Watch CBS News

California farmers turning to drought-resistant plant agave

Can agave be grown in California?
Can agave be grown in California? 03:07

Farmers in Northern California are digging into a new and unusual option for their fields. Drought conditions have many farmers rethinking their crops, and agave is proving to be an alluring alternative.

On a dry dusty hill in Yolo County, nestled between rows of olives and almonds, there's a strange and spiky sight. Craig Reynolds started them as an experiment and now the secret's out.

 "It's kind of almost too much to handle right now. I get phone calls every day from all over the place saying where can I get some agave seedlings?" said California Agave Council Director Craig Reynolds.

Agave, traditionally grown in Mexico and used for making tequila, is now proving to be an ideal crop for California's water-strapped fields.

"We're growing agave here with 1/10th or less of the water we were using to grow olives," said Reynolds. 

And once established, the plants can keep growing with almost no water at all. There's just one catch: growing agave takes some time. It'll be six years before these new plants are big enough to harvest. Then it's a matter of getting the heart of the plant, which requires a special tool called a coa and some special skills.

Raul Chavez learned to harvest agave as a kid in Mexico, and he's now putting his expertise to work here as a jimador. People see agave and they think it's the leaves that you're after but it's not, it's the center.

The pinas, weighing 100 pounds or more a piece, are then collected and sold to local distilleries that are eager to get in on an emerging market.

"The whole idea of the distillery always enticed me," said Patricio Wise, chef and owner at Nixtaco Mexican Kitchen & Distillery. 

"The first question is, 'are you going to make your own tequila?' And I'm like, 'well, I'm going to make agave spirits.' I can't say that I'm going to be making tequila or mezcal, for that matter," said Wise.

"In California, we can't call it tequila or mezcal; we call it agave spirits. Just like champagne, we call it sparkling wine," said Reynolds. "What you call it doesn't matter; it's what's in the bottle that matters."

And what's in these bottles is pretty good?

"What's in these bottles is fantastic and people are willing to pay a good price for it," said Reynolds.

Making California-grown agave and their distilled spirits is a refreshing option amid concerns of an even dryer future.

"We've basically proved the concept that you can grow agave in California and make wonderful spirits," said Reynolds.

It's estimated less than 100 acres of agave are in production right now in California, but several thousand acres are now in the planning stages.

UC Davis is also starting a new research effort to help farmers and distillers interested in agave.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.