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Seeds of a dream yield holiday cheer

Some small farmers in Mexico are finding that Christmas trees provide a lucrative alternative to traditional crops.

December 22, 2007|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

SAN MIGUEL Y SANTO TOMAS AJUSCO, MEXICO — Hoofing up a steep slope he calls "the balcony of Mexico City," farmer Vicente Arenas Reyes pauses for a moment amid rows of manicured pines and firs. He inhales deeply.

"Rich, isn't it?" he says.

Indeed. And in more ways than one.

The delicious scent is the smell of money for Arenas, one of three dozen small farmers in this semi-rural region of Mexico's capital who have turned their modest plots into "cut-your-own" Christmas tree farms.

Mexicans will purchase an estimated 1.3 million fresh Christmas trees this year, according to the country's national forestry commission, known as Conafor. About 60% of them are projected to be imports from the U.S. and Canada. The rest are supplied domestically by growers such as Arenas who are finding arboles de Navidad to be a lucrative alternative to traditional crops.

The 64-year-old figures he'll sell about 200 trees at an average of $37 each this season from his 5-acre spread. That's a tidy sum in a community where many farmers barely scratch out a living planting corn and beans.

Nationwide, about 750 Mexican growers are cultivating about 3,000 acres of Christmas trees. The government is looking to boost those figures fourfold by the end of the decade by offering farmers seedlings and technical assistance.

The move is an effort to help small farmers find profitable niche markets in the face of unfettered agricultural trade with the United States. Under North American Free Trade Agreement rules, all remaining tariffs on corn and beans imported to Mexico will be lifted Jan. 1.

Farm products have been a constant source of trade friction between the neighbors since NAFTA was implemented in 1994. Mexican producers have complained bitterly about hefty U.S. subsidies for commodities, which they say make it impossible for them to compete. Mexico has shed nearly 30% of its farm employment since the agreement was implemented, helping to fuel illegal immigration to the United States.

The hope here is that Christmas trees and other specialty crops such as organic blue corn, sesame, coffee and cacao can help slow that northward flow.

"We're looking . . . to generate more rural employment and keep more people in these zones," said Alejandro Noguez, manager of commercial forest plantations for Conafor.

Officials are also looking to curb rampant deforestation, which is compounding Mexico's environmental woes. Planting trees not only reduces greenhouse gases and soil erosion but also helps protect against flooding and drought. Water scarcity is a major concern in the capital, which is rapidly exhausting the aquifers that supply its drinking water.

Economic and environmental concerns aside, Christmas tree farming is a fun business that has turned this southern stretch of Mexico City into a winter wonderland of sorts, despite afternoon temperatures in the mid-70s this time of year.

Like Americans and Canadians, millions of Mexicans have embraced the European tradition of putting a Christmas tree in their homes. Many buy artificial models from China. Others prefer the real thing. Some families like to cut their own from family farms like the ones dotting the community of San Miguel y Santo Tomas Ajusco.

City folks make a day of it. They drive to these hills about 22 miles south of the city center to sample tasty mutton barbecue or roasted rabbit from roadside stalls. They plop the kids on swaybacked mares for a little horseback riding. Then they clamber up the slopes in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

Marco Hernandez and his wife, Eva, arrived at Arenas' farm on a recent Sunday with their son Hector, a kinetic 7-year-old who could barely contain his excitement. Hernandez, a career military man, said the visit was one of the few chances the family had to escape the concrete jungle and breathe relatively fresh air.

Hernandez said that when he was growing up his family couldn't afford a Christmas tree every year. But he never forgot the aroma of fresh pine needles.

"That smell just fills the house," Hernandez said. "There's nothing like it."

Arenas cultivates Douglas firs, Mexican white pines and native oyameles or "sacred firs," which provide sanctuary to migrating monarch butterflies in some parts of the country.

He said he got the idea from years of working as a seasonal laborer planting trees for the government. A member of a farm collective known as an ejido, Arenas said he persuaded some neighbors to join him in an effort to boost incomes and give their exhausted plots a rest.

"Revolutionaries like [Emiliano] Zapata fought for this land," Arenas said. "We have to cherish it, protect it."

He planted his first seedlings in 1997. It took five years for the first crop to grow big enough to be harvested. But he has never looked back. Like some half-sized Santa Claus, the ebullient, energetic Arenas lives for December.

"Get up there! Find it!" he calls to the children tumbling out of vans and cars at his farm.

The yard in back of his neat brick house is marked with chalk lines denoting parking spaces. His wife, eight grown children, their spouses and his grandkids all pitch in selling quesadillas, cutting trees, hammering them onto wooden stands and strapping them to the tops of vehicles.

For every tree that is harvested, Arenas said, he plants two to replace it. He says that he never uses pesticides and that he prunes at least three times a year to keep his trees healthy and strong. Arenas says he often talks to his pines and firs.

"These are my friends," he said. "I take care of them, and they take care of me."

marla.dickerson@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Maria Antonieta Uribe contributed to this report.

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