Skip to main content

Drought-friendly agave plants might be the key to saving California farms

A brand new spirit is coming from California

For non-Californians, the Golden State is often associated with things like surfing, palm-tree-lined beaches, rows of lush vineyards, and romantically foggy Golden Gate cityscapes. But for those in the Central Valley, the dusty desert landscape is much more familiar. Long, hot, dry summers and farmland as far as the eye can see are common experiences for more than 6 million Californians. Many consider the Central Valley to be the breadbasket of the world, where expert farmers farm thousands of crops like citrus, grapes, figs, tomatoes and nuts on a commercial level. Unfortunately, climate change and drought have hit California hard in the last several years, and after constant battles over limited water use and frustrations over other political regulations, California farmers have had to shift gears and get creative.

Farmer plowing a field

When you think of tequila and mezcal, of course Mexico comes to mind. You might imagine a hot summer sun beating down on a desert landscape peppered with fields of agave in the gorgeous highlands of Jalisco. In this environment, agave — the mother of tequila and mezcal — thrives, generously providing us with her sweet gift of delicious spirits. The beloved tequila plant has been known exclusively as a Mexican treasure — until now.

Central Valley farmers, after being forced to uproot thousands of acres’ worth of dry and dying crops due to the California water shortage, had a revelation. Realizing that tequila and mezcal are the fastest-growing spirits in the United States, California farm owners have taken their cue from Mexico’s experts and started planting their own drought-resistant agave. The plan is to create a whole new, never-before-tasted, unique-to-California agave spirit.

Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Manual to share his thoughts and plans about this exciting possibility. Woolf grows everything from almonds and wine grapes to pistachios and tomatoes, selling his top-notch crops to enormous companies like Heinz. However, it’s his field of 4,000 experimental agave plants that has him most excited at the moment.

“It’s fun to be part of a fledging industry,” Woolf told us. “Friends and family I’ve known for years who’ve never otherwise shown any interest in agriculture are suddenly interested in what I do and even wanting to invest!”

Agave fruit and a barrel on a wooden wagon
Image used with permission by copyright holder

With California droughts ongoing and agave’s limited need for water, Woolf’s excitement makes sense. Not only is the idea of a brand new spirit exciting, but the difference in agave’s water needs compared to the needs of other crops is astonishing. Annually, almonds require between 48 and 55 inches of rain to thrive. Pistachios need between 36 and 40 inches of rain. Tomatoes need up to 78 inches of rain per year. Agave? Only about two inches of rain annually. The difference is shocking and gives real hope to California farmers who’ve been pummeled by drought.

Woolf is in the experimental phase of this project, currently testing 12 varieties of agave plant on his land. Different soil types, fertilizers, and watering levels are all being researched and documented with much success. Because irrigation systems are already in place, much of the land here can be watered more routinely than Mexico’s farms, which often lack any sort of watering system and rely fully on rainfall. The hope is that by watering California plants more consistently and regularly, the agave will grow bigger and with more sugar than their Mexican counterparts. Ultimately, this would create a bolder, even more flavorful spirit than anything we’ve yet seen.

The excitement of this burgeoning project has even reached the state capital. With the help of California Assemblyman Jim Patterson, Woolf was able to form the California Agave Council, a group of passionate growers, distillers, retailers, and consumers aiming to promote and build the emerging California agave spirits industry.

Assemblyman Patterson spoke with us as well, saying, “I love the idea of tackling a problem so severe and detrimental to our farmers, and being able to create from it something so fruitful. Drought has caused such despair here in the Valley, and this is a beautifully creative and exciting way to turn that all around.”

Agave plants
California Agave Ventures, LLC/Facebook

Because of legal restrictions under Mexican law, this original spirit will not be able to be called “tequila” or “mezcal,” even though it will taste very similar. When we asked Woolf what we can expect the label to say, he said that names like “California distilled spirit” and “California agave spirit” are still being workshopped. Then he joked, “Who knows? Maybe even ‘Teqcali!'” The jury’s still out on that one, but we happen to love it.

“I love knowing that my children are seeing us tackle the drought crisis head on,” Woolf said. “Not only that, but giving it a positive spin on it for our lives, our business, and our future.”

Editors' Recommendations

Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
10 smoky scotch whisky options to make those fall campfires magical
Our favorite smoky scotch whisky brands for late-summer drinking
Campfire whisky

The end of summer is barreling toward us like a pumpkin spice-fueled locomotive. Depending on where you live, you’re likely already seeing some signs of fall. The leaves are beginning to change color, the days are getting shorter, and Halloween candy is already on grocery store shelves. Fear not, even with the eventuality that is the end of summer, we still have until September 23 to enjoy all that the season has to offer. For us, it means as many backyard campfires as possible before the weather grows colder. It also means we only have weeks left to pair our fires with a glass of warming Scotch whisky.

Nobody will blame you for complimenting the smoky fire by drinking a complex, non-peated single malt Scotch whisky. For those confused about the spelling, most of the world omits the 'e' when referring to whisky. You also might be wondering the difference between Scotch and whiskey. Well, in the simplest terms, Scotch is a kind of whisky (Americans and the Irish still use the 'e'). So that should put an end to the Scotch vs. whiskey debate once and for all.

Read more
Berries going bad too fast? Try this amazing viral TikTok hack that actually works
This viral TikTok hack shows you how to keep your berries fresh for up to 10 days
Mixed berries

Berries are a fan favorite in the produce section. These juicy little delights are a vitamin-packed fruit that's great for baking, snacking, making fruity cocktails like sangria, and even brightening up your weekend charcuterie boards. If you're someone who loves berries, you know how frustrating it can be when they start going bad too quickly.
But worry not! A viral TikTok hack has been making waves online, promising to keep your berries in tip-top shape for longer. We'll walk you through how to keep berries fresh using this amazing hack that actually works.
Say goodbye to wasting money on spoiled fruit, and hello to spoiling yourself with fresh, juicy berries whenever you want!

How to keep berries fresh with water and vinegar
Berries tend to spoil quickly due to their high water content, delicate texture, and the growth of mold and bacteria between them in their store-bought produce cartons. Exposure to moisture, heat, and air can also accelerate the ripening (or spoiling) process.

Read more
Take a break from pumpkin beer: The best Oktoberfest beers to drink this fall
These delicious drinks are perfect for crisp fall days
Pint of beer

There are at least a handful of holidays (especially drinking centered holidays) that many drinkers don’t really know the true origins of. We know these are special days in which we drink tequila and Mexican beer (Cinco de Mayo), Irish whiskey or dry Irish stouts (St. Patrick’s Day), and giant pints of malty, refreshing German beer (Oktoberfest). And while we’ll get into the other two when the time comes, it’s Oktoberfest’s time in the spotlight.

Oktoberfest is more than simply a day to wear your grandfather’s lederhosen, drink Marzen, eat schnitzel, and listen to oom-pah music. It’s a two-week festival (the actual party is in Munich) that’s celebrated each fall to remember the wedding of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810.

Read more