The Desert Prophet of New Food Crops

Forty years ago, a long-time Tucsonan named Richard Felger was promoting new water-saving food crops for arid lands. If only we’d listened.

March 7, 2016

Issue 17: March/April 2016Profile

Botanist Richard Felger has always been a little ahead of his time. As a teenager in southern California, he cultivated rare cacti and orchids at home. Before he graduated from college at the University of Arizona, he shadowed some of the world’s greatest desert ecologists. And on his first trip down to Alamos, Sonora, he had a realization that would drive his career: the Sonoran Desert was full of wonders—and many of those wonders were edible.

Within a few years, Felger had suggested that we design farms to mimic desert ecosystems. In several papers published in the late 1970s, he and his colleagues pioneered a methodology for identifying “new crops for arid lands.” He proposed that the most yield-stable native wild food plants of the desert be domesticated into crops that could be cultivated with minimum irrigation and tillage.

The Sonoran Desert natives that Felger initially proposed be cultivated included mesquite, agaves, fruit from organ pipe and prickly pear cactus, tepary beans, chiltepins, grain from saltgrass called “nipa,” amaranth, and oil from buffalo gourd seeds. Felger predicted that agriculture in the Sonoran and other deserts would soon need to be restructured from the bottom up. His vision was to “fit the crop to the prevailing environmental conditions rather than trying to remake desert environments to fit temperate, water-hungry crops.”

He and his colleagues proposed that farmers plant native, drought-hardy crops in mixtures of species, mostly perennials. They could efficiently use harvested rainwater, rather than the pumped groundwater required by conventionally recommended crops—cotton, alfalfa, pecans, citrus, lettuce.

And yet, his message was largely ignored, if not outright dismissed, by most of the crop scientists working in the same arid region.

Now many Arizonans wonder why mainstream crop scientists didn’t listen to him sooner. With groundwater levels plummeting across the desert Southwest, and the Colorado River’s reservoirs reaching the lowest levels since it was first dammed, both water rationing and steep price increases for irrigation are kicking in. Desert-adapted crops are needed more than ever. Felger recognized the Sonoran Desert’s apparent barrenness as “deceptive,” and showed how its residents could enjoy a level of local food security unknown for decades.

As early as the 1970s, botanist Richard Felger was proposing the cultivation of “new crops for arid lands”—many of which are now in cultivation today.

As early as the 1970s, botanist Richard Felger was proposing the cultivation of “new crops for arid lands”—many of which are now in cultivation today.

While Felger began his career as a desert herpetologist, he soon gained renown as the Sonoran Desert’s most knowledgeable botanist, writing regional floras and describing new species or novel uses of well-known ones.

But it was his earliest work describing the historical uses of plants by the Seri Indians that transformed his research into a quest for future food crops. The Seri demonstrated to Felger not only that these plants were edible, but also that they were delicious. Though familiar with the Sonoran Desert’s overall plant diversity, he chose to focus on a few of its edible species—including two that were wild-harvested by the Seri and their Mexican neighbors—for their potential to become crops in arid climates. His technical papers adorned the covers of prestigious science journals but at times were more widely celebrated beyond the Sonoran Desert than within it.

Most field crop scientists in the Southwest’s land grant agricultural colleges dismissed Felger’s suggestions and the possibility that future water scarcity might drive into obsolescence the furrow irrigation of food crops adapted to temperate climates. Assuming that the water would always flow and that their familiar crops would prosper, they doubted whether Felger’s novel candidates for food crops would ever reach the field, let alone the dinner table. Audience or no audience, grants or no grants, Felger has continued desert food studies for well over half of his life. A youthful-looking 81, he exudes whimsy and humor, refusing bitterness over lack of recognition by his peers. He is hopeful, not cynical: “The usual complaint about new crops you hear when you talk with well-funded institutions or government programs is that most of native desert crops are not well-suited for industrial scale harvesting and processing. The agricultural industry still turns its nose up at the idea of new crops. It doesn’t want to fund their development unless it can acquire all proprietary rights to the species, which I will not and cannot offer.”

But the times—and the climate—are changing. And Felger has found new, more receptive audiences:

“Last year, when I spoke at the conference of the New Mexico Organic Farming Alliance I realized that hundreds of small scale farmers fully get what I am trying to do. They are eager to participate because of the challenges they are currently facing … and are helping me get these promising crops evaluated under field conditions on their own farms,” he said. “Most of the world has recognized by now that there will soon be no cheap water for irrigating crops, nor cheap fossil fuel for tillage. Many farmers actually want to transition to no-till. And now, there’s a vibrant locavore movement that is willing to pay for sustainably grown foods. These various threads are being woven together.”

When I tracked Felger down in Silver City, New Mexico, I asked him if we could document which of the new food crops he proposed in the 1970s had already hit “pay dirt”—that is, which crops were being grown commercially. When we looked back over his earliest predictions of which native desert foods should be grown in a sustainable manner in the Sonoran Desert, we were astonished by the high percentage of his candidates that have already been adopted by farmers and chefs.

Richard Felger is working with Gregg Dugan, a tree crop specialist in Silver City, New Mexico, to build partnerships with local farmers to get crops like mesquite and Apache redgrass cultivated on a large scale.

Richard Felger is working with Gregg Dugan, a tree crop specialist in Silver City, New Mexico, to build partnerships with local farmers to get crops like mesquite and Apache redgrass (below) cultivated on a large scale.

When Felger and his colleagues began to evaluate the chiltepin as a potential food crop, the entire harvest coming into Arizona from Sonora was wild-harvested. Soon, Sonoran innovators such as Alfredo Noriega and Manuel Alberto Lopez had carefully selected from diverse wild foundation seeds those which would do best under cultivation. Today, some years cultivated chiltepin sales exceed that of wild-harvested chiltepins.

Felger is now in the field again, partnering with his Silver City neighbor Gregg Dugan, a tree crop specialist who is helping to advance the no-till production of perennial food crops in permaculture systems. They’re working with several farmers on Arizona Indian reservations, in Sonoran villages, and New Mexican farm towns to get crops like mesquite and Apache redgrass cultivated on a large scale. Their work was recently supported by a specialty crop grant from New Mexico’s state government.

If there is any take-home message from Felger’s work over the past four decades, it is that innovations in our food systems most often emerge from creative people on the margins, not from the biggest, wealthiest research institutions or agribusinesses. It was Felger’s deep familiarity with these plants that enabled him to envision an alternate future for food crops in the desert.

But the question in Felger’s story is not how visionaries like Felger secure funding and recognition for their innovations that may benefit society. Rather, it is: Are we desert dwellers ready to eat a diet that features crops suited to our arid environment, or will we continue to see the desert depleted by the furrow irrigation of water-guzzling and largely unsustainable food crops? This choice is ours to make. ✜

Gary Paul Nabhan is senior contributing editor for Edible Baja Arizona. He began his own work on desert foods as Richard Felger’s intern and research assistant 40 years ago. He wishes to honor Felger as well as Felger’s many Tucson-based collaborators who helped advance this pioneering work: Clifford Pablo, Linda Leigh, Dennis Cornejo, Jim Verrier, Mark Dimmitt, Nick and Susanna Yensen, Martha Ames Burgess, Cathy Moser Marlett, Ed Glenn, Mahina Drees, and Carolyn Niethammer, among others.

Previous Post

Tasting Climate

Next Post

Creating Pockets