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FEATURE

Mestiza de Indias

Regenerating the Yucatán

Mestiza de Indias is a tropical regenerative agriculture project that sets out to recover heirloom species while aiming to combat the harmful effects of Mexico’s agrochemical industry. The farm is part of a growing movement turning to ancient cultivation methods and equitable labor practices to restore the earth and provide sustenance to locals.

  • Writer Susannah Rigg
  • Photography The Polf

Mestiza de Indias is a tropical regenerative agriculture project that sets out to recover heirloom species while aiming to combat the harmful effects of Mexico’s agrochemical industry. The farm is part of a growing movement turning to ancient cultivation methods and equitable labor practices to restore the earth and provide sustenance to locals.

  • Writer Susannah Rigg
  • Photography The Polf

SLIGHTLY MORE THAN 66 MILLION YEARS AGO a meteorite plunged towards Earth and struck ground just at the edge of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, causing a ricochet of destruction across the globe that is widely considered to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This catastrophic event is evidenced in the many sinkholes, or cenotes, found beneath the ground in vast areas of the Yucatán. These majestic cenotes were deeply spiritual places for the ancient Maya, who believed them to be entrances to the underworld, but they drained water and nutrients from the earth, making agriculture problematic. In order to get the most out of the soil, the Maya used a “milpa” system, which involves the rotation of crops, each feeding nutrients into the soil for the crop to follow. The land was periodically rested to allow it to regenerate, a practice that required patience and lots of space.

Over the past decades, as populations and food demands have risen and climate change has made the growing season less predictable, these traditional systems have fallen to the wayside, replaced by the socially and environmentally destructive methods of the industrial agriculture sector. The introduction of agrochemicals and genetically modified organisms mean that farmers have to pay for new seeds (as the GMO seeds do not replant well) and sell their produce to large agribusiness companies who buy it at low prices to sell at a profit. This top-down system means that farmers often are left with little money to feed their own families—let alone to feed them with the healthy produce for which the region is known.

But now a growing regenerative agriculture movement across the region is aiming to combat some of these issues, bringing back sustainable farming methods and providing nutritious sustenance to local communities. “The biggest problem was a dietary one,” said Gonzalo Samaranch Granados, a former journalist who in 2015 co-founded Meztiza de Indias, a 200-acre farm in Valladolid that aims to counteract the harmful effects of Mexico’s agrochemical industry.

When Samaranch arrived in the Yucatán, he noticed both a problem and an opportunity. He described being shocked at how little access to good food there was in the village of San Pedro Chenchelá, where he bought land for the farm on the site of an ex-hacienda. There was potential, however, in the community’s vicinity to some of the top vacation destinations in the Americas. So, “we created a farm where we supply the best hotels in the Riviera Maya and our community eats the same [organic produce],” he explained.

He set out to learn from those who knew the land intimately, bringing locals with deep agricultural knowledge onboard and traveling around the region. He studied Maya techniques for working with the agricultural challenges. He struggled to understand why his community had such little access to healthy food “when the Maya and the Aztec created the most innovative food production systems in the world.” In addition to milpa, Samaranch studied the Aztec system of chinampa, in which fertile banks were built on the lakes in order to cultivate food crops, and an ancient technique to improve water retention in the porous earth of the Yucatán where “layers of charcoal [are placed] underneath the crops and function like a sponge,” to keep the water in the soil.

Gonzalo Samaranch Granados, founder of Mestiza de Indias

Incredibly, Mestiza de Indias hasn’t cut down even one tree to make space for the farm, and 80 percent of the land remains thick jungle. Across the remaining 20 percent, the 10-strong team (which usually ends up being closer to 50, as children and other family members of the workers get involved) works to cultivate a rich variety of fruits, including seven types of banana, with one that tastes similar to green apples, and caimitos. The latter is a purple fruit endemic to the region that grows to about the size of an orange and is sweet in taste and viscous in texture.

Samaranch explains that they are also working to “recover [fruit and vegetable] species that are in danger of extinction,” finding them in Yucatec communities and bringing seeds to the farm to plant. They also work with seed banks in the US, allowing them to introdcue Mexican tomato species that were hard to find, or had died out, back to the area. “Many people don’t know, firstly, that tomatoes are originally from Mexico” Samaranch explained, “but also that over 800 varieties of tomato exist.”

Gonzalo Samaranch Granados

“The majority of illnesses suffered by the Maya communities are linked to poor diet, despite the fact that the Maya and the Aztec created the most innovative food production systems in the world.”

The farm, which rings with the buzz of bees who flock to pollinate the flowers and is rich with the smell of damp earth after recent rains, grows ancestral varieties of corn (including one that is a deep red color) and heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of hues. They also experiment with international crops like an African variety of cucumber and winged beans from India. All of the crops are heirloom, producing seeds that can be replanted, unlike many GMO crops, which cuts out the middleman and puts the power back into the hands of the farmers.

