that gives the delicacy seven years are required and, today, they are cutting it as soon as four years given the urgency.

This is my thing, he told himself.

He started planting two hectares to test but, seeing the quality, he set a goal for 2020: to plant between 300 and 400 hectares. The first year he fulfilled the plan to ask for the best and achieved almost half the challenge with 120 hectares as well as a first profit with the sale of suckers for reproduction.

He was rubbing his hands together to reach the rest of the plan when the pandemic and the seedlings went up in price in the greenhouses… twice! From 12 pesos that were worth a maximum they went to 22 pesos and that made the purchase impossible to transfer to the land. They told him that because of the freight, the transport, the booths, the pandemic …

He coronavirus It has been a perfect pretext to win in the troubled river of supply and demand for tequila, he explains. Oscar Gonzalez, in Ciudad Guzmán, and so it coincides Zeferino González in El Arenal.

“The price of the mezcal (pineapple) of the maguey was lowered for us, from 29 pesos that it was worth in January to 21 today despite the increase in demand,” laments Zeferino.

Some blue agave pineapples from the crops in El Arenal
Some blue agave pineapples from the crops in El Arenal

The “coyotes” or intermediaries between farmers and the distillers are doing their best these days because they know that the peasant needs money: in the rainy season you have to pay, clean and invest so that the blue agave develops in the healthiest way. “We accept it because we have no choice,” he warns.

On some occasions they have tried to sell directly to distillers and they have been very problematic because most – mainly the largest ones – prefer to buy large quantities as is the case with intermediaries. Another challenge is to give it the right process so that it meets the standards of the distiller.

“In the end it becomes so laborious that we prefer to give it to the coyote,” he concludes.

Even so, with the sale below last year, Zeferino González acknowledges that the 21 pesos per kilo is not bad. He remembers very hard times, when the pineapple was worth so little that they preferred that it go bad, that it rot, to cover the costs of harvesting.

“It was very difficult”, he recalls at 31 years old and convinced that agriculture is an activity high risk, ups and downs. “Now we are up.”

Whether or not he would like his children to dedicate themselves to it, he is not very clear. “Unless they don’t like studying like I do,” he says. “But let’s not get too far ahead, now I only have a three-month-old girl.”

The future

It has been difficult for the Tequila Regulatory Council to keep at bay all attempts to produce or sell drinks that seek to promote themselves as tequila, a drink that was born in times of the Spanish Colony, when the pre-Hispanic use of agave juices with the fermentation process implemented by the Spanish.

In recent days, he filed a complaint with the European Comission to the multinational Heineken brewery because it promotes a drink with “flavoring” 75% tequila, and the CRT wants it not to use its name as a commercial claim.

With similar demands, he has made a name for himself that defends a process from plantation to commercialization, but maintains the challenge of consuming more on his own land.

Jorge Retes, a bank executive, considers that he prefers beer for two reasons: he does not get drunk so easily and the cost in a bar is much cheaper. “With what I spend on a shot of tequila, I can have two beers and I can spend more time socializing.”

For farmers, the business is the same here or there, but they always aspire to a more equitable profit. “It would be a way to promote it: a product with social justice,” they say.