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This crop could be a solution for farmers dealing with drought

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Posted at 8:39 AM, Dec 16, 2022

For as easy as it can be to pass off rural places as disconnected from the day-to-day of big cities, Craig Reynolds can help people understand how close the link is between the dinner table and the fields of Yolo County, California.

“We grow everything. We’re the world food basket, right here, where you are," Reynolds said.

Reynolds is the director of the California Agave Council, a new trade organization made up of growers and distillers.

With drought often a top topic of conversation among farmers in the West, Reynolds is one of the leaders working to see if agave can be grown on a large, commercial scale in California.

“Agave seemed to me an ideal crop of low water use that would thrive in California with our increasing temperatures due to climate change," Reynolds said as he walked through a field of agave plants on a farm near Sacramento.

Agave is a succulent, often grown in Mexico. It is harvested to make spirits like tequila and mezcal, terms Reynolds pointed out can only be used when the agave comes from certain Mexican regions.

The plants he grows become California agave spirits, which, for now, can only be found at a handful of craft distillers in the state.

Agave plants require a fraction of the water some crops of Northern California, like almonds and olives, require. 

“This right here was an olive oil, olive orchard six months ago, and it was taken out because we don’t have enough water for the olives, and we are putting agave in here," Reynolds says.

It takes about six years for one agave plant to mature. When it does, Reynolds said one plant can produce as many as a dozen bottles of agave spirits.

The University of California-Davis is involved in the study looking at whether agave can eventually become California's new cash crop. It comes as a study from the American Farm Bureau Federation says nearly three-quarters of farmers nationwide say the number of crops they were able to produce was hurt by drought.

"From my perspective, it really is the drought that is driving this and the interest of growers and being able to plant something that will use, or could use, very little water," said UC Davis' Ron Runnebaum.

It could be a decade until we know whether farmers can count on agave, Runnebaum estimates, citing the amount of time it takes for a plant to mature.

“There’s some risk involved. We don’t have a lot of experience here. Frost, and that's the biggest challenge, I think, is getting a winter hard frost in certain areas and it’s not going to work everywhere that’s for sure," Reynolds said.

Reynolds is hopeful inserting more American farmers into the agave business will bolster their bottom lines at a time when drought is making the future uncertain.

“We can’t just walk away from our fields we have to find other crops. Agave is just one of them," Reynolds says.