For a factory it’s a simple affair: essentially a large palapa covering several rooms. Its appearance is deceptive, and the signage very low-key and unobtrusive. For inside this no-frills building and behind the unprepossessing façade is a group of determined women who devote themselves to the production of peanut butter, an organic product that needs nothing more than access to a larger market.
Las Productoras de El Tomatal Ecológicas, or roughly translated Ecological Producers of El Tomatal, began as a much larger group back in 1997 in the aftermath of Hurricane Paulina. As part of an emergency health plan set in motion after the hurricane struck, workshops on health and nutrition were offered in the community. Through the focus on health came the realization that perhaps there was more that could be done with the area’s peanut crop, whose growers were being hurt by low prices.
And so was born the cooperative that still operates today, when 10 women united to begin making peanut butter from peanuts grown without pesticides and fertilizers.
One of the factory’s founders was Bertha Luna, a frequent visitor to Puerto Escondido, now living in Torreón. She remembers that Rotary Clubs in Puerto and Canada and the International Friends of Puerto Escondido, then under the leadership of Vicki Cole, along with the organization Eco Solar, were instrumental in helping the factory begin production.
It was six years before Las Productoras were able to begin making peanut butter, but by this time they had machinery to shell the nuts and grind them. Over the ensuing years the sesame seed product tahini was added.
Today, the original group has shrunk to half a dozen, with only five actually working in the co-op. But that hasn’t affected production. The factory processed five metric tons (five and a half US tons) of peanuts last year.
Is there a limit to production capacity?
No,” replied manager Constanza Santos López without hesitation.
But they need to process a lot more to be profitable, says Luna. At present the factory’s products are available in some stores in Mexico City, Morelia and San Miguel de Allende. But a call to those stores in Puerto Escondido that used to carry the peanut butter revealed they were no longer selling it. The nearest outlet is the Super Japi on the highway near Rancho Neptuno.
But a drive to El Tomatal isn’t far, and a tour of the facility is interesting. Watch for the sign, “Fábrica de Crema de Cacahuate,” on the highway in the centre of the village. Take a right and drive down the dirt road until you reach the Agencia Municipal. The factory is on the left and is open from Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm.
In addition to the tahini and the peanut butter, which sells for $40 for a 260-gm jar, the store offers roasted peanuts by the bag and biscuits made from peanuts, walnuts and almonds. Not among the group’s products but sold in the store are pickled jalapeños, honey and a delicious jam made from jamaica. And with mango season arriving Las Productoras are planning on having a mango jam available for sale.
Bertha Luna thinks very highly of her former associates, whom she describes as “courageous women defying all kinds of adversity.” The latest bit of the latter is the failure of the sesame seed roaster. The women are now roasting the seeds by hand on a comal, which they will continue to do until they can come up with $80,000 MXN for a new one.
Meanwhile they need to sell a lot more peanut butter.
UPDATE April 2014: The peanut butter is available in Puerto Escondido at México L&Q.