Agri Leader

An intrepid search for a specialty crop

Agri-CultureYou’ve probably heard of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post. I’m feeling like the Woodward and Bernstein of the prickly pear cactus business. I wrote a column back in January about the health benefits of prickly pear cactus, otherwise known as nopales in Spanish. Nopales are a common part of Mexican food, and they’re used in side dishes, salads, egg dishes, jellies, and more. They have a spiny exterior, but once you shave that off, the part you eat has a consistency that reminds me of bell pepper. Nopales are hailed for their high fiber count and anti-inflammatory qualities. Ever since I wrote that story, I have wanted to track down and visit someone in central Florida who grows nopales. Granted, some of you can probably look in your backyard and see a prickly pear cactus tree, but I was thinking of growth on a larger scale to supply local farmers markets, Mexican restaurants and ethnic supermarkets.
“I’m unaware of any sizable production. If it’s out there, it will be tiny, with a few plots or acres here and there,” said Dan Sleep, supervisor/senior analyst, Division of Marketing and Development, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He told me the department did some earlier work with the cactus but after an aggressive fungus created some havoc, the project was abandoned. Then, Chris Denmark, a development representative in the Division of Marketing and Development, gave me a little more scoop. He said a report that addresses nopales from 2004 was created before hurricanes passed through the state. The hurricanes temporarily halted production for many state crops. One farmer in the report had since died, and another company mentioned in the report was out of business. “In speaking with state farmer’s markets around Florida, there are a few small-scale operators who supply locally, but they are hit or miss,” Denmark said. He added that he’s seen nopales grow in the state, but our humidity and rainfall make them less viable than they are in Texas or Mexico, where it is drier. On with the search… Nonethless, Denmark was nice enough to humor me by providing referrals to local Latin supermarkets and area extension offices that might have leads. I reached out to extension offices in Manatee and Hillsborough counties, as one of Denmark’s contacts heard about a two-acre field of nopales near Ruskin. The contacts were not aware of that growth. My dad sent me an email about a field he spotted not far from Wauchula. I have yet to find it. Denmark passed on a referral to a Mexican restaurant near Sebring that supposedly grows nopales for use in their restaurant. The referral tells me that she sold the restaurant to her daughter years ago, and the daughter wasn’t available to talk. I asked the vendor at the local farmers market where I originally bought my nopales. “Where are these grown?” I ask innocently. “I don’t know,” the vendor grunts, pointing in the direction of a man working hard in the back of a truck to move around produce. My local Latin supermarket has a sign above their nopales only indicating they are a “Product of the USA.” I decide to go back to one of my sources for my original nopales story, Bradenton resident and Mexico native Waly Zemp. Surely in Zemp’s travels around the area and in visits to local Mexican restaurants, he would have a lead. “No, I haven’t seen nopales grown around here. I see strawberries and oranges all the time but not nopales. Maybe the ones I’m buying are from Mexico?” he pondered. Well, you get the idea. My search continues…