Spring in the Sonoran Desert brings a showy display of color, as prickly pear cactuses bloom in yellow, red, and purple along trails, canyons, and urban landscapes. The ephemeral spectacle delights wildflower enthusiasts, and Cheri Romanoski is top among them.
For the native Tucsonan, the blooming prickly pear cactus isn’t just something to admire. The more bright petals that sprout on the plant’s spiny paddle-shaped pads, the more fruit it will produce. A bumper crop each season means Romanoski can count on an ample supply of prickly pears for the jellies, marmalades, syrups, and candies she has been making for the past quarter century.
Romanoski is at the helm of Cheri’s Desert Harvest, the Tucson company she founded in 1985 after turning her attention to the hardy desert plant as a source of food that is not only tasty but also healthy.
She had been making preserves from citrus fruits for about five years before she realized, “I’m right here in the desert, I should be working with indigenous fruits.”
To make her fledgling business distinctive and sustainable, she settled on the prickly pear cactus that abounds in the region. Though then novel in mainstream America, the fruit and tender pads of the plant have long been staples in native and Latin American diets and medicine. Over the years, as consumer awareness of the plants’ health benefits has grown in the United States, so has demand for Romanoski’s prickly pear concoctions. The fruit packs a punch of nutrients that include Vitamin C, calcium, dietary fiber, and antioxidant compounds.
“More and more, people are learning about the diversity of the fruit,” she says. “People are becoming more conscious about eating natural foods, superfoods. The prickly pear is a superfood.”
Her prickly pear cactus of choice is the Englemann’s variety, which sprouts rich red fruit. The shrubby plants blanket a large desert patch in the Vail area, one of the sites where Romanoski’s workers typically harvest the fruit between July and September.
Early on an August morning, Romanoski arrives at the site and spots a handful of 10-gallon white plastic baskets overflowing with prickly pears along the edge of a solitary road. She strains to see past a thicket of mesquite trees in search of her crew but sees no one. She ventures into the desert terrain, cautiously dodging the thorny, spreading mounds of her favorite cactus all around her.
Years ago, Romanoski and her children used to pick fruit here during family outings. “I’d bring food and we’d make a morning of it. It was very special,” she says. “I quit doing that because I was just too worried about snakes.”
“I stuck with it because I liked the challenge and I like to do things no one has done before. I like to learn and figure things out.”
The property belongs to a cattle rancher who allows her to harvest on it. Her crew is usually fewer than 10 people. Pickers go into the desert every weekend until they reach their collective goal for the season: 35 to 40 tons of prickly pears, enough for Romanoski to meet demand and accommodate nature’s fickle ways. In the past, little rain and warm winters have meant fewer prickly pears. “They usually bring in about five tons a weekend,” Romanoski says. “So far, they’ve harvested 21 tons.”
The sun shines bright but the heat has yet to overpower on this summer day. The six-member crew has been picking pears since 6 a.m. It’s after 7 a.m. when Romanoski comes across Gilbert Alvarado. He and his boss briefly talk shop as he swiftly plucks prickly pears with tongs to avoid touching the clusters of tiny bristles, or glochids, that cover the fruit. The white bucket next to him is almost full.
Alvarado and the rest of the crew work fast. The prickly pears are ripe and falling off. “They’re just at the tail end,” notes Romanoski, who says the fruit on the ground is unusable because it can collect rocks that might damage processing equipment.
A few yards away, the crew leader, Nellie Botelo, emerges onto the roadside from the desert brush. She’s nursing a broken foot, so she limps toward her husband, Manuel Barajas, who’s arranging buckets in the back of a truck. She hands him one more and pauses to rest.
“I love coming out here to pick prickly pears,” says Botelo, who wears ankle-to-knee chaps to protect against snake bites. “It’s so peaceful and serene.”
Botelo is well acquainted with prickly pears. She grew up on a communal farm in the northern state of Sonora, Mexico, where the cactus plants—called nopales and their fruit, tunas—are ever-present in Mexican cuisine. People also rely on the plant to relieve various ailments. Botelo says eating prickly pears and tender cactus pads helps keep her diabetes under control.
She and Barajas get ready to join pickers at another site nearby. The crew has collected as much fruit as they can on this strip of land. Barajas recalls more productive harvesting seasons and Romanoski ascribes it to a mild winter that caused prickly pears to peak early.
“I knew that they could potentially come in early, but they all came in at the same time,” she says. “We can only deal with so much at a time.”
To have more control, Romanoski plans to farm the cactus plant on 20 acres of land that her parents own in Elephant Head, near Green Valley, although her crew will still harvest the wild prickly pears that grow rampant on ranch land in southern Arizona.
On the farm, “We will start planting in rows for easier harvesting,” she says.
