In the Age of Megadrought, Farmers in the West See Promise in Agave | Civil Eats

In the Age of Megadrought, Farmers in the West See Promise in Agave

Interest in commercial agave production is surging in the West, thanks to the plant’s ability to survive with little or no water and the path into the potentially lucrative world of spirits.

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Raul “Reppo” Chavez digs out agave “pups” that will be sold to a new agave grower. Over the course of two days, he would dig up 1,000 pups from Craig Reynolds’ fields to sell to the new grower. (Photo credit: Anne Marshall-Chalmers)

This article was produced in partnership with Edible Communities; a version of this article will appear in the Winter 2023 issues of local Edible magazines.

Raul “Reppo” Chavez surveys his agave crop on a sunny morning in Yolo County, north of Sacramento, California. His largest plants sit at the top of a hillside, while the youngest and smallest are down by the road. “They look real good,” he says, nodding. The plants’ giant leaves are arranged like the petals of an open rose, but they’re as sharp as eagle talons reaching out of the earth. Chavez and many others who drive by find the agave field striking. Cyclists out for rides stop to take photos. Mexican American girls celebrating their quinceañeras pose in glimmering gowns among the plants, which stand out as strikingly different from the olive, citrus, and almond orchards typically blanketing California farmland.

Chavez, a native of Tonaya, Mexico—where mezcal is produced—grew up with agave growing in every direction and learned the skills of a jimador, or agave farmer, from relatives. He’s leasing the plot from a family that used to grow grapes there. Three years ago, the family he works for ripped out the vines in an effort to conserve water and gave him the green light to plant agave. Now, as the West grapples with the worst drought in more than 1,000 years, he’s among a small but growing group of farmers in California, Arizona, and Texas who are turning to these hearty plants, which can survive with little to no water.

“In all likelihood, I’m going to end up with more and more of my land being unable to farm because I just don’t have enough water.”

As many farmers in drought-prone regions are re-thinking what they grow, there are some other familiar workhorse crops that require little irrigation and could step in to keep bare land from turning to dust—such as winter wheat, legumes, and safflower. It’s agave, however, that has captured recent interest and momentum with its promise of drought resilience and a path into the potentially lucrative world of spirits.

A perennial succulent native to the arid Southwest U.S. and Central and South America, agave plants, with spiky leaves as stiff as cartilage, can grow to weigh up to 110 pounds, and the distilled spirits, made from the plant’s hefty heart, or piña, are soaring in popularity. Since 2003, tequila and mezcal volume has increased by more than 200 percent, with a significant surge in demand over the last five years.

In California, Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing, a prominent operation that grows massive tracts of almonds, pistachios, and processing tomatoes, has emerged as agave’s biggest champion. Over the summer, Woolf donated $100,000 for an agave research center at University California at Davis.

Woolf, who used to rely on the state’s network of canals to deliver “surface water” to most of his 25,000 acres of farmland, hasn’t received a full allocation in years. He can pump from his wells to make up for that loss, but a sweeping 2014 California law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, aims to curb that practice.

“In all likelihood,” Woolf says, “I’m going to end up with more and more of my land being unable to farm because I just don’t have enough water.”

That’s how, three years ago, as the 63-year-old sipped on tequila, Woolf’s mind landed on agave, plants that are incredibly drought tolerant thanks to a twist in plant physiology. Agave plants keep the openings in their leaves (the stomata) closed during the day to avoid water evaporation, reopening them at night to collect and store carbon dioxide, and engage in photosynthesis come dawn.

“All I have now is a test plot, land, and a desire,” says Woolf.

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Raul “Reppo” Chavez’s field of agave in Yolo County. (Photo credit: Craig Reynolds)

A New Climate Crop?

Woolf is in the San Joaquin Valley, a 5-million-acre stretch of the most productive agricultural land in the world that grows 250 crops and much of the nation’s nuts, fruit, and vegetables. It’s also the epicenter of California’s water crisis.

Unregulated pumping of groundwater over decades has resulted in depleted aquifers, sinking land, and thousands of dry agricultural and drinking water wells. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that climate change and California’s water shortage will require the permanent retirement of at least 500,000 acres of heavily irrigated land in the San Joaquin Valley in the next 20 years.

