Return of the pod man

Farming an ancient crop -- mesquite

  • Mark Moody at his Arizona mesquite farm.

    Emily Piraino
  • Mark Moody with some freshly harvested pods.

    Emily Piraino
 

Name Mark Moody
Age 51
Vocation Farmer of native Sonoran plants, including mesquite trees
He says "In the next three years, mesquite will be common in everybody's kitchen."
Favorite mesquite recipe Mix mesquite flour with butter; caramelize; smear on roasted corn-on-the-cob

Velvet mesquite tree facts:
•    Latin name: Prosopis velutina
•    Legume that bears nutritious pods, fixes nitrogen in soil
•    Well-adapted to hot, arid climates
•    Roots can reach 150 feet deep
•    Thrives on water too saline for other crops
•    Can live for hundreds of years
•    Mesquite flour is gluten-free, has high protein content  (35 percent) and low  glycemic index

In the blistering haze of a sunny June morning, Mark Moody sat sweltering on his tractor, clearing a centuries-old stand of mesquite trees from his farm near Bouse, Ariz. Searching for a sustainable desert crop, he suddenly –– literally –– hit upon a brilliant idea. His tractor blades unearthed two intact sets of manos and metates, stones traditionally used by Native Americans to grind corn and mesquite pods. That "life-changing experience" five years ago sparked an epiphany: Moody would start cultivating mesquite trees for both food and lumber.

The mesquite tree is one of the Sonoran Desert's most useful plants. Southwestern tribes harvested it for centuries. The whole tree can be utilized — the pods ground into a sweet, nutty flour, the yellow catkins used to produce honey, and the cherry-brown hardwood sawed into furniture and flooring, not to mention used for sweet-smelling firewood and grill flavoring.

Raised in nearby Parker, Ariz., Moody was always interested in growing things. In 2004, he and his wife bought a nine-acre plot in Bouse to raise native plants for his landscape nursery business. Moody had wanted to plant jojoba, which he grew in western Arizona for 13 years, but Bouse's winter temperatures were too harsh. After his "moment of clarity" under the ancient mesquite stand, he did some research and chose the uncharted path of mesquite production.

He contacted Matt Johnson, program manager of the Desert Legume Program in Tucson, Ariz., who told him that nobody was cultivating mesquite as a crop in Arizona, except perhaps the Tohono O'odham Indians.

"It was a big-time gamble," says Moody, since there were few native stands to harvest starter seeds from; most have been cleared for rangeland or cut down to produce charcoal. He worked out a deal with the National Park Service, pruning mesquite stands along the Colorado River in exchange for harvesting the pods. That first year, Moody harvested about 1,000 pounds of pods, planting some seeds and milling the rest into flour.

His first two orchard plantings succumbed to voracious jackrabbits, but this year, Moody succeeded in harvesting about 2,000 pounds of Arizona velvet mesquite pods. He plans to supplement that with another 8,000 pounds of wild-harvested pods. By 2012, he figures his own trees will be producing 40,000 to 50,000 pounds annually.

He also plans to raise bees to make mesquite honey, and to sell some of his trees for lumber and landscaping. Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit seed bank and native foods supplier in Tucson, just started carrying Moody's mesquite flour a few months ago, and he also sells flour at farmers' markets throughout the state.

Moody is not the only one who sees mesquite's potential. The San Xavier Cooperative Farm on the Tohono O'odham Reservation south of Tucson has been selling wild-harvested mesquite flour for five years. Dedicated to reviving traditional foods to combat modern-day health problems such as diabetes, the co-op currently has 600 mesquite saplings that will be ready for planting in a few months.

"The Indians call it the tree of life, and literally that's what it is," Moody says. "We're fortunate in Arizona to have this tree. It's just been overlooked for the past 90 years."

Not everyone shares Moody's confidence that mesquite will become the Southwest's new wonder crop. Peter Felker, a retired research scientist at the Center for Semi-Arid Forest Resources at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, believes that only mesquite lumber is likely to prove economically viable on a large scale in the U.S. Hand-harvesting pods simply costs too much, and at $12 to $14 a pound, mesquite flour can't compete with other flours.

Yet the hardy desert tree is "certainly a more intelligent crop for the Southwest," says Richard Felger, retired scientist at the University of Arizona Environmental Research Lab Department. And there is a lot of marginal land in the Southwest that could be put into mesquite production. "We need to look at our water use; things can't keep going the way they are," says Moody. "We should stop raising cotton and lettuce and grow what can be grown here."

For more images of Mark Moody's work, see our multimedia piece The mesquite wrangler.

 

 For additional information on mesquite, see Desert Harvesters: Appreciating the Native Foods of the Sonoran Desert, and The Desert Legume Program.

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