Monday, March 7, 2022

Posted By and on Mon, Mar 7, 2022 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Ricardo Aguirre stands in the same field just a single season after it had been treated with animals.

RED ROCK – All around Picacho Peak, the Sonoran Desert is brown and dry and rough. The soles of your feet could not tell the desert hardpan from an asphalt road.

About 2,500 feet above the ground, water vapor streaming northeast into Arizona from the Gulf of California condenses into larger and larger droplets until they’re too heavy to remain suspended. When thousands become one, that drop falls toward earth. For two to seven minutes, the drop freefalls, reaching speeds up to 20 mph before it strikes the surface.

The impact is quiet. But for the compacted soil, the rain does not provide necessary moisture, it tears the land apart. The crust on top of the soil keeps the water from penetrating. As the water seeks its level, it rips across the surface in muddy flash floods, further eroding topsoil.

On an 8-acre plot off South Aguirre Lane in unincorporated Red Rock, Ricardo Aguirre is using his family’s old ranch to prove there is a way to stop the flooding and erosion. He can’t make the rain fall, but his mission is to prepare the land to utilize the rain when it comes, “making sure every raindrop is effective the moment it falls on the ground,” said Aguirre, a drainage engineer.

“Which means get it in the ground and make sure that it doesn’t run laterally across.”

Aguirre directs land management and water security for the civil engineering firm WEST Consultants Inc., which specializes in water resource management and has offices in Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington and Texas. The land where his family once farmed cotton and ran cattle is where he now demonstrates methods to restore grasslands, improve soil health and ultimately reverse desertification.

Deserts cover more than 41% of Earth’s landmass, according to the United Nations. But because of human activity, deserts are growing by about 33,000 square miles – the size of Ireland – every year.

Deforestation, destructive agricultural practices and climate change have contributed to the degradation of topsoil and expanding deserts. Yet healthy topsoil is essential to growing food, and according to one U.N. study, if land degradation continues, topsoil could be gone within 60 years.

The symptom of desertification that Aguirre is addressing is excess flooding. He’s looking at alternative land management practices to return water cycles to nature’s designs.

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Grant Tims points out an area heavily affected by desertification. The sparse areas of tall grass are caused by rapid evaporation of rainwater after it rolls off unhealthy soil.

Going against the grain

Aguirre spent more than a decade of his civil engineering career utilizing modern methods of stormwater management. His textbooks and his degree from University of Illinois taught him to manage water with a pipe, a channel and a hole in the ground. He described his career as “intrinsically connected to the land,” and that connection, along with his agrarian roots, led to much deliberation in the back of his mind. He felt a responsibility to leave the land he worked with better than he found it.

In August 2010, he became a father, and those deliberations moved to the front of his mind.

Aguirre imagined a conversation 15 years in the future in which his son asks whether he took advantage of being in a position to do something about the degrading environment.

“Looking at the designs that I had, that are now constructed, and the impact that they have on the environment,” Aguirre said, “I didn’t like the answers that I was giving … for that conversation with my son.”

Aguirre relegated his textbook knowledge and looked to a different teacher: Mother Nature. He studied how nature configured the water cycle, and how humans used to exist in and be part of the mineral cycles, eating and drinking off the land and returning the nutrients as wild animals do today, before the industrial revolution began in the 1700s.

“So through that discovery, I realized that we are going 180 degrees against the grain,” Aguirre said. “And the harder that we fight nature’s principles, the more degradation that we’re creating.”

In his research, Aguirre discovered holistic land management, which uses controlled grazing techniques to work cooperatively with ecosystem processes. It was pioneered by Allan Savory, founder of the Savory Institute, who grew up in South Africa loving the environment and despising livestock because he believed grazing damaged the land.

As a young biologist in Africa, he worked to set aside land to become national parks. In the 1950s, the protected land he studied in Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate, and he concluded there were too many elephants for the land to sustain. His superiors confirmed his research.

Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo courtesy of | Grant Tims
A photo of a field before it was treated for desertification.

“Over the following years, we shot and killed 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage,” Savory said in a 2013 TED Talk. “And it got worse, not better.”

He described it as “the saddest, and biggest blunder” of his life.

