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An ancestry made of agave

PWS doctoral student Hector Ortiz revisits his roots to cultivate an alternative crop during times of drought.

As the sun pours its dry, scorching heat across the Sonoran Desert, a seven-year-old boy in leather sandals follows his papá through a field of pointed agave leaves growing from the ground like bundles of green swords. His papá walks across the rocky desert without wandering. He seems to speak an ancient dialect to connect with the spirit of the earth, listening for each ready agave plant begging to be harvested.

Hector visits his family in tribal lands of Mexico

Watching his papá gather agave and connect with the earth is one of Hector Ortiz's earliest memories. Ortiz was raised in the indigenous Mayo tribe of southern Sonora, Mexico. His grandfather came from the Pima tribe, a people descended from the Hohokam tribe of northern Sonora. “My favorite thing ever was going with papá Hector to the field,” Ortiz says. “He was so respectful to the Huya Ania, or the wilderness world.” Ortiz’s goal in life was to become a farmer, just like his grandpa.

However, life took Ortiz in a different direction. He began working with large-scale production of agave, running plantations and facilities in the Sonoran Desert. While completing is master’s degree, Ortiz met his wife Anna, a BYU graduate student from Colorado. The couple moved to their current home in Provo eight years ago.

While working for the Forest Service in Utah, Ortiz came across a perfect opportunity. “There was a professor at BYU who was interested in agaves, which was very random to me,” Ortiz says. “And I said, ‘I know agaves!’ In some ways, I think the spirit guided me in this direction to do this study.”

Ortiz set out with plant and wildlife professor Ryan Stewart to study agave cultivation using dryland farming techniques. They looked specifically at pre-Columbian rock piles, a technique used extensively by the Hohokam tribe to grow agave in the Sonoran Desert. Stewart and Ortiz created replicas of these indigenous rock beds to test their effectiveness. With the dry, hot climate in the southwestern United States, Ortiz believes the pre-Columbian rock beds could be used to cultivate agave as an alternative crop in the future. This is especially effective because, according to Ortiz, dryland farming allows for a significant reduction in irrigation water needed. The plant is ideal for arid regions because it is drought-tolerant, with some species surviving long periods of time without any water.

Indigenous tribes in the Sonoran Desert have used agave for generations to make fibers, medicine, food, and drinks. Ortiz ate agave growing up and remembers it being very tasty and healthy. “Often there is this idea that indigenous people are behind in technology, but the reality is they knew what they were doing thousands of years ago,” Ortiz says. “They used the same process of observation in nature as the scientific method that we know now to create new things.”

Hector works at the agave experimental site

Ortiz’s indigenous background continues to impact the way he sees the world. He and his wife have two young daughters. Their five-year-old is named Sonora, representing Ortiz’s love for his roots in the Sonoran Desert. Their 18-month-old daughter is named Mayahuel after the indigenous goddess of agave. “My roots as a native are related to agave,” he says. “All my life there’s been a connection with this plant.” This desert plant will be a part of Ortiz’s life and his family’s heritage forever. With Ortiz’s research, agave could also become an important tool in times of drought.