TALK TO THE GROWING number of cactus enthusiasts around the state and across the country and you’d swear that the prickly pear could save the world. It’s high in fiber, low in fat, and may control common symptoms of diabetes. Agricultural experts from the United Nations think it could feed starving people in developing countries. The thick-skinned plant flourishes with little or no irrigation, sustains wildlife during the winter, and can furnish emergency cattle fodder during extended droughts. For these and other reasons, members of the Professional Association for Cactus Development ( PACD)—an international collective of researchers, growers, chefs, and other devotees—say it could be Texas’ next homegrown success story. With the U.S. consuming 25 percent of the $11 million worldwide market for cactus, domestic cultivation might be a boon for drought-prone South Texas and replace the 5.2 million pounds of cactus we currently import from growers in Mexico and Chile. Still, it could take a miracle before the miracle crop realizes its potential.
The common cactus—compact, adaptable, and armed to the teeth—covers much of Texas’ dry rangeland, but recent scientific advances have produced more farm-friendly and potentially profitable varieties. Agricultural researchers in the Texas A&M University System have increased the size of a typical pad by 400 percent and eliminated the trademark needles. The result is a prickly pear ripe for commercial cultivation: smooth skinned, frost resistant, and low maintenance. “We now have varieties that are perfectly suited for the Rio Grande Valley,” says Peter Felker, the project leader of Texas A&M—Kingsville’s cactus and mesquite research program, “but what we need is a little money to develop a unified agricultural program.” Such a program would pay for marketing and promotion, educational extension services, and farmer adoption efforts.
But cacti cash is nowhere in sight. In October 1997 a $40,000 federal research and development grant dried up, one of the many cuts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget. That same month the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board denied grants for cactus for the third consecutive time. Like many other smaller crops, explains retired U.S. congressman Kika de la Garza, who spent his boyhood in Mission cutting cactus, the cactus contingent lacks both the political clout and the market base to compete for attention with larger exportables such as corn, wheat, and cotton.
Despite the financial drought, the PACD vows to continue its global dialogue and grassroots efforts. At its annual conference in September, the group discussed ways to build demand for the bright-red cactus pear (now puréed for commercial margarita mixes) and green nopalito (a vegetablelike pad commonly used in Mexican cooking). Chefs Jay McCarthy of San Antonio and Miguel Ravago of Austin praised the cactus’s culinary versatility. Representatives from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization spoke glowingly of cactus programs in twenty countries, including India, Haiti, and Brazil. “It’s the perfect crop for someone with arid land and no irrigation,” says de la Garza, who sees not only the plant’s promise but also the rocky road ahead. “Cactus needs a godfather. It needs a sponsor. Right now, we just don’t have the resources.”