Mestiza de Indias also cuts out intermediaries by working in direct collaboration with chefs, like Edo Fiaschi of Tulum Treehouse, a hybrid guesthouse located about an hour and a half from Mestiza de Indias. Fiaschi worked with Mestiza in 2020 to plan menus in advance, creating a ‘sow on demand’ system that reimagines the supply chain and minimizes waste.

Oaxaca red maíz tostada topped with smoked eggplant and ibes, a Mayan legume. The ibes grown at Mestiza de Indias is an heirloom variety that can be found fresh only two months a year.
Edo Fiaschi's culinary philosophy comprises profound respect for season, landscape and local culture, as well as a passion for fermentation and other forms of food preservation.
Rotating, seasonal dishes are cooked over an open fire fueled exclusively by wood.
Corn, the heart and soul of Mexican food culture, is finely ground with a stone mill and prepared using techniques going back to pre-Hispanic times.
The heirloom crops supplied by Mestiza de Indias present opportunities for unexpected culinary explorations.
Tulum Treehouse also hosts workshops, culinary pop-ups and collaborations exploring nutrition, local traditions and the future of food culture.
Two fundamental crops of the Yucatán Peninsula, coffee and cacao, play an essential role in the Kitchen.
Herbs and legumes from the fertile gardens of Mestiza de Indias.
The Kitchen at Tulum Treehouse revels in the natural bounty of Mexico and the diversity of its regional cuisine.
The Oaxaca red maíz tostada with smoked eggplant and ibes is finished with golden pea shoots and epazote oil.
Oaxaca red maíz tostada topped with smoked eggplant and ibes, a Mayan legume. The ibes grown at Mestiza de Indias is an heirloom variety that can be found fresh only two months a year.
Edo Fiaschi's culinary philosophy comprises profound respect for season, landscape and local culture, as well as a passion for fermentation and other forms of food preservation.
Rotating, seasonal dishes are cooked over an open fire fueled exclusively by wood.
Corn, the heart and soul of Mexican food culture, is finely ground with a stone mill and prepared using techniques going back to pre-Hispanic times.
The heirloom crops supplied by Mestiza de Indias present opportunities for unexpected culinary explorations.
Tulum Treehouse also hosts workshops, culinary pop-ups and collaborations exploring nutrition, local traditions and the future of food culture.
Two fundamental crops of the Yucatán Peninsula, coffee and cacao, play an essential role in the Kitchen.
Herbs and legumes from the fertile gardens of Mestiza de Indias.
The Kitchen at Tulum Treehouse revels in the natural bounty of Mexico and the diversity of its regional cuisine.
The Oaxaca red maíz tostada with smoked eggplant and ibes is finished with golden pea shoots and epazote oil.
Edoardo Fiaschi

“You have to respect corn dough [masa]. It is the soul of this country and you will see that nobody in Mexico, nobody, no family will throw masa away.”

A Florentine chef who spent four years working at Noma, Fiaschi describes his food as simple, preferring to use only three or four ingredients per dish. Imagine flame-cooked prawns from Baja California with a fermented starfruit salsa and habanero. This kind of cooking requires the kind of great flavorsome produce that small farms like Mestiza de Indias can provide.

While Fiaschi might claim these dishes are simple, they are made with high levels of creativity and innovation; it is not for nothing that the kitchen at Tulum Treehouse is described as a laboratory. Like Mestiza, Fiasci draws inspiration from pre-Hispanic techniques, most noticeably in his use of fermentation, something that can be seen widely in Mexico (think chocolate and many fermented corn dishes and drinks). Fiaschi makes a miso from corn dough using the masa left over from preparing tortillas. The corn-based miso is not only delicious but also ensures that nothing in the kitchen is thrown away.

Working with small producers, said Fiaschi, is “the only way to work in hospitality moving forward.” While it has its challenges for chefs used to knowing what staple produce is arriving every morning, working with small farms like Mestiza, he said, is “more fun and it keeps me more active.” Beyond food, said Fiaschi, this type of collaboration is about “respect for the land and for those who cultivate it.”

This respect is key for Samaranch too. The fact that Mestiza de Indias lies on a former hacienda—land that was very literally lorded over by the Spanish in a slave-and-master system—does not escape him. “We want to change the karma,” said Samaranch, “which is about doing everything the opposite [to how it was done before].” The haciendas functioned “with a colonial system of people from elsewhere coming in and enforcing their way of life and enforcing a pyramid system.” He explains that at Mestiza de Indias, “there is no hierarchy. Here everyone’s role in the project is equally important.”

Women and men are paid the same and in order to pay dignified salaries and take care of any medical bills that the team or their family members might have, “we remove the intermediaries and work directly with those who use our products,” explained Samaranch. “This allows us to have a much bigger margin.” Unlike the system that puts farmers at the mercy of large agribusiness companies, in this horizontal model, everyone benefits.

The change in the lives of local families is embodied by Don Domingo, a 60-year-old local man who had been unemployed and struggling with alcoholism when Samaranch hired him and is now “the pillar of the project.” Domingo’s family was the first in the community to build their own house. Restoring a sense of pride to this local man for his indispensable agricultural knowledge is just as important to the mission of Mestiza de Indias as the food the farm produces.

