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.
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.
“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.