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The Trouble with Tequila

There's a new study released by Sarah Bowen of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Ana Valenzuela Zapata of Mexico that says the tequila industry is ruining small farms.

I've seen several stories in the media reporting on this and I think many of them are missing a large piece of the puzzle.

Basically, the study asserts that because more tequila brands are taking control of the agave fields, the small agave farmers are suffering. They can't sell their agave to brands as much on the open markets, because the brands now own their own fields. Additionally, the commercial agave farming by the large brands is more pesticide intensive and harmful with water run-off and other typical commercial farming problems.

What is less discussed is that the reason these brands bought agave fields is because small agave farmer's crop quality and availability were too inconsistent. There was a great agave shortage in the 1990's the caused a huge impact on the industry. Some brands raised prices by a large amount to cover the increased cost of agave. Other brands traded down from being 100% agave tequila to mixto tequilas. I think that Herradura's El Jimador brand was in this category. It went from 100% to mixto back to 100%. How are they going to guarantee that it remains a 100% agave product? By buying fields.

But because of the shortage in the 1990's, all the small farmers planted agave instead of other crops. As the crop takes 6-10 years on average to harvest, there is now resulting glut in the agave market, and another expected shortage to begin in the next couple years.

You could understand why a tequila brand wouldn't want to buy agave on the open market when the market is like this. They can't guarantee consistency in their product unless they control the supply of the raw ingredient that can't be corrected in the short term.

Additionally, controlling your own ingredient means that you not only control the amount of it, but also the quality. And there is a definite cachet in having estate-grown agave.

 Last week at the launch of the Gran Centenario Rosangel tequila in New York, spirits supertaster Paul Pacult said, "The best tequilas that I know of come from estate-grown agave."

Another factor to keep in mind on this study is that co-author Ana Valenzuela Zapata is an advocate for increasing biodiversity in agave. In a book she co-authored with Gary Paul Nabhan called Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History, she discusses the fact that agave as it is currently grown is a genetically uniform monoculture that's propagated asexually, which makes it  especially susceptible to plagues of disease that could wipe out the entire industry (as only one strain of agave is allowed in tequila) like Phylloxera did to the European wine industry in the late 1800's.

This doesn't in any way disqualify the study's argument that small farms are suffering due to large tequila producers buying their own fields, and that industrial farming is worse for the environment. I just think that people should realize it's the inconsistency and often low-quality of small farm agave that caused the major producers to buy their own fields in the first place.