Savory was determined to find solutions. He traveled to the western U.S., where cattle had been removed from land to demonstrate how that would stop desertification. But he said he found the opposite.

Savory came to understand that the vegetation being lost in these expanding deserts was developed over thousands of years and adapted to large herds of grazing animals migrating across the landscape.

Aguirre is trying to address these same issues in the Southwest, explaining that land degradation has been caused by the lack of migratory animals brought on by urban expansion that reduces and limits animal populations.

When a fence goes up, said Grant Tims, Aguirre’s ranch manager, the land is left idle.

“So in arid climates, it’s the rest that is the problem,” Aguirre said, as Savory witnessed in Africa. “Where most people think it’s overgrazing.”

Aguirre relates “the health of the land to the health of the human body,” comparing land degradation to muscle atrophy in people: A sedentary lifestyle will cause the body to deteriorate.

“You’re not stressing the land with hoof action, you’re not stressing the land with animal impact,” he said. “That stress will actually cause a positive response.”

Aguirre reached out to the Savory Institute after the 2013 TED talk with a new concept of connecting civil engineering and holistic land management. In 2014, he went to Zimbabwe to see Savory’s work for himself.

Aguirre visited a small stream with big implications. The stream in recent decades had been ephemeral, meaning it only runs after rains, but villagers in the area had transformed the stream through holistic land management.

“For me, as a drainage engineer,” Aguirre said, “that just blew my mind that seven out of nine villagers that subscribed to this program were able to restore the watershed function to the degree that the streams were running again, on a perennial level, and reversed 40 years of an ephemeral stream.”

Shortly after, Aguirre became the director of his own Savory Hub in Arizona, which now is called the Drylands Alliance for Addressing Water Needs, where he teaches holistic land management practices. His goal is to transform his desertifying homeland, halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

“That’s … my personal BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) as a drainage engineer is to get that level of watershed function back into the watersheds of Arizona and the Southwest and beyond,” he said.

Aguirre took the idea of using land management instead of concrete and steel to address water resources to WEST Consultants, which welcomed the idea.

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Ricardo Aguirre stands in a wash next to Interstate 10, which desertification and monsoon rains expanded in 2021.

How a watershed works

A watershed is an area of land that “channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, rivers and lakes” according to the National Ocean Service.

“If you look at a leaf,” Aguirre said, “a leaf pattern shows that. Because that’s how nature has figured out how to get nutrients.” Or like the human body, he added, with a system of veins leading to the heart.

Ideally, most rain will seep into the soil, recharging the aquifers and moving through the soil toward a common body of water.

When raindrops fall onto land where watershed function is deteriorating because of desertification, it runs off.

“It begins to make one, two, three, four one-off tributary streams,” Aguirre said. Those ephemeral streams lead to extensive erosion, which destroys roads and bridges as well as topsoil.

“A functioning watershed should really only have one, maybe two tributaries,” he said.

The remedy, Aguirre believes, is to restore vegetation and root systems to the barren soil.

Erinanne Saffell, Arizona’s state climatologist, described the important role of plants in the hydrologic cycle.

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Grant Tims holds a handful of healthy soil taken from the project’s small production area.

“We want to have what’s called interception,” she said, “which is where the precipitation will hit trees, vegetation of some kind … that allows the water to infiltrate more readily and recharge our aquifers.”

Vegetation acts as “storage locations and transfer mechanisms of water,” Saffel said. “If (raindrops) come down and hit bare soil, that’s actually very disruptive to having water go into the ground and recharge our aquifers.”

Water security concerns continue to loom in Arizona, where heavy monsoon rains in 2021 did little to alleviate long-term drought conditions, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Arizona is still experiencing severe drought or worse this year.

Aguirre is preparing the land on his demonstration site to better receive rain to revitalize the grasslands, which are now bare, but under the soil lie seeds hungry for water.

“What we can expect is that there is a seed bank, roughly about 2,000 seeds waiting to be germinated in every square yard,” Aguirre said. “It’s just a matter of assembling the right conditions for that germination.”

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Ricardo Aguirre, director of land management for WEST Consultants Inc., digs into desertified soil to demonstrate how hard it is for plant roots to establish themselves.

