Mesquite and jojoba pioneer Mark M. Moody was an orchardist, miller, inventor, and promoter of mesquite as the ultimate desert food and sustainable crop. He died at age 58 on June 3, 2017, of cancer in Bouse, Arizona, leaving a void in the mesquite community. His legacy continues to inspire people in Baja Arizona to try mesquite as a water-saving super-food for a changing climate.
There were precious-few plantsmen in the world like Mark Moody—especially in desert regions. He knew jojoba better than any agronomist out there, knew its needs and its potential in the Sonoran Desert, and had a sense of where the jojoba industry could go as a desert crop sustainable into the future. Moody was saving living samples of the heartiest, the most productive plants, the real survivors of the dried-up Wall-Street jojoba fad by propagating cuttings of surviving jojobas from long-abandoned fields.
The ceasing of financial support for jojoba in the 1990s was a blow that Mark sustained with difficulty. He turned his love of arid-lands agriculture instead in a positive direction—to mesquite. I think Moody did more to support and develop the growing interest in eating mesquite than almost any other single person. He made mesquite a “happening” food not only by growing it but also by actually providing the final mesquite meal product to the public when few other sources were available. Moody envisioned and invented an entire vertically integrated production chain: He selected choice mesquites to propagate and grow, single-handedly developed orchard agriculture with select mesquite clones while others had only talked of mesquite’s potential as a crop. Twenty-five miles south of parched Parker, Arizona, he created water-saving drip methods for mesquite, giving the hottest, driest part of Arizona an appropriate crop. Then he invented ways to cleanly and efficiently harvest the pods, developed ways to further clean them, solar dry them safely, even solar-roast them. With his Rube Goldberg skills, he invented a sorter and a mill capable of grinding the ornery, sugar-filled pods. It is a fine tribute to Moody’s rigorous methods, in every stage of production, that the mesquite meal produced from his orchard with his machinery consistently measured by far the lowest counts of aflatoxin of any samples run by the University of Arizona lab that monitors mesquite meal from all over Arizona.
During the first and only Mesquite Conference, sponsored by Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture in Benson, in the summer of 2015, Moody blew the audience away presenting on his model mesquite orchard project out in the stark, less-than-2-inches-of-precipitation desert of the community called Bouse.
As mesquite becomes more in demand as a mainstream food, as the climate becomes hotter and drier, as water is rationed and agriculture turns to more arid-adapted crops, Moody’s model will be there for others to use as a template. Some might say Moody was ahead of his time; I think he was right on, and none too soon. It is up to Baja Arizonans to open eyes, take action, and apply his model to increase productivity while conserving water at the same time. We need to take his visionary yet practical example and run with it—right now—as planners are already threatening to cut water allocations to farms in the Colorado’s Lower Basin.
Moody’s example of mesquite culture is a beautiful legacy for us in Baja Arizona. Colleges of Agriculture, Cooperative Extensions, arid-lands programs, botanical gardens, and desert arboreta should all be watching the living proof in Moody’s orchard. An interested group of young Tohono O’odham students at the Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells are watching. They know that low-water use, drought-tolerant agriculture may provide them appropriate livelihoods and sustainable land-use on the Nation. Moody’s model, from seed and soil to market, may indeed help launch them into business.
Moody has been a continuing inspiration for conservation and educational organizations like Native Seeds/SEARCH, for innovative businesses like Cheri’s Desert Harvest, and for desert-foods outreach programs like those of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono Chul Park, and Flor de Mayo LLC. Mark Moody will be deeply missed by these organizations and the people who have been touched by his work—and who have enjoyed his delicious mesquite meal.
Header image by Jack Dykinga.
Martha Ames Burgess is an ethnobotanist, artist, desert gardener, wild-harvester, teacher, and seed-saver. She also volunteers for Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace and Native Seeds/SEARCH.