US: Could edible cactus be the next big specialty crop?

Shawn Jadrnicek had long loved prickly pear cactus for its tasty fruit, so when he heard the plant could also be used as animal fencing, he was curious. After first creating a pen for his own backyard chickens, the farmer and arborist helped South Carolina’s Wild Hope Farm install a fencing system to keep deer out of its vegetable garden. 

The natural barrier was such a success that he brought the design to community gardens in Roanoke, Virginia, where he works as an associate extension agent for Virginia Tech. “I’ve found this fence design tremendously useful as a farmer as it not only reduces the maintenance involved with fencing but it also generates income and will last as long as the cacti,” says Jadrnicek.

Often treated as a weed, nopal or prickly pear cactus has great potential as a crop. It grows natively as far north as Connecticut and can be found as far south as Argentina. Super versatile, it’s used in various products, including beauty items such as soaps, shampoos, and lipstick, as well as food and beverages. It’s a popular staple food in Mexico, where it’s treated as another vegetable, used in salads, salsas, sauteed with eggs, or even to make an alternative French fry. A sustainability superhero, declared by the United Nations as a food of the future, cacti are drought resistant, can improve soil health, and, because they reach maturity every six months, can be harvested faster than many other crops.

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