Soil intervention

Like a human body that has spent years resting, failing to get proper nutrition and not drinking enough water, the desert needs help, Aguirre said.

The health services Aguirre and Tims provide are moving sheep, goats and chickens across the demonstration site; their hooves break up the hard soil and their dung and urine fertilize it for weeks at a time.

To accelerate the regeneration process, Aguirre and Tims also use what they call biological soil amendments, made up of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. The increase in this carbon-based matter helps provide nutrients to plants and boost the soil’s ability to absorb and hold water.

When Aguirre returned to the property he grew up on in the summer of 2019, “we started with basically bare soil,” he said. Now, especially after heavy monsoon storms in 2021, there is growing evidence that the land is responding positively to the animals, in some places the evidence is as tall as him.

“The grasses where the animals have been have been beyond waist high, compared to where the animals have not been, are barely coming up to a person’s knees,” Aguirre said.

On a tour last fall of the site, Tims lifted a blue tarp off a compost pile used to brew the biological soil amendments. Unlike the surrounding landscape, the little world under the blue tarp is teeming with life that flies, jumps or scurries away as the tarp is removed.

Aguirre and Tims steep the compost like a tea bag, extracting the abundance of microbial life.

“We take that water and put it in a brewer, and that’s what we’re actually putting into the soil,” Tims said. Using a low impact plow with circular blades, the brew soaks into soil, priming the pump for seed germination.

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
A goat and chicken graze within a designated section of desertified land. The animals break up the hard dirt with their feet, which allows for new and healthy plants to grow after the animals are moved.

The lungs of the land

Revitalizing grasslands in desertified regions does more than improve watershed function, it allows the soil to breathe in and trap carbon – making it a natural countermeasure to the rising carbon dioxide levels contributing to climate change, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Healthy vegetation sequesters carbon through photosynthesis, pumping it down through its roots and into the soil. The healthier the soil, the deeper the carbon may go.

Pawlock Dass, with the department of land, air and water resources at the University of California, Davis, co-authored a 2018 study that shows grasslands are an even more reliable carbon sink than trees, particularly because of the increasing threat of wildfire.

Dass said healthy forests store more carbon than grasslands, but there’s a catch in California, Arizona and other arid places.

“Forests store a large percentage of their carbon above ground, that is the bulk of the tree biomass, that is a trunk of a tree,” Dass said, and in a wildfire, all that carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Grasslands, however, store most of their carbon below ground as root biomass, he said, where it’s protected from fires and promotes healthy soil that allows grasslands to grow back.

Dass’ study looked specifically at companies investing in planting forests to offset carbon emissions.

“If that carbon gets emitted back into the atmosphere (in a fire), it doesn’t really make much sense,” Dass said. “All the investment is basically lost.”

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Soil samples in various stages of study sit next to a microscope in the small in-home laboratory.

Restoring the cycle

When a raindrop strikes areas of revitalized grass off South Aguirre Lane, it doesn’t tear the land apart. It gets captured by the vegetation and transferred into the soil. The root systems and growing microbial populations absorb and hold the water – promoting more grass growth and more water capture. Eventually, it seeps down to recharge the aquifers.

“We can’t make it rain, but what we can do is we can make the rainfall more effective,” Aguirre said. “We’re offering land management as an alternative to engineering.”

The process starts in the lab, where Aguirre and Tims inspect the bacterial and fungal population of the compost through a microscope. The microbiology helps germinate the seeds in the soil, the grass then is grazed by chickens, sheep and cows that further break up the soil. More water is absorbed, which means more grass, more animals, more life.

The objective is to counteract desertification and its symptoms.

“All of (the problems) come back to this,” Tims said. “Compaction and biology.”

It turns deserted land into a valuable, fertile asset. It restores watershed function, helping with water security concerns, according to Aguirre and Tims.

Don Steuter, with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, which has been critical of Allan Savory’s cattle grazing claims in the past, expressed cautious optimism about Aguirre’s undertaking.

click to enlarge Reversing the Desert: How an Arizona Engineer is Trying to Heal the Land and Protect Water
Photo by | Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News
Ants scurry about a section of desertified land on WEST Consultants Inc.’s demonstration plot in Red Rock. Ant colonies help break up the compact dirt and aid the regrowth of vegetation by tunneling through the soil.

