August 19, 2016
There’s plenty to admire about a groundbreaking businesswoman who runs a 20-acre farm, grows some of the region’s finest produce, and owns the distinguished title of Entrepreneur of the Year in Baja California Sur.
Yet as Elizabeth Ibarra greets us at her Fresh Bounty organic farm in Pescadero, what’s most impressive of all is her genuine passion for life. She’s visibly excited about everything we talk about—farming, community, or even just “being happy”, as she calls it—and it’s clearly the driving force behind a fruitful 20-year career spanning all across the Baja, from Ciudad Constitución to Ensenada to Todos Santos.
2016 marks another exciting milestone in that rapid ascent, as Elizabeth takes the reigns of a 1.5-acre organic garden for the up-and-coming Town Farm restaurant at Tres Santos. That’s what we’re here to talk about, plus her farming background, organic farming tips, thoughts on the restaurant, and much more.
Here’s what she has to say.
How did you get your start in farming?
I grew up in a family with no connection to farming, so it wasn’t until after high school that I first experienced it—when I found at a job at a local corn farm in Ciudad Constitución. I took one look at the cornfields and quickly fell in love with agriculture. Being from a desert climate, the color green just seemed so beautiful to me. Even today, I am still so impressed by the soil’s ability to produce food.
What brought you to Todos Santos?
I came to Todos Santos in 1993 to work with a small farming company at a place called La Pastora. I worked there for a few years before moving to a bigger farm up in Ensenada. Once I was ready to start my own farm in 1999, I came back to Todos Santos and started exporting my produce to the United States.
What’s unique about farming in this part of the Baja?
What I like about Todos Santos is that the climate here supports a huge variety of plants and vegetables, for at least 6 to 8 months out of the year. We have more stable weather compared to the rest of the Baja—not too windy or extreme—and that’s very good for greens, eggplants, tomatoes, or chili peppers. Because this land used to be ocean floor, the soil is not as naturally fertile here as, say, Chile, but we can still build a very healthy, suitable soil over time.
What crops are most suitable in this region?
Basil, chili peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. I grow a lot of strawberries but they are actually very difficult to produce here. We have about 2-3 months every year where they grow well, then 3-4 months where it’s a daily challenge to keep them growing.
What’s your draw to organic farming?
The soil we farm on is like a stomach—you need to keep it healthy in order to grow healthy plants. Organic farming keeps your soil full of natural nutrients, which then allows you to grow healthy produce with better flavor. It also makes the plants more resistant to diseases and pests.
Let’s talk more about that last part. How does organic farming keep plants more resistant to pests?
My problem with chemical farming is you use too much Nitrogen. Nitrogen elongates the internal organs of the plants and makes them thin and weak—not a thick wall like organic plants—and therefore more vulnerable to pests. Pests love the nitrogen because it makes the plants weak and then they can attack. Think of it as an immune system in a human.
But you still need to use alternate methods to keep your organic produce protected, right?
Yes, the best way we do that is by introducing beneficial insects. With strawberries, for example, we use persimilis—the enemy of spider mite, which suck the salvia leaves off the strawberries.
Planting flowers is a great way to attract beneficial insects, for example yellow or white Agaru flowers. I also like the Calendula and Chrysanthemum flower, which also have natural insecticide properties to keep the bugs away.
Any other techniques you use?
We also use friendly flora. Pests are more attracted to leaves than the fruit itself, but if they don’t have anywhere else to go they will go for the crops. That’s why we add distracting crops, which pull insects away from your produce while also attracting more beneficial insects like bees.
What about spices?
Yes, spices are also great for organic farming. One I use a lot is dill, which is perfect when growing arugula. Aphid insects are attracted to arugula and they hate the smell of dill. Garlic and chai are also great, as well as cinnamon extract, pepper extract, and rosemary.
What’s your vision for the Town Farm at Tres Santos?
My goal with the farm is to make the most efficient little farm in this town, per square meter. To do so we need to save water, maintain high productivity, and learn how each plant adapts to each other. I’m also very excited to be providing ingredients for the Town Farm restaurant, plus creating a beautiful farm with seasonal produce for the Todos Santos community.
How is it going so far?
At first the soil wasn’t very suitable for farming—very rocky—so it’s taken 6-8 months to prepare the soil and let the earth adjust to a farming environment. Now that we have fertile soil, things are going very well and we already have lots of produce growing, including basil that’s attracting a lot of bees. One of the exciting tasks now is to figure out how to organize each plant so they will grow the best. We’re growing beans beside squash, for example. The beans produce nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which are a perfect fertilizer for squash.
What are your thoughts on the Town Farm restaurant?
I’m very excited about the restaurant and for the opportunity to showcase the amazing ingredients here in Todos Santos. I love cooking myself so I will be working closely with the restaurant to produce the best ingredients and help curate the menu.
Finally, what’s your favorite authentic Mexican meal?
I love enchiladas, but not just any enchiladas. I love to combine different types of chili peppers—Mexico has over 100 types—with lots of spices and melted agave. It also needs to be served with real homemade tortillas, made with with real corn—red, black, and purple all mixed into one. Your stomach will thank you.