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Over the weekend Marci went hiking in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains with our friend Erin. At one point they stumbled upon some desert hackberry plants (Celtis pallida) full of large ripe orange berries. Unfortunately they were not equipped to harvest many of the berries, but they brought back a small jarfull. The berries are delicious and we are excited to make some hackberry jam.

We went out later to look for more hackberries in the Tucson Mountains, but the plants were mostly devoid of ripe berries. They’re at a lower elevation than the plants in the Santa Catalinas, so we’re not sure when they were producing, but we’ll have to remember next year that mid-fall is hackberry season!

The berries began to spoil very quickly (after the first night they were starting to turn brown), so we froze them until we can figure out something interesting to do with them.

A wash in the Tucson Mountains

A wash in the Tucson Mountains, a typical habitat for desert hackberries and many other native species.

Closeup of native desert vegetation in the Tucson Mountains

A closeup showing characteristic native vegetation along the wash (especially desert hackberries, Acacia, velvet mesquites, etc.), and further from the wash (saguaros, palo verdes, etc.).

A desert hackberry

A desert hackberry (Celtis pallida) along a wash in the Tucson Mountains. This plant was devoid of ripe berries.


Yesterday we decided to drive to Willcox to pick apples and get some organic veggies and wine. Our friend Kim joined us for the trip. Willcox is about 75 miles southeast of Tucson, and is where much of our local produce comes from. We got to Brown’s Orchard (the organic you-pick apple and veggie farm) while it was still fairly cool outside, and were excited to spend the morning frolicking among the trees. Unfortunately, Brown’s Orchard was closed. Since we’d expended all that gas to get there, we decided to backtrack toward Apple Annie’s, another you-pick orchard that is not organic. Although we didn’t like the idea of supporting a non-organic grower, it seemed like a good opportunity to see a local apple orchard up close.

On the way, we stopped in at Visser Family Farms for some local grass-fed meats. As we drove up to the farm we passed happily grazing sheep feeding on grass. They truly were grass-fed! The woman who greeted us was cheerful and helpful, and led us to the barn where she stored cuts of lamb, pork, beef and chicken. Many of the cuts were “from the butcher” and were not local. We picked out some locally raised, hormone and antibiotic-free ground beef and a lamb shoulder roast.

Then we got back on the road toward Apple Annie’s. I was very excited to pick apples. My experiences with apple-picking are of beautiful, mature orchards in Vermont where we climbed the trees and enjoyed the comforts of a fall day in a shady, peaceful grove. The moment we entered the parking lot for Apple Annie’s I knew this was not going to be a serene Vermont-like experience.

There were about 100 cars in the dirt lot, which led to several tents and a 2-story building. Vendors were selling their salsas, Kettle Korn, cider, jam, trinkets, burgers, ice cream and baked goods. There was a gift shop inside the building, too, but we didn’t see what they had for sale. There was a small group of people with empty buckets waiting to board a tractor-pulled wagon, so we got our buckets and joined the brigade. The tractor took us on a slow, gas-guzzling journey around a small orchard filled with dwarf fruit trees. The driver announced that the second stop was where we could pick Fuji apples and Asian pears, which was what we wanted. We had noticed that there were vast quantities of fruit on the ground, and we asked the driver if we could harvest some for our chickens. Unfortunately, it is now illegal to collect fruit that has touched the ground for fear of E. coli. It seems that somewhere in California where cows were grazing among the fruit trees their dung harbored E. coli and some people eating fruit from the ground got sick. So no ground-fruit for the hens.

The apple-picking itself was fun. It’s always nice to harvest your own food, even in the company of 100 eager tourists clamboring for chemical-laden bounty. We filled a bucket with apples and then moved on to the pears. Asian pears are very sweet and crisp, and they were surprisingly refreshing in the heat of the shadeless dwarf orchard. When we had gathered all we wanted (and unwittingly left about the same amount of fruit on the ground to rot), we headed back toward the entrance to the orchard. It was only about 200 feet from where we had been picking, so there was truly no need for another tractor ride.

Apples at Apple Annie’s

Apples rotting on the ground at Apple Annie’s

We waited in one of several lines to pay for our harvest. In all, we got 12 pounds of apples, 16 pounds of pears, a bag of 6 peaches, and 2 half-gallons of apple cider, and spent about $45.

Our final stop was a winery. I had been looking forward to getting some wine for quite a while since we had not had any since our first local meal. The winery (I can’t remember the name of the place) looked quaint from the outside. But as soon as we stepped in the door, we were struck by the frigid air, the extravagent decor, and the old-fashioned farm-wife outfit our hostess was wearing. It was a surreal scene. We got a taste of red wine made exclusively from local grapes (most of the wines were processed locally, but from grapes grown in vineyards in California and northern Arizona). The wine was tasty but expensive, and we opted not to buy any. It was better just to get out of the weird zone and head for home.