“We’re always interested in projects like this,” Steuter said, although he believes the success of cattle-grazed land is more likely to be a site-specific fix rather than a universal one.

“We’d be tickled to death if cattle could make the land better,” Steuter said. “It would solve a lot of our problems, but we don’t think it’s very likely.”

Still, Steuter said, he’s intrigued with Aguirre’s mission to heal watershed function and is looking forward to seeing the results.

Aguirre and WEST consultants are working on land restoration projects in Cochise County and are seeking state and federal contracts as well.

Aguirre said he’s the only civil engineer he knows of who’s bridging holistic land management with his profession. He hopes not for long.

“The overarching objective that I believe my calling is, is to reinvent my profession of civil engineering,” Aguirre said.

In three years, when his son turns 15, Aguirre can realize that imaginary conversation. If his son asks him if he used his position to improve the degrading environment, Aguirre no longer has to give the answer he never wanted to:

“I didn’t do anything about it.”

This story was originally published in Cronkite News. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2020 at 11:30 AM

PHOENIX – Hot summers are nothing new in Arizona, but humans aren’t the only ones who have suffered from record-breaking heat: queen palm trees across the Valley have been burning up.

2020 was the hottest year on record in Phoenix, with 48 days of excessive heat warnings and a heat peak in July and August, according to the National Weather Service. Although palm trees have thrived in the arid Southwest for generations, some species are more resilient than others.

“The queen palm just doesn’t take the heat nearly as well as some of the other varieties,” said Bill Jones, an operations manager at Arcadia Color Garden Nursery in east Phoenix.

Queen palms are synonymous with warm regions and are popular landscape trees because of their long, glossy fronds. But the sustained heat and arid conditions of the Sonoran Desert are a challenge for the South American natives.

Signs of heat damaged palms include wilted, weeping leaves with burned ends and brown marks along drying edges, Jones said. When all leaves are brown and the tree’s trunk is oozing, the tree’s in trouble, he said. Palm trees need a deep soaking of water twice a week to help recover.

Although more watering would seem to be the answer, that’s not always the case, said Debrah Thirkhill, program coordinator for Arizona State University’s Arboretum Services.

“We get a salt buildup in the soil because we’re high in calcium,” Thirkhill said. “Our water is hard water and that, when it comes through this long hot summer, there’s also a salt burn on the roots. … It’s just too much trauma for the plants at the end of a long hot summer.”

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Posted By on Thu, Sep 5, 2019 at 3:53 PM

At Pima County Public Library, it starts with a seed...

Were you one of the thousands of Pima County residents that checked out Black Russian Sunflower seeds as part of the Library's 2019 One Seed program? For many of you, now could be the time to start harvesting and saving your seeds! If you planted Black Russian Sunflowers back in April or May, your sunflowers are probably ready for harvest.

Our wonderful Seed Librarians have put together a helpful guide on how to tell if your seeds are ready for harvest or what to do if they're not quite ready.

We'll be wrapping up this year's program at our Weigh-Off Party on Saturday, September 21 at Martha Cooper Library from 8 to 11 am. Bring your saved Black Russian Sunflower seeds and your donation will join the donations of other gardeners to ensure we have seeds to plant for seasons to come.

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Friday, June 28, 2019

Posted By on Fri, Jun 28, 2019 at 12:44 PM

The Garden Kitchen in South Tucson is a "seed-to-table" community program that provides education on growing and cooking food for better health and wellness on any budget. They partner with the City of South Tucson, Pima County, and the University of Arizona to focus on food security.
Learn to Cook at the Garden Kitchen
Courtesy of The Garden Kitchen

The Garden Kitchen offers cooking classes, and this Saturday, June 29, they're teaching a class called "Healthy and Delicious: With a Latin Twist Hands-On Cooking Class."

Learn to cook gazpacho, crispy vegetable cakes with lemon cilantro crema, and cauliflower ceviche.

You'll understand how to make a cold soup, how to make a sauce, and how to create full-flavor vegetarian entrees.

Can't catch this class? The Garden Kitchen offers classes throughout the month. And they're not just cooking classes, but fitness ones too.