All across the Southwest, the fallowing of land, with the hopes that rain will eventually once again allow for planting, is already underway. In 2022 alone, California farmers left hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland unplanted. In New Mexico, the state legislature allotted millions of dollars to pay farmers to idle fields. And in Arizona’s Pinal County, 30-40 percent of the 250,000 acres of irrigated farmland has been fallowed due to cuts in the water supply from the Colorado River.

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Jimadors must use a special tool that looks like a long paddle with a sharp, round blade to dig out the piña and slice away the leaves. (Photo credit: Craig Reynolds)

Jimadors must use a special tool that looks like a long paddle with a sharp, round blade to dig out the piña and slice away the leaves. (Photo credit: Craig Reynolds)

“By next year that number is expected to rise,” says Paul Orme, an attorney for several irrigation districts in Pinal County.

Doug Richardson, an agricultural consultant who owns Drylands Farming Company near Santa Barbara, California, is an agave enthusiast, and not just for their ability to thrive in arid and semi-arid climates. “They’re fire resistant,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of farm design where we do agave as a perimeter crop to act as a buffer, a line of defense. Just a row of these succulent plants can keep a wildfire from encroaching.”

For nearly 20 years, Richardson encouraged mostly small-scale growers in the West to incorporate agave into their operations, and within the last 10 years he says his business has soared, with new clients in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona all seeking a less water intensive crop.

Ian Beger, the farm director at Castle Hot Springs, a luxury resort north of Phoenix, worked with Richardson to plant about three acres of agave so that the resort could offer hyper-local spirits. Water savings was not Beger’s main motivation, but he believes if he and other well-resourced growers, like Woolf, can work out the kinks and better understand the viability of this novel crop, that may help bring other farmers along. “Unless it has significant promise, no one is willing to risk their livelihood to grow it,” he says.

“I can get $15,000 per acre, which is a lot compared to most crops.”

Julie Murphree, outreach director at the Arizona Farm Bureau, says farmers in Arizona have been searching for alternative, drought-resilient crops for decades. She says in Pinal County, where alfalfa and cotton fields have been fallowed, there’s not a lot of talk of agave. Rather guayule, an evergreen shrub that grows in arid climates and can be used in rubber products is catching attention, with tire giant Bridgestone funding research.

Whether its guayule or agave that catches on, Murphree says before farmers can take the leap, they must be certain soil types and temperature are right, and that there’s a profit on the other side. “Until a market is truly developed,” she says, “it’s hard for them to make a switch.”

‘Agave Spirits’ on the Menu

For thousands of years, long, long before George Clooney kicked off a celebrity tequila brand deluge that heightened agave’s worth, Indigenous and rural communities relied on the plant for food, and used its fibers for textiles, rope, and even roofing material.

On a cloudless, bright autumn morning north of Sacramento in Yolo County, Craig Reynolds walked through around 1,000 agave plants that are planted on a gentle slope. Olive and nut trees used to stand here, but about eight years ago when the landowner, who is a friend of Reynolds’, had to start rationing water, he agreed that planting agave made sense. An almond orchard requires about four-acre feet of water, and Reynolds estimates an agave plot of the same size requires about a tenth of that amount, and most of that water is needed right when the plant is first establishing roots.

Founder of the California Agave Council, a trade group of 40 growers, distillers and retailers formed this year, Reynolds is a newbie farmer who worked in California state politics (and witnessed a lot of handwringing over water shortages) before retiring.

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While there are hundreds of agave species, he has planted mostly blue agave, the variety used for tequila. Harvesting the piña, the pineapple-shaped heart of the plant that gets fermented for distilled spirits, demands patience, as agave can take six to eight years to mature. Still, Reynolds says over time farmers can build up their acreage so that every year there are plants ready to harvest, and he’s found a lucrative, boutique market in craft distillers. “I can get $15,000 per acre, which is a lot compared to most crops,” he says.

