This article was previously published on March 7, 2021 and has been updated with new information.
The Billion Agave Project is a pioneering ecosystem restoration strategy recently adopted by several innovative Mexican farms in the high-altitude desert region of Guanajuato. With your support, we have been the leading group to donate to the Organic Consumers Association in support of this critical project that is now proven for green, arid regions, providing both food and income to some of the world’s most challenged farmers.
This strategy combines the cultivation of agave plants and nitrogen-fixing companion tree species (such as mesquite), with holistic, alternating grazing of livestock. The result is a high biomass, high feed yield system that works well even on degraded, semi-arid soils. A manifesto on mesquite is available in English1 and Espanol.2
The system produces large amounts of agave leaf and root stem – up to 1 ton of biomass over the plant’s eight to ten year life. When chopped and fermented in closed containers, this plant material produces an excellent, inexpensive (2 cents per pound) forage.
This agroforestry system reduces the pressure to overgraze fragile pastures and improves soil health and water retention, while extracting and storing massive amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
The goal of the Billion Agave campaign is to plant 1 billion agaves worldwide to absorb and store 1 billion tons of climate-destabilizing CO2. The campaign is funded by donations and public and private investment.
Solution for climate change
Agave plants and nitrogen-fixing trees, sown close together and grown together, have the ability to absorb and capture enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
They also produce more above and below ground biomass (and fodder) year on year than any other desert or semi-desert species. Agaves alone can extract and store the dry weight equivalent of 30 to 60 tons of CO2 per hectare (12 to 24 tons per acre) per year.
Ideal for dry and warm climates, agaves and their companion trees, once established, require no irrigation and are basically impervious to rising global temperatures and drought.
Feed source for livestock
Agave leaves, full of saponins and lectins, are indigestible for livestock. However, once their massive leaves (high in sugar) have been finely chopped by machine and fermented for 30 days in closed containers, the final product yields a nutritious and inexpensive silage or animal feed.
This agave/companion tree silage, combined with the restoration of degraded pastures, can make the difference between survival and abject poverty for millions of small farmers and herders around the world.
Agaves need little to no irrigation. They thrive even in arid, degraded soils unsuitable for crop production due to their photosynthesis pathway of Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM).
The CAM path allows agave plants to take moisture from the air and store it in their thick leaves overnight. During the day, the opening in their leaves (the stomata) closes, drastically reducing evaporation.
A new agroforestry model
A pioneering group of Mexican farmers is transforming their landscape and their livelihoods. How? Through dense planting (1,600 to 2,500 per hectare or 2.47 acres), pruning and intercropping of a fast-growing, high biomass, high forage yield species of agaves among pre-existing (500 per hectare) deep-rooted, nitrogen-fixing tree species (such as mesquite), or among planted tree seedlings.
When the agaves are 3 years old, and for the next five to seven years, farmers can prune the leaves or pencas, chop them finely with a machine and then ferment the agave for 30 days in closed containers, ideally by combining the agave leaves with 20 % legumes and branches by volume to give them a higher protein content.
In Guanajuato, mesquite trees begin to produce pods that can be harvested in five years. By year 7, the mesquite and agaves have grown into a fairly dense forest. In the years 8 to 10, the root stem or pina (weighing between 100 and 200 pounds) of the agave is ready to harvest to produce a distilled spirit called mescal.
Meanwhile, the hijuelos (or pups) spawned by the mother agave plants are continuously transplanted back into the agroforestry system, ensuring continuous biomass growth (and carbon storage).
In this agroforestry system, farmers avoid overgrazing by integrating rotational grazing of their livestock into their pasturage. They feed their animals by supplementing pasture with fermented agave silage.