Saturday, June 29 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. $55
Proceeds go towards The Garden Kitchen's free programming. 2205 S. 4th Ave.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Posted By on Tue, May 28, 2019 at 10:16 AM

click to enlarge Tucson Village Farm's U-Pick Tuesdays Switch to Summer Hours
Courtesy Tucson Village Farm
An oasis in our busy city, Tucson Village Farm (TVF), "built by and for the youth of our community," offers U-Pick every Tuesday afternoon and is now on summer hours from 5 to 7 p.m.

The farm is open and welcomes the community to the garden east of Campbell Avenue to pick their own produce, support the local food network and get the freshest possible vegetables. For produce purchases, bring cash or check.

TVF also has "farm work" days every Monday and Wednesday on the west side garden from 7 a.m. to noon, when the public can get their hands dirty, help on the farm and learn about planting seeds and harvesting.

If you have never been to the Tucson Village Farm, check it out and you'll find it has a way of drawing visitors back again and again. Located at 4210 North Campbell Avenue. Details here.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Posted By on Wed, Dec 26, 2018 at 11:00 AM

From Christmas Trees to Merry Mulch, Recycle Your Tree This Holiday
Picking out a Christmas tree, strapping it to the roof of your car and finding the perfect spot for it in your living room are the fun parts of decorating with a real tree during the holidays.

But what are you supposed to do with that hunk of dried out pine needles cluttering up your house once the holidays are over?

For the 22nd year, the City of Tucson is running its TreeCycle Program starting the day after Christmas through Jan. 14.

There are convenient locations throughout Tucson and Oro Valley to take your tree:

1. Oro Valley Naranja Park, 810 W. Naranja Dr. (Only open through Jan. 7)

2. Tank's Speedway Landfill & Recycling, 7301 E Speedway (Open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Do not leave trees outside property.)

3. Golf Links Sports Park, 2400 S. Craycroft Rd. (7 a.m. - 5 p.m.)

4. Tucson Rodeo Grounds, on 3rd Ave. (East of Rodeo Grounds, on 3rd Ave. north of Irvington Rd.)

5. Los Reales Landfill, 5300 E. Los Reales Rd. (Entrance is at intersection of Craycroft Rd. & Los Reales Rd., follow signs) 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays.

6. Silverbell Site, (Northeast corner of Silverbell Road and Goret Rd (follow signs).

7. Purple Heart Park, 10050 E. Rita Rd.

8. Randolph Golf Course, 600 S. Alvernon Way, (Southeast corner of parking lot)

9. Tank's Green Stuff, 5300 West Ina Road, Open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sat 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

So, what are they going to do with all those trees? Make mulch! From Jan. 2 to 14 pick up free Merry Mulch for your garden at Los Reales Landfill. Bring your own container and take home mulch to help soil retain moisture.

Find more information here. 

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Posted By on Tue, Nov 6, 2018 at 3:30 PM

Imported Tomatoes from Mexico worth $4.8 billion in U.S economy

A new study from the University of Arizona's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics found imported fresh tomatoes from Mexico contributed around $4.8 billion in sales to the U.S. economy and the U.S. imported 3.4 billion pounds of fresh tomatoes from Mexico in 2016.

The study found that U.S. imports of tomatoes from Mexico actively supported nearly 33,000 full and part-time jobs, earning $1.4 billion in employee compensation. It also contributed to $353 million in business owner income and $801 million in corporate profits.

Tomatoes are a species native to the Americas and were first cultivated in Mexico. The U.S. and and Mexico rank as top agricultural export markets with one another, according to the study.

In 2016, Mexico was the largest exporter of crops to the United States, with $11.6 billion in exports. Mexico is the United States’ third largest crop export market destination after China and Canada, with nearly $7 billion in U.S. crops exported to Mexico in 2016.

click to enlarge Imported Tomatoes from Mexico worth $4.8 billion in U.S economy
University of Arizona
The trade in tomatoes between the United States and Mexico represents a reciprocal relationship. The U.S relies on Mexico for fresh tomatoes while Mexico relies on the U.S. for processed tomatoes, according to the UA Department of Agricultural study.

