Adventure Travel Jobs in Mexico: Harvesting Agave

That sharp metal thing on the end…that can cut off your toes. So don’t use the coa like that

This was the loose translation from my Jimador (harvester) instructor as I recklessly swung the coa (harvesting tool) toward the blue agave plant. It would have been somewhat dangerous even with wearing normal, closed work boots, but some stupid git (moi) insisted on going full traditional while working in the agave fields. It would also have been less dangerous had I been gifted with any sort of hand-eye coordination genes (thanks mom and dad), but alas, such is the plight of the athletically challenged. Picked last in gym and lose toes in agave fields.

tequila harvester

The Jimadors stopped wearing the traditional outfits decades ago due to the fact that open toed sandals are surprisingly not the best protection when swinging a razor sharp blade, and thin, cheap cotton that rips after one work session is not the best long-term worker outfit. But that is the funny thing about tradition; people like to stay the course regardless of better options and the writing on the wall. But let me backtrack.

Blue agave plants, which can be seen through the countryside in Mexican state of Jalisco, give us the sweet nector of the Mexican gods, aka, tequila.

Typical Blue Agave field found throughout Jalisco

Tequila is actually the name of the town where the tequila originated. Nowadays, tequila can only be called tequila if made from “blue agave” plants and produced in Jalisco Mexico (and a couple other provinces where the big alcohol companies lobbied to get a sort of trademark right to call it tequila. Otherwise, non-blue agave plants produce the less popular but every bit as dangerously inebriating brother Mezcal – the one with the “worm” in it. The big hoopla is similar to the one surrounding champagne, which can only be called champagne if produced in Champagne France, otherwise it is called sparkling wine.

My day started with the usually confusion, quickly followed by apprehension, as I attempted to explain to the museum attendant my dilemma:

You see, I want to work in the agave fields to help harvest, and I want to wear the traditional clothes one would wear.

Puzzlement. First – at the notion of a gringo wanting to work in the scorching hot fields, second, why one would want to wear the traditional garb which people stopped wearing decades ago, and third, why someone obviously lacking any type physical labor abilities would subject themselves to such a cause. She was not the first to be at a loss for words at my requests. It took her a moment.

Oh. I see. Well yes we have some harvesting going on today in the fields.

She didn’t want to appear rude. It would be patently wrong for me to tell you that I just waltzed into the first tequila distillery and was able to find the traditional uniform. It was a long road to find anyone that even had the uniform, much less let a gringo go out into the field and haphazardly butcher their agave plants in the process. I am a walking liability. Nonetheless, you meet nice people on the road who for some reason (kindness, amusement, sadistic inclinations) will aid you on your quest at doing something incredibly stupid.

So just like that, I was out in the fields working at Fortaleza’s Tequila Distillery, wearing my stylish 19th century garb, and swinging the coa around like a drunken sailor. My Jimador comrade who instructed me in the fine art of agave harvesting, seemed amused and delighted at my decision to wear the dainty outfit (as did all of this associates in the field based on their laughing). Fortaleza tequila is not just any type of tequila, it has a special story behind it. It is owned by Guillermo Erickson Sauza, the grandson to the worldwide Sauza brand. But, it is no longer his brand. His grandfather sold the rights to the Sauza brand and his families likeness to Jim Beam brands, but Erickson, undeterred, rebirthed his families legacy and created Fortaleza, meaning “fortitude”, and began to rebuild what his grandfather had started.

In a typical day, a Jimador will start around 7am and be done harvesting by 1pm, due to fatigue and extreme, arid heat.

Notice the fine workmanship of pina versus my instructor’s pina

They can harvest around 80-100 agaves, which weigh between 40-70 pounds. I timed my comrade who could harvest an entire agave (hoisting the agave from the ground, cutting off its leaves with the coa, chopping it into two pieces) in just over a minute and a half. It only took me about 20 minutes to completely destroy harvest an agave. I did about 3 plants before I keeled over in exhaustion– but thank god it only takes 15 pounds of agave pina to produce one quart of tequila (120 pounds divided by 15—means…whooowaa ya). That is like 23 quarts or something, just enough for this afternoon.