agave stock

Stuart and Lisa Woolf of Woolf Farming have donated $100,000 for research into agave at UC Davis. Adobe Stock photo

published on September 6, 2022 - 10:29 AM
Written by Edward Smith

Out in Fresno County’s arid westside, one farming titan is taking a chance on a crop that — if successful — could make use of the ever-growing amount of fallowed land in the Central Valley.

And he’s donated $100,000 to UC Davis to help make it happen.

Two years ago, Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming, planted 1,200 agave plants on his farm near Huron.

The combination of California water policy and drought had Woolf thinking about ways to put the land he’d retired to use. As a tequila fan, he’d always wondered why agave didn’t fill the empty fields of the San Joaquin Valley. The drought-tolerant plant can thrive with little to no water and minimal maintenance.

He’s banking on hopes that an industry will arrive to make use of the plant once it’s ready to harvest.

The region’s climate seems conducive to the succulent’s success.

The average elevation in the state of Jalisco in Mexico — where tequila originates — is on average higher than that of the Central Valley. It has a rainy season of three to four months, said Woolf, who has traveled to Mexico to research the plant.

From what he’s already seen, he thinks the Valley can compete with other agave-growing regions of the world.

Central Valley growers would never be able to call their drink tequila or mezcal. Much like bourbon or Scotch, there are geographical limitations on labels. Right now, Woolf is still calling the prospective drink “distilled agave.”

But there are environmental factors in the Central Valley that Woolf has already seen that can make the plant thrive.

In Mexico, the plant takes eight to 10 years to reach maturity, when the entire plant is uprooted and processed. Woolf thinks because of the number of hot days — what he calls “growing degree days” — in the Central Valley, the plant may grow faster.

“If you compare the size of almond trees in Chile, where they have fewer degree days than California, trees of the same age look smaller than those in CA,” Woolf said in an email. “While we don’t know with certainty if this will hold true with Agave…one would think it would.”

Woolf also says the sugar content in the plants is higher than in Mexico.

And in the two years he’s been growing the plants, Woolf has only given them three to four inches of water, compared to 48 inches a year for almonds.

The plants may not even require any water, said Woolf.

Questions like these are why Woolf donated the money to UC Davis to create the Stuart & Lisa Woolf Fund for Agave Research.

Growers can’t just copy and paste growing techniques in Jalisco, Mexico, where tequila originated.

Researchers would gather harvest data to create a database to determine best growing sites, varieties and if the frost risk in California is too high compared to Mexico, according to a story published by UC Davis.

Blue agave plants can weigh as much as 110 pounds, and it takes 11 pounds of agave to produce one bottle of tequila, according to UC Davis.

It was partly thanks to UC Davis researchers that processing tomatoes were successful in the region. Before California outproduced every other state for tomatoes, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana lead the way because of the lower shipping costs, according to the university. High production levels combined with research, as well as cheap labor from Bracero program, expanded the row crop in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When the Bracero program ended in 1964, mechanical harvesting continued to make the crop profitable for growers.

For growers of agave, it could mean a use for otherwise fallowed land.

Farmers, especially on the west side, keep acreage out of production because they don’t have the water allocations to grow anything there.

For those thinking they can buy land to just grow agave, they’ll have difficulty making the finances pencil out, says Woolf. But for someone who already owns land, it could be an intriguing crop.

To have a consistent harvest, Woolf says about 144 acres is ideal. Seven 20-acre plots would be committed to the same plants and could be cycled to maintain a crop every season.

“Why not plant something that normally would just be sitting idle,” Woolf said.

As easy as agave is to grow, it’s still a gamble that the infrastructure will exist to make use of the plant by the time it is mature.

As it stands now, the distilleries or processors don’t exist yet that could turn the plant into a consumable product — whether that be tequila or agave syrup.

But acreage and the right growing conditions weren’t enough for the wine industry to take off in the Central Valley, either.

It took decades for California wines to become established enough to support the now dozens of wineries in the area.

Wine began with immigrant families who began growing and making wines for themselves, said Nat DiBuduo, former president of Allied Grape Growers, a wine grape marketing cooperative.

Like many other Italian families, DiBuduo’s grandparents had grown grapes for wine to drink with their meals. And so Central Valley families would box up their grapes because the processing giants didn’t yet exist.

“We found ourselves shipping grapes to other people that were making money on it,” DiBuduo said.

It took names like Mondavi and Gallo to begin building processing facilities that grew California’s name in the wine industry.

Even as Napa Valley and Sonoma County grew worldwide acclaim, Central Valley growers still had a reputation for jug wines. Growers knew the money was in fine wines.

But even their own bottling facilities weren’t enough to create interest.

“Just because you can grow it, and you can crush it and make it, that doesn’t mean you can be successful marketing it,” DiBuduo said.

The first name to really break through was Angelo Papagni, said DiBuduo. Papagni spent a lot of time and money to market his product.

His work helped designate Madera as an American Viticultural Area, a special characteristic that helped places such as Napa and Paso Robles distinguish themselves.

“He was smart,” DiBuduo said. “If everyone else was using these tools as means for promotion, then he wanted that same tool for his fingers and his wine grapes.”

And breaking through to compete with the Mexican market may be essential to bring the industry necessary to make a Central Valley agave crop successful.

Craft tequilas are the fastest growing liquor type in the country, said Woolf.

And there are a handful of craft distillers that make a good product, he says. What’s needed is a distiller of scale. There’s a chicken-and-egg factor to make an agave industry successful.

“You’re probably not going to build a distillery unless you’re convinced they’ll grow here,” said Woolf. “So, you have growers who are planting them, betting that someone will come to distill them.”

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