Agave Cultivation in California: A Strategic Response to Drought and Water Restrictions

by Gabriel Martinez
California agave farming

The once barren hillsides near Leo Ortega’s home in Southern California are now abundant with blue agave plants, originally planted for their aesthetic appeal. A mechanical engineer by trade, Ortega has observed the transformation of his land over the past decade, which now flourishes with thousands of agave plants, signifying a potential new agricultural direction for California amidst persistent drought conditions and the necessity to curtail groundwater extraction.

Ortega, 49, symbolizes a broader movement within California where individuals and farmers alike are turning to agave as a drought-resistant crop for producing spirits akin to Mexican tequila and mezcal. This shift has been driven by a combination of factors, including the pursuit of water-efficient agricultural practices, the impact of climate change, and a burgeoning demand for high-end spirits that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Ortega strolls through his agave rows, he notes a surprising discovery: the plants that received less water actually exhibited more growth. Capitalizing on this insight, Ortega is expanding into distillation, having already achieved success with Agave americana spirits retailing at $160 per bottle.

Erlinda A. Doherty, an expert in the field of agave spirits, correlates the surge in premium spirit consumption to pandemic-induced buying habits. This trend is supported by data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which identified tequila and mezcal as the second-fastest growing spirit category in 2022.

Under Mexican law, tequila and mezcal hold geographic indications, necessitating production in specified regions with certain agave percentages. Despite this, producers in California and other states like Texas and Arizona anticipate a robust market for agave-based spirits crafted domestically.

“The appetite for agave is seemingly unquenchable, so why not cultivate a local supply?” asserts Doherty.

Alfonso Mojica Navarro, representing the Mexican Chamber of the Tequila Industry, acknowledges tequila’s deep-rooted history and cultural ties, and while he has not specifically addressed California’s venture into agave spirits, he expresses confidence in Mexico’s capacity to meet increasing global demand.

Although agave is not yet cultivated on a large scale in California, small-scale operations have demonstrated market success. Ventura Spirits owner Henry Tarmy has seen his initial batches sell out entirely. This emerging industry in California has prompted legislative action, with a law enacted to ensure “California agave spirits” are produced solely from state-grown plants and free from additives.

The California Agave Council, co-founded by Craig Reynolds from Davis, is at the forefront of this industry’s growth. Reynolds reveals the Council’s membership has tripled, indicating a collective desire to expand plant cultivation.

Agave may consume minimal water, but it is not without its challenges. The plant matures slowly, requires strenuous harvesting efforts, and must be replanted after harvest. Nonetheless, California’s agricultural community, tasked with providing a significant portion of the nation’s produce, views agave as a promising alternative amid the search for water-saving measures.

While recent rainfall has temporarily relieved California of drought conditions, the expectation of future dry spells persists. The state has already taken steps to regulate groundwater use after previous over-extraction caused significant environmental and community issues.

Stuart Woolf, a grower of tomatoes and almonds, is proactively seeking alternatives like agave that demand less water and provide climate resilience. With forward-thinking investments in sustainable technologies, Woolf has already allocated a substantial portion of his land to agave, using just a fraction of the water required by traditional row crops.

Woolf’s commitment to researching agave’s potential as a low-water crop is further evidenced by a generous contribution to the University of California, Davis. This investment has established a fund dedicated to exploring different varieties of agave and their viability in water-scarce environments.

“I am exploring crops that can endure climate volatility and are drought-tolerant to maximize our land use,” Woolf states. “Given the minimal water requirements for agave, water scarcity is unlikely to hinder our efforts.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about California agave farming

Why is agave becoming a popular crop in California?

Agave is gaining popularity in California as it is a drought-resistant crop, suitable for the state’s arid conditions, requiring significantly less water compared to traditional crops. Its potential to be used in the production of premium spirits has further driven its cultivation amidst the state’s water restrictions and changing climate.

How has the pandemic affected the demand for spirits made from agave?

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in consumer spending on high-quality spirits, which has contributed to the rise in premium beverage products. Agave-based spirits have benefited from this trend, with tequila and mezcal becoming the second-fastest growing spirit category in the United States in 2022.

What legislation has California passed concerning agave spirits?

California enacted a law that mandates “California agave spirits” to be made exclusively with plants grown within the state and without any additives. This aims to safeguard the quality and authenticity of the locally produced spirits.

Are agave plants water-efficient, and what are their growth requirements?

Agave plants are extremely water-efficient, thriving with minimal irrigation, which is a key advantage given California’s groundwater limitations. They do, however, take at least seven years to mature and require labor-intensive harvesting methods.

Can agave be a viable alternative to other crops in California’s future agriculture?

Many believe agave is a viable alternative crop in California, especially with the state’s efforts to reduce water usage in agriculture. Its low water requirement and the potential to be a climate-resilient crop make it an attractive option for farmers looking to adapt to the challenges posed by frequent droughts and water restrictions.

More about California agave farming

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LisaMcCarthy November 5, 2023 - 2:09 pm

Saw this and wondered, what’s the actual cost to start something like an agave farm, sounds expensive upfront and that 7 year wait is a long time

Jerry Smith November 5, 2023 - 5:38 pm

interesting read but i think theres more to it than just finding new crops Water use and rights in Cali have always been complex

TimJones87 November 6, 2023 - 2:30 am

Agave farming sounds promising, but what about the labor involved? harvesting those huge plants is no joke…

MarkusP November 6, 2023 - 3:54 am

california always leading the way in agriculture, this could be huge if it really takes off, hope they can keep the industry sustainable though

Samantha_k November 6, 2023 - 11:48 am

not sure if i buy into the idea of cali agave, tequila has such a strong cultural heritage in Mexico… can it really be the same if its grown in the US?


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