A pioneering effort to bring a nutritious new crop to challenging soils on the San Joaquin Valley’s West Side mirrors the old saying about making lemonade when all the world gives you is lemons.

Given a scarcity of water and salty soil rich in boron and selenium, researchers five years ago began looking at growing prickly pear cactus that requires less water than most crops and produces fruit that can be used in a variety of ways — for juice, jams, jellies and other products.

And thanks to a rare mineral mix on the challenged land that is part of John Diener’s Red Rock Ranch, the cacti take up only small quantities of selenium, volatizing some of it and keeping some in their fruit and leaf-like stems called cladodes.

The selenium in food products from the cactus – from the family Opuntia ficus indica -- brings added nutritional value for people, said Gary Banuelos, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“This is potentially a viable commercial crop,” Banuelos said. Diener, who has collaborated with Banuelos on 20 years of research, agrees.

“John is my realty barometer,’ said Banuelos, referring to tests on whether a crop has commercial potential.

Diener, who grows a wide range of crops on 4,000 acres, has between 8 and 10 acres of the prickly pear cactus now and said he potentially could grow as much as 200 acres.

 

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Banuelos said the cactus is considered a permanent crop that could produce fruit for up to 15 years.

Diener said the soil on which the cacti are grown is common only to a half dozen places in the world, providing the chemistry that enables the capture of selenium in the plant, in part because high sulfur content cuts down on the amount of selenium the plant absorbs..

 Ancient seas that once covered the Valley’s West Side left behind marine sediments, shale formation and deposits of selenium and other materials. Drainage water and runoff from irrigation, when they contain high levels of selenium, can be toxic to fish, migratory birds and other wildlife that drink from waterways and drainage ditches.

“Selenium is a biological contaminant at excessive levels, but it can also be seen as a reservoir,” said Banuelos, an Agricultural Research Service plant/soil scientist with the Water Management Research Unit at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier.

Diener added, “If there’s not enough, it can be a problem; if there’s too much it’s a problem.”

Opuntia is native to the American Southwest and has been introduced in many other countries in the Mediterranean and western Pacific regions, Banuelos said. It typically grows wild in desert and arid regions,.

After applying for and securing funding from the California State University Agricultural Research Institute and the California Department of Water Resources, Banuelos started work on the commercial sized trial plot with Diener.

Banuelos and colleagues from the University of Palermo, Italy, initially evaluated varieties of the Opuntia cactus from the USDA-ARS National Arid Land Genetics Resources Unit at Parlier.