"This study demonstrates that even though grown and harvested elsewhere, imported produce supports economic activity, jobs, and income in the United States through forward and backward linked agribusiness supply chains," said Dari Duval, economic impact analyst with the UA Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

To view the full study of the economic contribution in imported tomatoes from Mexico to the U.S visit, for more information. 

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 10:02 AM

Tucson food fiends unite, a food party is only a few days away.

In a celebration of local food and with hopes of meeting a fundraising goal, Pivot Produce is teaming up with four local businesses to throw an hors d'oeuvres party with local produce on Dec. 4 from 4-8 p.m. at Pueblo Vide Brewing Co., 115 E. Broadway Blvd.

Pivot Produce is a for-profit company that work to supplying food-based businesses with local produce near the Tucson-metro area. The company is a distributor for Arizona farmers' produce in hopes to alleviate the worry of selling and to keep farmers doing what they do best.

Get ready for some finger foods from local businesses like 5 Points Market and Restaurant, EXO Roast Co., The Carriage House and Welcome Diner. Pueblo Brewing, the hosting location, will feature its special beet-infused PV Pale Ale—proceeds of this limited-times brew will benefit Pivot's cause.

The company is working toward a $20,000 fundraising goal to keep Arizona produce flowing into Tucson's kitchens. If the company reaches its goal, it will be eligible for the USDA's Local Food Promotion Grant. See their fundraising page here.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Posted By on Tue, Sep 20, 2016 at 11:00 AM

There's an event for all the fruit fanatics out there and it's coming to you this Saturday, Sept. 24. The Annual Pomegranate Festival will be coming to Tucson's Mission Gardens, 946 W. Mission Ln., for the second year in row from 9-11 a.m. 

Brought on by the Friends of Tucson's Birthplace in conjunction with the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the festival is a free, all ages event. Festival goers can enjoy the wide variety of pomegranates with other fruit enthusiasts as well as music, tastings and presentations from Jesus Garcia, Nina Sajovec and Alfredo Gonzalez.

You don't want to be caught off guard of your fruit knowledge at this homage to pomegranates.

Here are few fruit facts to know before going to the Pomegranate Festival:

- Pomegranates are in season from September to February in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, the fruit is in season from March to May.

- The pomegranate originated from the Mediterranean area. Today, it is cultivated all over the world including California and Arizona.

- In ancient Greece, the pomegranate was regarded as "the fruit of the dead."   

Click here for more information on the festival.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2016 at 9:10 AM

Looking out on the Tucson streets, it may feel a bit like the city has become a dead zone. While pedestrians have taken shelter from the heat inside, now is actually a very interesting time in the region agriculturally, as some of the most unique native plants are now ready to harvest. Pre-monsoon harvests include the bahidaj (or saguaro fruit) that is pivotal in the Tohono O’odham new year season and can be harvested and made into syrup, candy or a wine-like fermented ceremonial drink. Unless you have a saguaro in your yard, though, you’ll want to be sure you’re allowed to harvest the fruit, as many saguaros, including those in the eponymous national park, are protected.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be out of the desert harvest all together, though. Just look around at all of the mesquite pods ready for the picking. If you missed last week’s Desert Harvesters guided tours of foragable pods and beans growing on trees around town, you can still learn plenty at the 14th annual Mesquite Milling and Wild Foods and Drink Fiesta. There, the local nonprofit will be set up at Mercado San Agustin (100 S. Ave. del Convento) during the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market. From 4 until 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, on-site mesquite pod milling will transform all of your plucked pods into sweet, nutty flour for $3 per gallon of whole pods milled with a $10 minimum.

This special event, which goes to benefit Desert Harvesters in their mission to promote native foods and water security in the region, will also feature mesquite pod tasting, aflatoxin testing (to ensure the flour you’ve milled is safe), craft beer made with wild ingredients from Iron Johns and mesquite and chiltepin flavored cold brew from Exo Roast Co. A variety of other native and wild foods products will be for sale, such as date vinegar, cholla buds, desert lavender tea, carob powder and chiltepines. The Pima County Public Library’s seed library will be there to offer up instruction on hands-on bean tree propagation with a giveaway of food-producing native trees, as well.

More information on harvesting and milling mesquite, as well as this event, can be found on the Desert Harvesters website. 

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