We learned a lot from our trip to Willcox. The farming practices at Apple Annie’s confirmed our belief that local is not always better: It takes a huge amount of resources to keep apple trees alive and producing in the arid southwest, and it might be better to abstain from eating apples altogether or find a slightly more distant but far more efficient source. We found a great source of local meat, and feel good about the farming practices and the people at Visser Family Farms. And we decided that we would really like to go back to Willcox to experience apple-picking at Brown’s Orchard when they are open.

Two things really struck us about this experience. First was the extravagant waste of fruit at Apple Annie’s. Frankly, we thought it was a travesty. We’re betting that probably at least half of the fruit produced by their trees never gets harvested, except by ground squirrels and skunks. It seemed like the “you-pick” approach was not the way to go, since inexperienced pickers like us ended up inadvertently dropping as many fruit to the ground as we managed to successfully harvest. In our opinion such orchards should have professional pickers who know what they’re doing and don’t waste huge amounts fruit. All of that wasted fruit represents an enormous amount of water, fertilizer and pesticide.

The other thing that struck us was how silly it was for us to drive an hour and a half to pick fruit. Part of the reason we went was to get a better idea of what Willcox was like, since that was where a fair bit of our local food has been coming from. However, it is extremely wasteful for three people to drive 150 miles round-trip to pick 30 pounds of fruit. It was a good lesson in how important efficient local food distribution networks are.

In preparation for the start of our experiment we picked prickly pear fruit (from native Opuntia engelmannii) with friends on Sunday morning. We simply took a bucket and tongs out to the foothills of the Catalina Mountains and plucked ripe fruit from the cactus pads.

Prickly pear fruit

Closeup of prickly pear fruit

At home, we processed the fruit by slicing each one in half and scooping out the insides with a spoon. We then blended all of the pulp briefly and strained it to separate the seeds from the edible portion of the fruit. The end result was about half a gallon of beautiful, thick, crimson-red juice (we had picked about 2 gallons of whole fruit) that tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before except other cactus fruit juice. We used some of this juice in our first local meal (see below) and stashed the rest in our fridge for future treats.

Prickly pear fruit cut in half

Bowl of processed prickly pear fruit

We also went to the local farmer’s market to stock up on fresh veggies, and to buy some meat and honey for the coming weeks or months of local eating. We found tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, eggplant, shallots, plums, chiles, zucchini, and yellow squash from Willcox, ground beef from Cochise and agave honey from Freddy Terry, the singing apiculturist from Oracle.

We had invited 6 friends over to a potluck dinner on Monday evening to send us off on our adventure. We decided to bake a chicken and make beans, and everyone else was to bring a side-dish. One of our friends generously gave us the local, free-range, natural (no antibiotics or hormones added) chicken she had bought from our CSA (community supported agriculture).

We prepared the chicken by placing it in a baking dish, pouring about 3/4 cup of prickly pear juice over it, lightly salting it, and then spooning about 3 or 4 tablespoons of honey into the baking dish. As the chicken cooked the honey melted and we basted the chicken with honey-cactus-chicken juice frequently. We also cut up some sweet potatoes from last week’s CSA share and put them in the baking dish around the chicken. The oven was set for 350 degrees, and the chicken cooked for just under 2 hours. The chicken turned out to be absolutely delicious- I’d cook it again this way in a heartbeat! The honey acted as a glaze, so the chicken not only tasted good, it looked pretty too.

Chicken glazed in prickly pear juice and honey

We decided to cook tepary beans as another main course. The beans are very slow-cooking, so they had to be soaked overnight. Even so, they took over 3 hours to fully cook! We cooked the beans with onion, garlic, purslane (picked from our organic community garden), cholla buds (the flower buds of another local cactus species- we had harvested, processed and dried these a few months ago), roasted green chiles and a pinch of salt. The beans were very tasty, but more salt would have made them tastier.

As a side-dish, we prepared wheat groats, also from our CSA. These are simply the whole, unprocessed seeds of wheat. We cooked them as if they were rice- 2 cups of water to one cup of grains. They were chewy and tasty, and were great for soaking up beans and/or prickly-pear honey sauce from the chicken.

One of our friends brought a veggie dish. She had chopped and baked sweet potatoes, green beans, bok choy, bell peppers, red onion and a pinch of salt. It was a colorful, delicious addition to the meal.

Our first local dinner

Other friends (the ones we picked prickly pear fruit with) contributed a prickly pear “refresca”, or refreshing beverage. They simply mixed prickly pear juice with spearmint leaves, grapefruit juice (from a grapefruit they picked in downtown Tucson), honey (from bees that they raise) and water. It was surprisingly subtle tasting, and very refreshing.

Prickly pear refresca

Our dessert was fruit salad- local apples, nectarines, and watermelon mixed with a bit of honey (also from the singing apiculturist)- made by our other friends.

As an appetizer we had pecans (from the CSA) still in the shell, and watermelon.

Watermelon and pecans

Dinner was served at 6pm with red wine from Elgin and lots of good conversation. We were off to a grand start on our local journey.

Assembled to eat

July 2018
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