Meet the Nonprofit Reviving Ancient, Nearly-Extinct Farming Traditions in Mexico City

For all the spoils modern society has afforded us, it’s wreaked havoc on our planet, and our food system is no exception. Global climate challenges, modernization, and politics all play a huge role in what — and how — we eat. Which is why a nonprofit called Yolcan, which translates to “land of origin” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, is such a special place.

Based in Mexico City, Yolcan’s goal is to connect chinampas — or traditional floating farms — with responsible consumers, academics, and the best chefs in Mexico City, hopefully preserving their ancient farming techniques for generations to come.

They do so through hosting educational tours and multi-course meals at the Chinampa Del Sol in Xocimilco; providing sustainably grown produce to well-known CDMX restaurants like Pujol, Contramar, and Masala y Mais; and selling CSA produce baskets to chilangos.

Arriving at Chinampa Del Sol in complete wonder / Photo by Danny Simmons

Arriving at Chinampa Del Sol in complete wonder / Photo by Danny Simmons

Dire challenges are facing the chinampas of Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site first created by the Aztecs nearly 1,000 years ago.

First off, Mexico City was built on a lake, which means the location itself, like the rest of the city of over 21 million people, is physically sinking. (According to the New York Times, Xoximilco could possibly be underwater as soon as 10-15 years from now.)

Then there’s the modernization factor. While there’s been an increased engagement with the farm-to-table movement worldwide, there’s a real lack of interest in continuing to work farmland from a younger generation. Nowadays, farming is far from the most lucrative business, especially when it comes to small-scale farms competing with the ag giants. So as the farmers have moved out of Xochimilco, a variety of other developments have moved in, including soccer fields and squatters’ housing.

And of course there’s the water shortage that’s plagued CDMX, leading to the canals being drained for water resources throughout its history. (During our trip, the water for the entire city was shot off for three days.) And that’s not to mention the pollution of the canals, which in an obvious problem for anyone living off the land.

A trajinera boat floats along the Xocimilco canals / Photo by Krista Simmons

A trajinera boat floats along the Xocimilco canals / Photo by Krista Simmons

But visiting the Yolcan project at the floating farm known as Chinampa del Sol, there’s a real sense of hope of holding onto a pre-Hispanic past while melding it with modern sustainable farming techniques of the future.

It’s almost like you’re arriving in Eden as the technicolored trajineras — vibrantly painted gondolas iconic to Xochimilco’s system of waterways — glide across glassy waters and slide into the dock. As you pull up, herons, lilies, and a forest of Tuscan kale are there to greet you. There’s a real serenity and spirituality about the place that’s impossible to put into words.

After a guided tour explaining some of the chinampa’s unique farming methods, Yul Suarez, one of Yolcan’s skillful chefs, prepared an incredible tasting menu using nothing more than live fire and resourceful technique. We enjoyed three courses seated under the palapa-style farm house that included tamales, tostadas, and pastries all made utilizing the bounty of the farm. Having worked on sustainable farms throughout my 20s, I can tell you: there’s nothing quite like enjoying a meal at the source. It’s a visceral connection to what you’re eating that seems to tap into a past where this was a part of daily life. And aside from the woo-woo, just look at those tamales!

Tamales by Yul Suarez / Photo by Danny Simmons

Tamales by Yul Suarez / Photo by Danny Simmons

While Yolcan’s network is committed to the rescue of the Xochimilco chinampas, they’re also doing work with farms in the greater rural areas of Mexico at risk of losing their traditions like Huasca, Texcoco, and San Miguel Xicalco, who are also facing similar issues. The issues are far-reaching, but they’re far from being unsolvable.

And for the Mexican culture, which is so inextricably tied to the land and the bounty it produces, it’s a push that’s not just about food, but the preservation of the country’s rich history as a whole.

You can read more about the Yolcan project and book your experience here.