PHOTO ESSAY: The Last Floating Farms of Mexico City - Modern Farmer

PHOTO ESSAY: The Last Floating Farms of Mexico City

A collective of farmers is trying to revive chinampas, a 1,300-year-old method of farming.

A farmer harvests produce from chinampas in Xochimilco.
Photography by Leila Ashtari

Most visitors to Xochimilco, in the south of Mexico City, come to ride its canals, eat, drink and listen to floating mariachi bands. Few, however, realize that this reserve is the last example of an ancient way of farming on water called chinampas. It’s a method that is 1,300 years old and is disappearing due to cultural, economic and climatic threats.

When the Aztecs settled an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco (where Mexico City stands today), they built these floating gardens to feed their growing city of Tenochtitlan. The chinampas were an innovative solution given the lake-based location: They built artificial islands using wooden stakes and reeds in a grid pattern, accessed by canals, on the shallow lake bed. The method proved to be very efficient and fertile.

However, when the Spanish arrived and defeated the Aztecs, they drained the lakes and filled them in, destroying the chinampas. Only one lake remains from the original five and its canals mostly dried up in the 1950s, almost dooming the future of the chinamperos (the farmers who tend to these floating crops).

Of the remaining 2,200 hectares in Xochimilco, 60 percent are idle or abandoned and 17 percent have been illegally urbanized. Only about 80 families continue farming on chinampas. Yolcan, a project started in 2011 to revive and rejuvenate the chinampas, works with four families, focusing on organic agriculture and inventive techniques to deal with water pollution. They farm about eight hectares and what they cultivate supplies some of the city’s top restaurants. They also deliver more than 300 CSA baskets each week. The work has been slow and challenging, but Yolcan is proof that the chinampas can be revived—one study has shown that the whole of Mexico City could be fed if these floating farms were fully developed.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

Lucio Usobiaga (right), a Mexico City native, co-founded Yolcan with his old friend Antonio Murad after a business selling organic food didn’t work out. He studied philosophy, but he forewent a PhD to focus on Yolcan. He started by working with a family of chinamperos and went on to rent a chinampa to begin producing. He has had to educate himself in organic and permaculture farming techniques. Yolcan now also works with farmers in Hidalgo, Puebla and Texcoco to diversify what produce they can supply and provide more opportunities for farmers.


The canals of Xochimilco. Photo by Leila Ashtari

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

To germinate seeds, farmers dredge mud from the bottoms of canals—but only certain canals as the mud must have a specific texture. They pour it into a rectangular bed and let it dry for a day. Then they cut the mud into small squares and plant a seed in each one. The bed is covered for two to three weeks before the germinations are transplanted.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

The water in the canals of Xochimilco is very polluted with toxins and heavy metals. So farmers are experimenting with biofiltration. Small canals are sliced into the chinampas and various plants are cultivated in a procession. The water slowly moves from one section to the next as it is filtered, and after a few months, the clean water can be used to irrigate the crops.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

Javier Cruz (left) is originally from Puebla but now lives in Xochimilco. He started working with Yolcan six years ago, left for personal reasons, but recently rejoined the collective.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

Cruz offloads hoops to create a structure to cover the germination beds. Everything must be brought in by boat in the chinampas.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

With the ability to farm year round, Yolcan mostly focuses on growing leaves, roots and brassicas. Plants from the nightshade family are more difficult to grow here. Farmers also grow at least half a dozen different types of lettuce, kale, collards, broccoli and many other crops.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

Noé Coquis Salcedo comes from a family of chinamperos and he owns his own chinampa. Yolcan’s goal is for a square kilometer of chinampa to generate 20,000 ($1,025) pesos per month for farmers like him.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

One of the greatest challenges is fighting illegal construction of homes in the chinampas. Authorities haven’t shown any interest in stopping this invasion and more land is lost each year. A complicating factor is that many of the chinampas are abandoned and there is no record of who owns the land.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

Each day, Yolcan sends out a message to chefs with what produce is available. At that moment, chefs race to place their orders on a first-come, first-serve basis. And each day, the harvest is delivered to them. When Yolcan first started, Usobiaga had to cold-call on restaurants to find customers. He found early support from chefs such as Gabriela Cámara, of Contramar, and Jair Téllez, of Amaya.

Photo by Leila Ashtari.

As a way to connect people to the chinampas and teach them about where their food comes from, Yolcan hosts tours as well as monthly meals with guest chefs. In November, chef Joaquin Cardoso of Loup Bar served a menu that used carrots, lettuce, beets and talamayota squash from the chinampas.


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2 years ago

I’ve visited the area, fantastic place. Floated the main canal, drank pulque and ate. It makes me proud to See change at work! Inspire