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9/14/2011
Along the Sesame Trail
Along the Sesame Trail

José Artémio Alcaraz Carden stands on the platform of his old pickup truck wearing welly boots in temperatures just under 104°f. Using a pitchfork, he pokes rhythmically at what looks like brown brushwood at his feet, but it’s actually organic sesame plants that have been drying for three weeks. The seed pods split open easily in the midday heat; the seeds trickle onto the truck bed like sand. The sesame is opening.

Sesame has brought good fortune to 37-year-old Cardenas. He had tried to grow it years earlier but had given up because the prices fluctuated too much and he was unable to earn enough to support himself and his family — that is, until Sesajal came along. Sesajal is the sesame oil mill from which Weleda obtains its organic sesame seed oil. Sesajal guarantees the farmers fair prices and also helps them convert their fields from conventional to organic. Through the partnership, Weleda is able to further realize its mission of fair treatment for partners and suppliers, just as it has done for 90 years.

Sesajal is located in the Tomatlán region in the state of Jalisco, in Southwest Mexico. In this region, the land is dotted with deep green mango trees, pineapples grow in abundance and blue agave sprouts here and there. The heat is oppressive; it lies heavy on the land and seems to silence every sound.

Rows of small pyramids cover the fields like mysterious symbols: sesame set up to dry in what are known as monos. But sesame is not endemic to this area. African slaves brought it with them from their homeland, from where it had apparently spread as far as Babylon thousands of years before, making it one of the oldest oil-bearing plants in the world. Obtaining the best quality oil from the seeds all depends on one thing: the right moment.

“You need to choose the right time for sowing, as well as for harvesting,” says Cardenas. “We sow when the rainy season has started and it won’t dry out again. You need a bit of good luck.” And experience, like Cardenas has. Sesame is relatively undemanding and is content with the region’s sandy soil and little water. Under good conditions, the sesame plants, which have pale pink flowers reminiscent of foxglove, will grow tall within three months. When the plants shed their leaves, they are ready for cutting.

Through its partnership with Weleda, Sesajal guarantees Cardenas a minimum price for five years, and also pays him in advance so that he can pay his seasonal workers. Sesajal lends the farmers tractors for sowing and pays half a peso more per kilo for organic quality than conventional. One acre can produce more than 300 kilos (660 lbs.) of sesame. That amounts to 150 pesos extra per acre and 5,100 pesos for Cardenas’s 34 acres: roughly an extra $432 per harvest in a country where the minimum wage is around 55 pesos per day (about $5). “I’ll be sticking to growing organic sesame,” says Cardenas.

All in a Day’s Work

While Cardenas and the farmers around Tomatlán are busy with the harvest and their fields are covered with the stubble from cut plants, the field of another sesame farmer, Joel Rivera Chávez, is still green. His fields are located right beside the sea, a good hour’s drive further south near Chalacatepec, where the climate is even warmer. Apart from the murmur of the sea, the sharp ring of machetes is the only sound. Three men are cutting the green plants and stacking them into monos. They need two weeks to cut and stack 32 acres. Sesajal recently tested machines that would cut and bind the sesame. Carlos Vargas Rutter, a tall young doctor of food chemistry who works for Sesajal in Guadalajara, says the machines will be ready for the farmers in time for the next harvest.

For now though, everything is still being done using painstaking manual labor. Weeds, such as the tall quelite, have to be pulled out at regular intervals so they do not steal the sesame’s space and sun. Like Cardenas, Chávez’s hands are calloused from all the machete blows, and the spines of the little guisapole thistles leave bloodstained scratches on his skin. Instead of the maize he grew previously, Chávez grows organic sesame, which earns more: “I was not familiar with sesame, but Sesajal gave me support and advice from the start— when to sow, when to harvest, what to do about the ants.” Rutter advised him to use a traditional remedy, the round fruit of the cuastecomate tree. It’s filled with sugar water and placed in an ant hill, which keeps the uninvited guests away.

To be certified organic, the farmers’ fields must be cultivated for three years without fertilizers and pesticides, which most of the rural population in Tomatlán cannot afford to use anyway. As a result, many farmers were already growing organic quality, but since they were not certified, they were unable to sell their sesame as a valuable organic product. Sesajal’s Rutter and agricultural engineer Miguel Ángel, whose grandfather grows sesame, provide the farmers with advice during the changeover period to organic, and they visit the farmers regularly. Sesajal also helps the farmers cover the costs of the certification process.

One of the first farmers in the region to switch to organic sesame was Augustín Hernández Rodriguez, a 70-year-old with tousled grey hair and a prominent chin. Like many others, his decision was not based solely on economic incentive: “I had heard that all the chemicals are not good for your health,” says Rodriguez, who travels to his fields every day by bicycle or horse. He owns 14 acres of hilly land where he grows sesame and tamarinds. Because of the partnership with Sesajal, the farmers in the region no longer have to leave to look for work elsewhere, and the inequitable cayotes— the middlemen — are no longer part of the process.

A total of 183 farmers in the Tomatlán region currently benefit from the partnership with Sesajal, which guarantees them an economic prospect over a number of years, and not just from one harvest to the next as in the past. Organic sesame is grown on a total of 5,190 acres. The area will expand to 8,648 acres this year as more campesinos officially work as organic farmers.

The Journey to Germany

Back on Cardenas’s farm, he is busy cleaning the leaves, husks and dirt from the sesame seeds using rectangular wooden sieves that he has made himself, which two men need to hold and shake. They then flap away the fine husks with blankets so they do not collect on the growing pile lying on a tarpaulin, which would spoil the yield. The harvest from the previous day fills a total of 20 sacks that Cardenas ties up and will later take to the inspection point. From there, the load travels by truck to the oil mill in Guadalajara, where Sesajal performs the initial analysis to make sure it’s free of pesticides and then processes the seed into oil. The sesame oil is shipped to Germany in tank containers that hold 8,000 gallons. In Stuttgart, further analyses by the company Gustav Hess ensure high organic standards are maintained. Only after this does Weleda obtain the oil from Mexico. Eight weeks will have passed since Cardenas and the other farmers filled their sacks — each with 40 kilos (88 lbs.) and around a million seeds. A tiny sesame seed only weighs a fraction of a gram — but incomparably more for the organic farmers of Tomatlán. -Andrea Freund

What Makes Sesame So Special?

The nutritious, organic sesame seed oil Weleda uses is a true treasure chest of essential substances. In addition to vitamins E, B1, B2 and pro-vitamin A, there are unsaturated fatty acids and minerals such as iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and phosphorous. Experience the protective and nourishing effects of sesame oil in these Weleda products:

»Pomegranate Firming Day Cream Helps reduce the appearance of wrinkles, improves skin’s elasticity and is rich in antioxidants to protect from damaging environmental influences.

»Sea Buckthorn Body Oil Nourishes, replenishes and revitalizes your skin with essential fatty acids and vitamins A and E.

»Calendula Baby Cream Naturally protects, soothes and repairs a baby’s sensitive skin while helping prevent moisture loss.