Agave can be harvested at any time of year. Their 100-pound piña is used to produce distilled spirits. (Photo credit: Craig Reynolds)Agave can be harvested at any time of year. Their 100-pound piña is used to produce distilled spirits. (Photo credit: Craig Reynolds)

Agave can be harvested at any time of year. Their 100-pound piña is used to produce distilled spirits. (Photo credit: Craig Reynolds)

The spirt distilled from his agave is clear and smooth essentially tequila in taste but not in name. Like Champagne must originate in France, agave sprits can only be called tequila if the agave is grown inside the Mexican state of Jalisco, and is made from Agave tequilana, or blue agave. Similarly, mezcal, which can be made with many varieties of agave, must be produced in one of 10 designated states in Mexico.

It’s unknown how much of a market there may be for a California agave spirit, but Reynolds and Woolf say before addressing that issue, the research center at U.C. Davis will examine California’s advantages and disadvantages in growing this crop. “An important question on the minds of growers is how little water can be used? And how well can they survive in areas where maybe no water is available [aside from rainfall],” says Ron Runnebaum, an associate professor of viticulture and enology at U.C. Davis.

Research will likely also focus on how agave handles the occasional winter frost. Are there species best suited for California? And will the San Joaquin Valley summers, which are longer and hotter than Mexico, speed up plant growth?

“It would be great if they could figure out a developing agave plant that would mature faster, grower larger, and have greater sugar content where you could actually produce more distilled spirits per acre than elsewhere,” says Woolf, adding that efficiency in a California agave market will be key to keeping it competitive, since labor and other costs are lower in Mexico.

A recent report exploring alternative crops for the parched San Joaquin Valley, mentioned agave but focused more on winter wheat, beets, and safflower. These crops require a modest amount of water at just the right time, which, particularly for wheat that needs an early winter rain, can pose a risk to farmers.

But Caity Peterson, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, says these crops can bring in revenue for farmers staring at bare, dry fields and shouldn’t be dismissed. She’s excited at the conversations around agave but hopes some of that energy expands toward other crops that are well-known with established markets and management practices.

“Safflower is not a sexy crop. It gets more difficult to attract interest when you’re talking about humdrum old commodities,” she says. “There’s no one crop that’s going to be the savior here. I think the key is looking at a portfolio of options.”

Raul “Reppo” Chavez digs out agave “pups.” (Photo credit: Anne Marshall-Chalmers)

The Developing Agave Market

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Raul Chavez understands agave’s appeal in the U.S. Southwest. “You can plant a lot of acres. You don’t use too much money, don’t use too much water,” he says, adding that a relentless gopher is his only major headache. “You need a market, but the market is coming.”

Beyond distilled spirits, there is agave syrup; the plant can also be used as a fiber additive to foods, and agave can make animal feed, which could pose an alternative to water-thirsty alfalfa grown in drought-riddled Southwest, says Ronnie Cummins, founder of Regeneration International. The nonprofit is dedicated to regenerative farming and land management and strives to plant 1 billion agaves worldwide, in part to help farmers with access to little water.

Cummins has worked with ranchers in Texas to blend fermented agave leaves with the pods from native mesquite trees to create a low-water, sustainable cattle feed. “We think that the west Texas ranchers who already have mesquite (trees) on their property are going to be very amenable to this,” he says.

Cummins says a growing number of farms in the Northern Guanajuato state of Mexico are already relying on agave for animal feed, while also harvesting the piña for mezcal or tequila. And because agaves help store water in the ground, the plant is helping native vegetation to return to barren, overgrazed lands. It can become, he says, an intact, productive agroforestry system.

“Do this right and you can preserve the natural biodiversity that’s already out there,” he says.

At a time when rainfall is increasingly unpredictable and reservoirs in the West are reaching historic lows, Cummins hopes the sudden interest in agave leads to an agricultural transformation in areas facing a long, dry future.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is a Senior Reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, injustice, and the spaces where these topics intersect. In 2019, she was nominated for a national City and Regional Magazine Association award in the category of civic journalism for a piece on Louisville’s eviction crisis, and in 2012 she won a national Alt Weekly award for her reporting on economic inequality. An avid runner and baker, she’s happiest on sunny days spent outside with her husband, two kids and their dog, Peaches. Read more >

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