The Return of the Pod Man – High Country News – Knowing the West


Agriculture of an ancient culture – mesquite

  • Mark Moody at his mesquite farm in Arizona.

    Emilie Piraino

  • Mark Moody with some freshly harvested pods.

    Emilie Piraino

Last name Mark Moody
Age 51
Vocation Farmer of native Sonoran plants, including mesquites
He says “Over the next three years, mesquite will be common in everyone’s kitchen.”
Favorite mesquite recipe Mix the mesquite flour with the butter; caramelize; spread over grilled corn on the cob

Velvet Mesquite Facts:
• Latin name: Prosopis velutina
• Legume which bears nutritious pods, fixes nitrogen in the soil
• Well suited to hot and arid climates
• Roots can reach 150 feet deep
• Feeds on water that is too salty for other crops
• Can live for hundreds of years
• Mesquite flour is gluten free, has a high protein content (35%) and a low glycemic index.

In the scorching haze of a sunny June morning, Mark Moody sat, choking on his tractor, clearing a century-old stand of mesquite trees from his farm near Bouse, Ariz. In search of a sustainable desert culture, he suddenly –– literally –– struck out on 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. This “life-changing experience” five years ago sparked an eye opener: Moody would start growing mesquite trees for both food and wood.

Mesquite is one of the most useful plants in the Sonoran Desert. Southwestern tribes have harvested it for centuries. The whole tree can be used – the pods crushed into a sweet nutty flour, the yellow catkins used to produce honey, and the cherry brown hardwood sawn into furniture and flooring, not to mention the fragrant firewood and aromas. of grills.

Raised in the nearby town of Parker, Arizona, Moody has always been interested in culture. In 2004, he and his wife purchased nine acres of land in Bouse to grow 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 old mesquite stand, he did some research and chose the uncharted route of mesquite production.

He contacted Matt Johnson, program director of the Desert Legume Program in Tucson, Arizona, who told him that no one grows mesquite as a plant in Arizona, except perhaps the Tohono O’odham Indians.

“It was a big gamble,” says Moody, because there were few native stands to harvest starter seeds; most have been cleared for rangelands or felled to produce charcoal. He made a deal with the National Park Service, pruning the mesquite stands along the Colorado River in exchange for harvesting the pods. That first year, Moody harvested around 1,000 pounds of pods, planting a few seeds and grinding the rest into flour.

His first two orchard plantations succumbed to voracious hares, but this year Moody managed to harvest around 2,000 pounds of Arizona velvet mesquite pods. He plans to supplement that with an additional 8,000 pounds of wild-harvested pods. By 2012, he expects his own trees to produce between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds per year.

He also plans to breed bees to make mesquite honey and sell some of his trees for lumber and landscaping. Native Seeds / SEARCH, a nonprofit seed bank and native food supplier in Tucson, just started selling Moody’s mesquite flour a few months ago, and it also sells flour on Moody’s. statewide farmer’s markets.

Moody isn’t the only one who sees the potential of mesquite. The San Xavier Co-operative Farm on the Tohono O’odham Preserve south of Tucson has been selling mesquite flour that has been harvested in the wild for five years. Dedicated to reviving traditional foods to fight modern health problems such as diabetes, the cooperative currently has 600 mesquite seedlings that will be ready to be planted in a few months.

“The Indians call it the tree of life, and that is literally what it is,” Moody says. “We are fortunate in Arizona to have this tree. It has just been neglected for the past 90 years.”

Not everyone shares Moody’s belief that mesquite will become the Southwest’s new miracle crop. Peter Felker, a retired researcher at the Center for Semi-Arid Forest Resources at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, believes that only mesquite wood is likely to be economically viable on a large scale in the United States. and at $ 12 to $ 14 a pound, mesquite flour cannot compete with other flours.

Still, the hardy desert tree is “certainly a smarter crop for the Southwest,” says Richard Felger, a retired scientist in the University of Arizona’s Department of the Environmental Research Laboratory. And there is a lot of marginal land in the southwest that could be used for mesquite production. “We need to look at our use of water; things can’t go on as they are, ”says Moody. “We should stop growing 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 more information on mesquite, see Desert Harvesters: Appreciating the Native Foods of the Sonora Desert and The Desert Legume Program.

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