There has been considerable press around young people leaving farm country for opportunities in big cities. This is the story of the opposite: a man who grew up surrounded by kids wanting to be astronauts, but who dreamed of working the soil and growing plants. This is Ross Vail, lifelong farmer. Some 30 years ago, he moved from the comforts of Santa Barbara, CA to start the first organic farm in the wilds of Baja, Mexico. Not exactly a safe move with predictable results, but a move that has worked out very well for him and the community. He became a collector of seeds, a native plant curator, and now a respected botanist. His farm now employs over 420 people, and has become a pillar of support for the households of many families in El Pescadero, made possible though a hardworking business exporting fruits and produce to the US.
Roots of Flor de Amor
How old are you?
I have been alive for 61 years.
Why did you start Flor de Amor?
We live in the Damiana zone — the plants are all around us. When I first came to Todos Santos 35 years ago to farm with the vision of exporting organic fruits and vegetables to the USA, there were essentially no available workers between the ages of 17 to 60
as they had all moved to cities to find work. I had crews of ranch-hardened 60- to 70-year-olds. Ageism wasn’t even a question. These ageless wonders brought their lunches, usually Burro burritos as there was a severe drought at the time and most of the cows perished, along with an herbal tea. Now, these guys had a lot of vigor and were always laughing and carrying on so I asked them what was in the tea and they answered Damiana, giggling along with gesticulating some particularly macho hand signals.
Later, I realized that in most households children were being served Damiana tea with glee. Damiana is revered here in the Baja for fertility enhancing, as an impotence cure, and in general as an elevating yet calming tonic.
We grow a line of fresh culinary organic herbs — basil, chives, mint, tarragon — for market in the US. About 5 years ago we purchased a still with the intention of producing essential oil from our excess production, and the light went off that we could make an essential oil from our favorite heart-centered herb. We then teamed up with a master herbalist & formulator bringing forward the plant for specific-use damiana products and Flor de Amor was born.
Dreams of Farming
How long have you been farming?
41 years, commercially.
What were you doing before you became a farmer?
When I was nine years old, my class went on a field trip to a farm and my ancient memory was switched on — all the other kids wanted to be doctors, astronauts and business people. I wanted to be a farmer, and wrote a picture book about my dream. The principal called my parents to tell them there was something wrong with me. This was the time when TV dinners were cool and most kids saw themselves as the Jetsons — not the Flintstones. I really have always been a farmer.
Baja Then and Now
Why are you in Baja?
I love living in nature, and integrating other cultures into mine, near the ocean with mostly warm water, good surf, good fishing, good hiking, land to farm and an artesian water source. My three children were born here. And my four grandchildren too!
That part of Baja has become more popular, but what was it like when you arrived?
1984…Whew, it was a whole different place. There were only four cars in our town; everybody walked and had time to talk to their neighbors; no locks on the doors. No telephones: had to drive to the next town and wait your turn and crank it up to make a call. Try running an export business like that!
No one spoke English. No farming supplies; we had to make our own and we cultivated with mules. The road to California was so bad that one out of every 20 trucks we sent
crashed. It goes on and on…
What’s it like being a farmer in Baja? What’s your day like?
At this point my day starts early with meditation, yoga, research and homestead chores, as I live off the grid. On the farm I am the coordinator, interacting daily with sales, logistics, packing, administration, agronomists, governmental agencies, suppliers and food safety, etc. I have two sons, Logan and Diego, who both actively work on the farm. We employ 450 people during the peak of the season. I visit the farms, checking the fields in production 3-4 times a week.
Where are you originally from?
Born in Southern California, moved to Santa Barbara to go to school when I was 17 and lived there till I was 26.
Recovering from Spinal Injury
I understand you hurt your neck and then you were able to have it healed. What is the story with that?
I had five lamina removed from my neck, C-2 to C-6, as they were crushing my spinal cord. Titanium rods were placed on sides of the vertebrae to connect them. In the process, my C-5, the peripheral nerves, were stretched and disconnected resulting in bilateral palsy and a complete paralysis of both my arms.
Super short version: after 7 months of therapy there was no improvement. I was told by the surgeon that there would be none. On the recommendation of a friend, I went to see a plant medicine shaman in Peru who used 14 different plants in order that I could allow my healing to begin and so it was! It was during this experience when it became clear to me that a mission in my life was to bring healing plants to the people who need them.
Emotionally Empowering Plant
What is Damiana?
Scientific name Turnera diffusa or aphrodisiaca Damiana. It is a small, 30cm-1m high, drought-deciduous plant of Lamiaceae family with wispy thin branches that grow when there is sufficient rain — from 30 to 50cm during a 3-month period. The plants really have an optimum 3 weeks for harvest. We hold a sustainable wild harvest permit for our area.
How would you like to see Damiana viewed as compared to CBD?
Great question. CBD is one molecule from the cannabis plant. Other molecules in the cannabis plant work synergistically with it in different proportions to have different, but sometimes overlapping, effects. Damiana has many individually potent molecules as well. Taken together as a whole plant I see it as the emotionally empowering plant. It gives you a big hug. Yes, it lights your fire sexually.
There is more and more research every day on Damiana. It is hypoglycemic and can be used to treat types of diabetes and has been shown to help repair kidneys damaged by diabetes, is cytotoxic to some strains of breast cancer, and can help with asthma.
What role do you see plant medicine having in the world?
Wow, the more knowledge we have of the plants around us will allow us to partner with them for physical, psychological and emotional healing. Also, the respect we have for the plants themselves helps the plants as everything wants to be seen and respected…So that respect protects and the whole planet is served.
Are there other plants out there we should know about?
Desert Lavender Hyptis is used by the indigenous tribes of the Sonoran Desert, is almost unknown today and is a potent healer of hard-to-cure maladies of the modern world.
What are your ambitions for Flor de Amor?
To bring hearts together and lessen the blocks around intimacy worldwide. Flor de Amor is a provocative botanical brand with a forward-thinking theme of connectedness. The internet has hindered human connection for many people, leading to addiction and lack of intimacy. My partner and I are both Kundalini yoga teachers and we have noticed this is becoming the malady of the times. Flor de Amor, with its heart-centered themes, supports connectivity. Our nectar is a sensual love potion supporting hormonal health, menopausal transitions, enhancing libido while nourishing and soothing intimate tissues, and a wildly effective dream and sleep aid.
I’m also passionate about Mexican cacao. I set out to make a high-quality ethically-sourced organic Damiana-infused frisky chocolate. It’s called Muah! Very romantic.
Nice beard, how long have you been growing it?
Since Hurricane Odile hit us with 140 mph winds for 8 hours. You can imagine what
that meant as a farmer! The deeper crisis the more you grow, and so it decided to grow too!
Connecting Farmers and Consumers
What are your plans for the future?
I have been shaping a new model to feed folks organics affordably and consciously. We are looking to connect organic farmers directly to consumers. The Digital Farmers Market is coming soon.
Right now, if you are a farmer and you have more produce than you can sell at a farmer’s market, you are in competition with mega corporations that sell to mega corporations that produce at food production facilities, not at farms. No small family farms where people who actually work with the land can survive. The farmer today receives only 20-25% of the retail sale price while the consumer is paying 400% over what the farmer receives.
…Now thats out of whack. An organic avocado doesn’t need to cost near what it does.