Canned Cacti.

Position:Brief Article

A Mexican town pins its future prosperity on nopal, ancestral food once derided as cattle feed.

MARCOS ROSAS ABAD HAS A SIMPLE QUESTION: WHY, IN THE age of the North American Free Trade Agreement, should small farmers like him limit themselves to Mexico's modest domestic market? After all, exports lead to prosperity.

Rosas Abad thinks he might have the right crop: the nopal, an edible cactus that traces its roots back to pre-Columbian times and to Milpa Alta, this quaint district of rural hamlets that is actually part of Mexico City.

The fleshy cactus leaves were once derided as cattle feed. But today, it's popular all over Mexico. Now some would-be exporters claim it's catching on with Mexican-food aficionados in the United States and health food junkies in North America and Europe--and are doing everything they can to supply them.

"We need new markets," says Rosas Abad. "We need to find a way to improve our production and export the nopal, because people would like it if they tried it."

Prickly export. Help is on the way. Budding entrepreneurs are trying to add the nopal to the long list of Mexican folk products such as tequila, tortillas and salsa that have found favor abroad. Their goal is to transform the cactus leaf industry from an agricultural backwater into another Mexican export success story.

"There's definitely a market abroad for the nopal, I can see it," says Ismael Rivera Crux, director of Nopal del Carmen, a small company in Milpa Alta that exports a portion of its canned cactus leaves to Germany, Holland, Belgium and Spain. "We need to work a little harder and we need some more financing."

Its name means "high cornfield" in Mexican Spanish, but Milpa Alta has become the nopal capital of the world, producing 280,000 metric tons last year worth some US$63 million, according to the Agriculture Ministry. The town of 90,000--really a collection of 12 separate villages--is a borough of Mexico City and just an hour from downtown.

But you'd never guess how close the town lies to the world's most populous city. Earthen hills separate Milpa Alta from the rest of the capital, keeping the great metropolis out of sight and out of mind. A single winding road snakes through rolling countryside and nopal fields, connecting villages where cobblestone streets and colonial churches have retained their timeless rural tranquility.

Cactus leaves are the town's main business year round, accounting for 60% of the local economy. And no place in...

To continue reading