Farm to Planet

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Attention, Arizona heritage-crop farmers: The world wants what you’re growing.


In the 1980s, Natalie McGee was a burned-out Los Angeles social worker who decided to pull a 180 on her career. Returning to her home state of Arizona, she started growing prickly pear cactuses, turning the nectar into a 100-percent pure concentrate she sold at a county fair. Unlike some nectar farmers, she added no sugar or water. “The only

other ingredient I put in it is love,” she says.

Now a young 73, McGee has owned Arizona Cactus Ranch in Green Valley for 22 years. She harvests 40 square miles of organic prickly pear cactuses once a year and sells bottles of the nectar for $25 to people all over the world. She says one teaspoon a day can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and help prevent hangovers.

Turns out, Arizona has a bevy of one-of-a-kind heritage crops with worldwide appeal – and increased demand for these desert commodities is providing a boost to Arizona’s thriving agriculture industry.

While some may not think of Arizona as an agricultural epicenter, our year-round sunshine and sporadic rainfalls translate into ideal growing conditions for many crops. According to the USDA, approximately 26 million acres of farmland stretches across 15,500 farms in the state. (By comparison, dairy-rich Wisconsin comes in at a measly 15 million acres.) While most farms back east grow on a seven-month cycle, Arizona has “something in the ground 365 days a year,” according to fourth-generation Queen Creek alfalfa farmer Steve Sossaman, who recently found a robust market for his foraging crop in Japan. Japanese farmers covet Arizona alfalfa for their dairy farms, Sossaman says. “They probably grow some over there, but not enough. I think their economy is starting to recover from the tsunami and they’re just looking for sources for their cattle.”

Two-legged consumers are also developing a taste for Arizona ag. Several Arizona farms – including the reestablished Hayden Flour Mill – ship the region’s heritage durum wheat overseas, where it’s ground up and made into semolina flour, which is then turned into the “authentic” Italian pasta you could be sitting down to enjoy in Rome. “Desert durum is its own designation. It’s the finest quality durum wheat in the world,” Sossaman says. “It’s very, very big business.”

Terry Button of Ramona Farms in Sacaton, near the Gila River Indian Reservation, grows cotton that finds its way to textile mills around the world. “We have the ideal climate to consistently produce a high-quality cotton fiber. It’s known worldwide,” Button says proudly. The farm is also known for its Native American tepary beans, the plump, meaty legumes used in some versions of posole, a Mexican soup dish. Introduced to Anglo farmers in the 19th century by the Tohono O’Odham, the heirloom bean has a local fan base and is starting to draw interest worldwide. Button has interested buyers in Turkey and is exploring international shipment.

Other Arizona heritage crops include guayule, a shrub that yields a sap that can be used to make hypoallergenic, latex-free rubber gloves. Though guayule will never make it to your dinner plate, LKH Farming – which cultivates the plant on a farm in Salome – hopes Arizona will become a hub.

In Tucson, a farming collective called Native Seeds/SEARCH sits on a cache of 2,000 Southwest seed varieties, which it gamely shares with farmers around the world. All it takes is one industrious guy or gal to revive a crop and share it with a food market constantly on the lookout for new tastes.

“It was all an accident,” prickly pear farmer McGee says of her foray into farming. “I never thought I’d be driving a forklift.”