Romanoski bids farewell to the crew and heads toward the plant on Winsett Street where the fruit is processed. The building, part of an industrial tract off South Kino Boulevard near East 22nd Street, is where Romanoski spends most of her time making about three dozen different products year-round. Although the prickly pear cactus is the star of Romanoski’s business, she also relies on mesquite, agave, and other desert plants for her organic, kosher-certified foods. And she makes jelly with hot peppers, candy with pomegranates, and marmalade with Arizona Red Lime.
Romanoski discovered the lime, also known as Rangpur lime, growing in her backyard some 30 years ago, when she was still a schoolteacher foraging for natural desert foods for her family.
She recalls that seeing her firstborn child’s red-stained face after drinking a commercial, sugary drink prompted her to look for healthier alternatives. She started making preserves around that time, and her hobby gradually grew into a home-based business.
It took some time for her husband, Jon, to get used to the idea. “I thought it was a lark,” he says. “I didn’t take it seriously.”
One day, a package arrived in the mail with 2,400 empty jars. He knew then that his wife was indeed serious.
Building her company to what it is today took time. After leaving her teaching job, she worked as an aerobics instructor for 20 years to help supplement her family’s income. As the head of the business, she didn’t draw a salary for 15 years.
“I stuck with it because I liked the challenge and I like to do things no one has done before,” she says. “I like to learn and figure things out.”
To come up with the prickly pear combinations she’s now known for, Romanoski enlisted the help of a Chicago chemist who had retired in Tucson. Despite his dislike for the fruit, the late Everett Gustafson introduced the budding entrepreneur to the wonders of food chemistry.
“I was eager to learn and he became my professor,” Romanoski says.
Her newfound knowledge was central, she says, to building a primarily wholesale business with a presence in restaurants, co-ops, and hotels across Arizona and in all the contiguous states. Her husband joined the company after retiring from a long teaching career in Tucson schools.
Now he keeps busy at the processing plant crunching numbers and sticking labels on bottles of prickly pear syrup in a room packed with ribbons, boxes, and empty buckets. Employees come and go throughout the building, cleaning and rinsing the fruit that pickers drop off. Later, they will steam the prickly pears and extract their juice with a press.
“All the juice has to be processed, refrigerated, and frozen,” Romanoski says.
Depending on their size and ripeness, the prickly pears are dropped into either a 10- or 20-gallon steam kettle. Once soft, after about 10 to 15 minutes, the fruit is placed for a couple of hours in a press that extracts the juice.
“Steaming it increases the nutrient value so you get a higher vitamin and mineral content,” she says. “Without steaming, it has a wild, more milky taste instead of a fruity flavor, almost like an apple.”
The extracted juice fills buckets stacked high near the processing equipment. An assigned grade according to color and viscosity is visible on a label adhered to each bucket. “Certain grades I use in certain products,” Romanoski says.
The juice is used to make a magenta-colored syrup that can accompany desserts, and is a key ingredient in most of the company products. Various Tucson restaurants use the syrup to whip up prickly pear margaritas, wine coolers, and lemonades, Romanoski says.
The juice is made faster than it can be used, so it is stored in freezers. It’s late afternoon as Ryan Velasco, the company’s shipping manager, loads stack after stack of 46-pound buckets onto a dolly and rolls the cooled-down juice into walk-in freezers. Stacks already inside reach from floor to ceiling.
“We keep two years’ worth of frozen juice just in case,” says Velasco before disappearing into another freezer.
Not one to waste food, Romanoski donates the byproducts of the pressed fruit to organic gardeners for compost. She likes the idea of giving back to nature some of what it’s given her, she says.
By late afternoon, the workday winds down. Sebastian Botelo, the picking crew leader’s grandson, flits from one room to the next finishing up various tasks. He wears a smile and a red-stained white T-shirt. Dania Nuñez washes dishes and Bob Dixon, who’s known as the kitchen manager, sweeps the floor. “I just do whatever needs to be done,” he says.
Romanoski is in the tiny gift shop where she sells her products on site to the few customers who drop by. The goods also are available online, but retail sales make up just 15 percent of business.
That’s just fine with Romanoski, who has her hands full trying to figure out ways to expand her prickly pear cactus products.
Recently she started working with an artist to turn the pulp of excess prickly pears into dye for specialty T-shirts emblazoned with desert scenes. Her latest venture involves the production of seed oil for cosmetics companies. It’s a complex undertaking. Romanoski knows of only two companies outside the United States that produce oil from prickly pear seeds. True to form, she is up for the challenge.
“We are constantly working to improve and find ways to use every part of the prickly pear,” she says. ✜
Cheri’s Desert Harvest. CherisDesertHarvest.com. 520.623.4141.
Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the border. Follow her on Twitter @_lourdesmedrano.