So I’ve got a new favorite snack: cactus. No, seriously. Opuntia ficus-indica or the prickly pear. See, underneath all these spines, the pads of the prickly pear, or nopalis, have this amazing, tangy, juicy flavor and those flowers, the fruits that they produce, are super sweet; kind of like, strawberries. Resilient, rough around the edges, and totally delicious, I think this species might just be the future of food in our state. But before I can explain that, I think I need to give a little bit of back story.
See, like a lot of people, I’ve come to the conclusion over the last few years that our food system is broken. I mean, what kind of society do we live in that pays all of our farmers to grow the same five crops? And to grow them in a way that pollutes our soil, our ground water, and even 10,000 years of genetic diversity? What kind of society is it that takes all those crops and processes them into foods that might taste great, but that are making us sick on a massive scale and that makes real food, the fresh, healthy food, only available to those who can afford it? Not the kind of society that I want to live in.
So, about three years ago, along with a group of amazing change makers, I helped found the GrowHaus. An experiment, in rebuilding our food system from the ground up. Starting in an abandoned half-acre greenhouse, in one of Denver’s most under-resourced communities, we’ve created a hub for food production, food distribution, and food education. We’re raising fish and plants together in a recirculating set-up that cranks out hundreds of pounds of leafy greens per week.
We’ve exposed thousands of school kids to where their food comes from for the very first time. And starting this year, we’re selling boxes of local and organic food to our residents at cheaper than Wal-Mart prices. So, our experiment at the GrowHaus, it’s starting to work, right? But it’s only the tip of the iceberg, it’s only a drop in the bucket. In order to really change Colorado’s food system, to heal it, we need to look beyond just growing more lettuce. We need to actively start listening to the land that we live on, and using that understanding completely change the way we grow our food and even what food that we eat.
See, here’s the thing: we don’t live in California, or New England, or the Midwest, for that matter. All places where the foods you see at the grocery store happen to grow pretty well. We live in a bio-region called the High Plains, an area with massive temperature swings, and late frosts, and blazing summers and most importantly, very little precipitation. Sure, you can get all kinds of food to grow here. And over decades of blood, sweat, and tears, we have, but you can only do that by working against nature by damming our rivers, by sending billions of gallons of water underneath the Continental Divide, and into our farmland, and away from rivers, and oceans, and aquifers.
Here’s a chart of all the water that Colorado used in 2011. That little orange sliver on the left, that’s our municipal water, that’s all the golf courses, sprinkler systems, and long hot showers. And that huge chunk on the top that says “Irrigation” that’s how much water our farmers need to grow what they’re currently growing. Now, don’t get me wrong, Colorado’s farmers are some of the hardest working people in our state and they deserve far more respect than they currently get. But the way our food system is set up, they are not incentivized to nourish their communities.
Instead, they have to play into this giant commodities market with the result that most of the food they’re growing isn’t all that nutritious or even edible. It’s all ending up as bio fuel, or cattle feed, or overprocessed junk food, at best. And that is where our spiny little friend comes in. Because as indigenous folks from this area have known for millennia, nopalis makes a nutritious addition to a healthy diet. And as we all know, cactus needs very little water to grow.
Fortunately, opuntia ficus-indica isn’t the only Colorado-friendly species out there. In fact, there are dozens of delicious tubers, and berries, and leafy greens that actually thrive in this crazy climate of ours. Just to name a few of them: sunchoke was the stable crop of Native Americans from across the country. Its tubers come back year after year with very little maintenance and water and have proven to reduce the symptoms of type-2 diabetes. Sorrel is a salad green that’s perennial, and it tastes just like lemonade.
Even the salad haters that come to the GrowHaus try it and go nuts for it. Serviceberry is a perennial shrub that’s native to Colorado. It produces these abundant berries that taste and look like blueberries. And ground cherry, meanwhile, tastes a lot like pineapple; completely surprising and totally addicting. A lot of people know that quinoa is a superfood, a quasi-grain, but a lot of people don’t know that it’s actually the perfect place to grow it, here in Colorado.
It was domesticated in the High Andes, by the Incas, in a climate very similar to ours. And of course, I couldn’t talk about bioregional agriculture without shouting out the original big game in town: bison is a much leaner meat than beef, and it can graze on the grasses that grow naturally here. In other words, no irrigation required. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, there are dozens of species that all grow well here.