Could the edible cactus be the next big specialty crop?

Shawn Jadrnicek had long loved prickly pear for its tasty fruit, so when he heard the plant could also be used as animal fencing, he was curious. After first creating a pen for his own backyard chickens, the farmer and arborist helped South Carolina Wild Hope Farm install a fencing system to keep deer away from his vegetable garden.

The natural barrier was so successful that he brought the design to Community Gardens in Roanoke, Virginia, where he works as an Associate Extension Officer for Virginia Tech. “I have found this fence design to be extremely useful as a farmer because not only does it reduce the maintenance required for the fence, but it also generates income and will last as long as the cacti,” says Jadrnicek.

A cactus fence system.

In 2021, Wild Hope Farm, which has built up a bit of a following for its prickly pear — a group that includes all the local brewers and regulars at the farmers’ market — sold around $15,000 worth of fruit from the fencing. He also sells the cactus pads for food and as potted plants.

“Protecting the vegetable field was the original thought, but [the plants have] served multiple purposes,” says Peanut Belk, Business Operations Manager at Wild Hope Farm. “Not only does this produce flowers that attract pollinators, but also fruits that we can harvest and sell to different brewers and cocktail vendors. It’s a crop we don’t have to touch and yet it can bring in a lot of money.

Often treated as a weed, nopal or prickly pear has great potential as a crop. It natively grows as far north as Connecticut and can be found as far south as Argentina. Super versatile, it’s used in a variety of products, including beauty items such as soaps, shampoos, and lipstick, as well as food and beverages. It’s a popular staple in Mexico, where it’s treated like any other vegetable, used in salads, salsas, stir-fried with eggs, or even to make an alternative fry. A sustainable development superhero, declared by the United Nations as a food of the futurecacti are drought tolerant, can improve soil health, and because they mature every six months, can be harvested faster than many other crops.

But nopales are not a common crop, at least not yet. Farmers, researchers and companies in the United States and Mexico are working to create a larger market for cacti.

Regina Trillo, founder of Nemi Snacksand Hector Saldivar, creator of Tia Lupita, grew up eating cacti in Mexico. After moving to the United States, both decided to start businesses centered around the plant. Nemi Snacks makes flavored edible sticks from them, which can easily replace a craving for a bag of crisps or pretzels, while Tia Lupita uses them as an alternative ingredient to make grain-free tortillas and tortilla chips to accompany her range of salsa.

Courtesy of Nemi Snacks.

“Cactus is very near and dear to us Mexicans. It’s part of our heritage, our culture and our food,” says Saldivar, who founded Tia Lupita to combine his love for health and wellness with the Mexican foods and flavors he grew up with in Mexico. . “Nopales are depicted in the Mexican flag as a key symbol that represents the founding of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Not only do nopales have high nutritional properties, but they are the oldest food on the North American continent.

Still, the fruit is often intimidating, especially when sold with glochids, the hair-like spines found on cacti. Wild Hope Farm developed a technique to remove these ears from fruit, making them safe to handle with bare hands and increasing sales, but they still needed to find people to buy them. “We had to develop the market and educate people about what cacti are and how good they are,” Belk says.

Gerardo Martínez focuses on this part of education. “Cactus can be the food of the future,” says Martínez, director of cross-cultural engagement and inclusion at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Since 2018 he has worked to develop the niche market and educate people on the benefits of nopal in the farmers market, through a grant of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

“It contains a large number of minerals and nutrients,” says Martínez, who plans to increase production in 2023 to bring the cactus regularly to farmers’ markets.

However, nopal can be more than just a food source for people. At University of Nevada, Reno, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology John Cushman found a lot to like about the plant in a soon-to-be-published study. “It is cold tolerant, there are many uses for its fruits as food, the young pads can also be eaten for fresh vegetables, it can be used to feed animals and supplement up to 40% of the diet cattle and 100% of sheep and goats”. diets,” says Cushman. “The idea is that we could eventually replace other crops.”

Cushman and his team also envision it as an alternative bioenergy. Although it’s still a long way off, we’re starting to see more and more nopales grown in the United States, giving many a taste of home – and for farmers, a taste of what could be their next. commercial cultivation.