As extreme heat, drought and wildfires continue across much of the west, some growers are looking for plants that can withstand these harsh conditions and still produce a profit. One plant that’s gaining more attention in recent years is agave, a plant that’s been grown in California for a hundred years or more, primarily as an ornamental.  Now, various California growers are trying to see if they can compete with their Mexican counterparts and grow agave plants, which are used to produce tequila and mezcal in Mexico. Earlier this year, a group of about 40 growers, distillers and retailers formed the California Agave Council to foster collaboration and offer a chance to share knowledge among members who previously had no formal network. Craig Reynolds, the California Agave Council founding director who has a few thousand plants growing, says the industry is in “an embryo stage” and organizing can help the crop expand. He runs California Agave Ventures, which grows blue agave and sells starter plants to other growers. Now, the University of California, Davis, has established the Stuart & Lisa Woolf Fund for Agave Research to focus on outreach and research into the plants and their viability as a low-water crop in the state. The fund was created with a $100,000 seed gift from Stuart and Lisa Woolf, Central Valley farmers who raise almonds and tomatoes and also have a test plot of about 900 agave plants on 1.5 acres. They hope this gift will encourage others to also contribute.

The gift is focused primarily on optimizing production in California relative to Mexico, where labor costs are lower, and the farmers rely on rain rather than irrigation for water, according to a release. The Woolfs would like their gift to be used to answer early research questions about growing sites, plant attributes and possible funding agencies, as well as gathering harvest data and producing a database with that information, according to the gift agreement.  

Stuart Woolf believes California producers could grow larger plants with higher sugar content. “I really believe we could be very competitive with Mexico,” he said. 

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Technically, mezcal can be made from any agave variety in Mexico while tequila, comes solely from the blue agave plant grown within the geographically defined region of “Tequila.” Agave plants require minimal watering, can serve as firebreaks from wildfires and offer a chance for farmers to plant crops on land that would otherwise have to be fallowed, or abandoned because of a lack of water. It takes roughly six to eight years for the plants to mature. 

“The rainfall patterns and growing conditions in California are different from those where tequila is made,” said Ron Runnebaum, an assistant professor of viticulture and enology. “It is exciting to begin to harness the capabilities at UC Davis to determine which agave varieties can be grown commercially in California and what flavors can be captured by distillation to make unique California agave spirits.” 

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