A traditional part of Mexico’s highly lucrative tequila industry is in danger of being lost. The jimadores – those who harvest the agave plants which provide the basis for tequila – are decreasing in number.
Mexico’s tequila industry is worth about $1 billion…and demand is growing. About three-quarters of what is produced is exported. Miguel Fonseca, who works for Patrón, said the company needs “about three and a half million agave plants each year to meet increasing demand.”
There is a craft to agave harvesting, which is done entirely by hand. The process has remained largely unchanged since around 1600, when the Spanish invented tequila. It’s a trade that has typically passed down in families. But in a changing culture and economy, young men are leaving agricultural life.
“Almost every man in my family has been a jimador, going back generations, it is a tradition,” says [Armando] Acevez. “As long as I can harvest I will keep being a jimador. But most of the jimadores now are old people because none of the young people want to work on the harvest. You find a few young jimadores but there are less and less. I do think we need to start worrying about the future of the traditions because I see the people who start in the harvest are much older than they used to be. I have a son who is 11 and I would not want him to be a jimador.”
The lack of new jimadores reflects a larger trend in Mexico: a decline in the number of agricultural workers. It’s estimated that Mexico lost about two million agricultural workers between 1995 and 2010. Wages have remained somewhat static.
Author Chantal Martineau says the loss of skilled labor is impacting the “craft of the industry.”
“There is this mystique around the jimadores; for centuries it has been seen as a very romantic job but the job is changing, becoming lost,” she said. “It used to be this very storied role, passed down from father to son. Now, the various tequila producers who I spoke to complained that the jima [the harvest] is not done as well as a few years ago because these jimadores are not being trained by their father, or uncle, and it is becoming more of a day labourer job.”