Working closely with the cycles of nature certainly has its challenges. This year saw the pandemic hit as well as hurricanes and tropical storms. But luckily, with the help of households in Tulum and Merida and other nearby towns, the farm was able to sell fresh food baskets to individuals while hotels were shut or on lower capacity. The farm has been incredibly self-sufficient since day one. Samaranch arrived “with money to buy the land, pay a little towards the infrastructure and cover one month of wages. Everything we have made since then is from sales.”

And the future looks bright for the farm, with a plan to add an agrotourism project, allowing visitors to meet the farmers, eat at the farm and learn about the holistic approach, seeing first-hand how their choices can make an impact. “Small farms are the future…and we need to raise awareness of this,” said Samaranch, who feels certain that he has found his place in the world. “Working on the farm is like a little mantra,” said Samaranch. “It is meditative. Realizing that you are part of something bigger than you and having respect for that, it gives you inner peace.”

Mestiza de Indias hasn’t cut down even one tree to make space for the farm, and 80 percent of the land remains thick jungle.
Across the remaining 20 percent, the 10-strong team (that usually ends up being closer to 50, as the children and other family members of the workers from the village get involved) works to cultivate a rich variety of fruits and vegetables.
In order to get the most out of the soil, the Maya used a "milpa" system, which involves the rotation of crops, each feeding nutrients into the soil for the crop to follow.
Mestiza de Indias is also working to “recover [fruit and vegetable] species that are in danger of extinction,” locating them in Yucatec communities and bringing seeds to the farm to plant.
The introduction of agrochemicals and genetically modified organisms mean that farmers have to pay for new seeds (as the GMO seeds do not replant well) and sell to large agribusiness companies who buy their produce at low prices to sell at a profit.
This top-down system means that often farmers are left with little money to feed their own families—let alone to feed them with the healthy produce for which the region is known.
“The majority of illnesses suffered by the Maya communities are linked to poor diet, despite the fact that the Maya and the Aztec created the most innovative food production systems in the world,” said Gonzalo Samaranch Granados, a former journalist who in 2015 co-founded Meztiza de Indias.
The farm, which rings with the buzz of bees who flock to pollinate the flowers and is rich with the smell of damp earth after recent rains, grows ancestral varieties of corn (including one that is a deep red color) and heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of hues.
They also experiment with international crops like an African variety of cucumber and winged beans from India.
The farm works with seed banks in the US, allowing them to introduce Mexican tomato species that were hard to find, or had died out, back to the area.
“Many people don’t know, firstly, that tomatoes are originally from Mexico” Samaranch explained, “but also that over 800 varieties of tomato exist.”
All of the crops are heirloom, producing seeds that can be replanted, unlike many GMO crops, which cuts out the middleman and puts the power back into the hands of the farmers.
The future looks bright for the farm, with a plan to add an agrotourism project, allowing visitors to meet the farmers, eat at the farm and learn about the holistic approach, seeing first-hand how their choices can make an impact.
Mestiza de Indias hasn’t cut down even one tree to make space for the farm, and 80 percent of the land remains thick jungle.
Across the remaining 20 percent, the 10-strong team (that usually ends up being closer to 50, as the children and other family members of the workers from the village get involved) works to cultivate a rich variety of fruits and vegetables.
In order to get the most out of the soil, the Maya used a "milpa" system, which involves the rotation of crops, each feeding nutrients into the soil for the crop to follow.
Mestiza de Indias is also working to “recover [fruit and vegetable] species that are in danger of extinction,” locating them in Yucatec communities and bringing seeds to the farm to plant.
The introduction of agrochemicals and genetically modified organisms mean that farmers have to pay for new seeds (as the GMO seeds do not replant well) and sell to large agribusiness companies who buy their produce at low prices to sell at a profit.
This top-down system means that often farmers are left with little money to feed their own families—let alone to feed them with the healthy produce for which the region is known.
“The majority of illnesses suffered by the Maya communities are linked to poor diet, despite the fact that the Maya and the Aztec created the most innovative food production systems in the world,” said Gonzalo Samaranch Granados, a former journalist who in 2015 co-founded Meztiza de Indias.
The farm, which rings with the buzz of bees who flock to pollinate the flowers and is rich with the smell of damp earth after recent rains, grows ancestral varieties of corn (including one that is a deep red color) and heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of hues.
They also experiment with international crops like an African variety of cucumber and winged beans from India.
The farm works with seed banks in the US, allowing them to introduce Mexican tomato species that were hard to find, or had died out, back to the area.
“Many people don’t know, firstly, that tomatoes are originally from Mexico” Samaranch explained, “but also that over 800 varieties of tomato exist.”
All of the crops are heirloom, producing seeds that can be replanted, unlike many GMO crops, which cuts out the middleman and puts the power back into the hands of the farmers.
The future looks bright for the farm, with a plan to add an agrotourism project, allowing visitors to meet the farmers, eat at the farm and learn about the holistic approach, seeing first-hand how their choices can make an impact.

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