(Photo: Anselm/Adobe)

Audrey HillBy Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice 

Agriculture is changing for California and the Central Valley. All scientific evidence points to rising temperatures and more extreme weather patterns with worsening effects as the years progress. But rather than see a doomed future, some have found great opportunity and are being rewarded for it.  

Agave has grown as a commercial good in Mexico for Tequila and Mezcal production throughout antiquity. The spirits themselves are representative of the Tequila and Mezcal regions of Mexico, and the country has proprietary rights over their names. Similarly, France has propriety rights over Champagne but not sparkling wine, and Italy over Parmigiano Reggiano. With rising winter temperatures and an intensifying demand for water, California farmers have found space for agave on their farms. California distilleries began bottling agave spirits in 2019, and thus, the agave spirit market began in the state. Craig Reynolds, perhaps the first agave pioneer in California, has been growing agave for nine years, and his passion for the crop has inspired many growers.  

Reynolds started growing agave in Mexico through a fundraiser, which led him to experiment with the crop in California. Using only 3-4 inches of water at a time, or one-tenth of the water other traditional California crops (almonds, pistachios, tomatoes) use, agave seemed to be a great fit during an increasingly difficult time to get water. Of course, nine years ago, California was in mid-drought and had yet to hear of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Today, the natural landscape and water logistical landscape are in much more severe condition, and more are looking to agave as a low-risk crop.  

Agave takes five to seven years to mature, so spirit production today is reflective of the number of crops from many years ago. Since then, many have started growing agave, and production and supply are expected to increase. This crop also produces its own rhizomes, or new shoots, which are sold or propagated as they are currently in high demand. Demand for small agave plants by interested farmers has grown so rapidly in California that there is now a plant shortage.  

In 2022, agave production gained more recognition when Reynolds founded the California Agave Council with 10 growers as the first distilleries with an open mind on California agave spirits. Their two goals after forming the council established a quality standard backed by legislation and held the first California Agave Symposium at UC Davis.  

The quality standard requires that any spirit labeled “California agave” must have been grown in the state and must have absolutely no preservatives or additives. This is higher than Mexico’s tequila standard, which states that bottles must be a minimum of 51% tequila and can include up to 1% of additives of four different types: sugar syrup, caramel color, oak extract, and glycerin. In the tequila spirits world, 100% Blue Agave Tequila is the highest standard, yet it is still allowed to contain 1% additives.  

California’s new spirit already has higher standards than the traditional. At the first California Agave Symposium, Stuart and Lisa Woolf, among some of the largest names in California agave farming, announced their donation of $100,000 to UC Davis to begin the university’s research on the viability of agave in the state. The council has grown threefold since its start a year and a half ago and will be hosting a second symposium for California agave growers and distillers on December 13, 2023, at UC Davis.  

Because agave grows slowly, the project is in its early phases, but the crop is already proving to be a promising sustainable option for farmers in the state. Agave grows in various soil types and is very tolerant of drought. If there is a catch, it is that the crop does not do well when winter temperatures drop below freezing. Fortunately, farmers have found ways around this before, such as California’s extensive citrus crop, and with rapidly changing temperatures (on global time scales), new areas viable for the crop could emerge fairly soon.  

Some Central Valley farmers have taken up the crop, but most growers farm outside of the Valley in Sonoma, the Central Coast, the Inland Empire, and even the Sierra Foothills.  

“There are many microclimates in the Central Valley, so it’s very difficult to generalize, and we’re learning as we go there,” Reynolds said. “We are going to have some success and some failures. I’m sure of that. So, I always advise people to look at a variety of agaves that you initially plant and see which ones do the best and learn from other people in similar circumstances.”  

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