From 40 varieties, they chose five “top performers” that seemed best suited to the salty soils on Diener’s ranch.

At the Parlier research center, Banuelos pointed out a two acre field plot where “parent” cacti were grown as part of the selection process. Because the fruit is handpicked, preference was given to varieties that lacked spines.

The “parent” plot is well irrigated and sits on good quality soil.

“It’s nirvana for them,” Banuelos said of that group of relatively pampered plants.

He also pointed out a half-acre experimental plot where soil had been excavated and replaced with drainage sediment from the San Luis Reservoir.

Cuttings from the leaf-like cladode form a scab and are then put into soil with moisture to create new plantings.

Fruits from the cactus were initially processed by former Fresno State University food science professor Gour Choudhury. Wawona Frozen Foods in Clovis helped with storage of the fruit. Later, Banuelos would partner with Mercer Processing Co. in Modesto to develop trial batches of products.

 

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The result is four new cultivar patents co-owned by Fresno State, Deiner’s Red Rock Ranch and the USDA. Red Rock Ranch intends to develop and market products in the form of juice and powder blends derived from the new plants.

Diener said the patents were important to “get some profitability out of it and to protect the quality of the plant” and guard against false claims by producers.

He said challenges to growing Opuntia come from gopher activity and the fact that there are no federally approved chemicals that can be used on the crop to mitigate that.

“The gophers are everywhere,” said Banuelos. “It’s about the only thing there is out there that they can eat.”

Banuelos said rabbits posed a problem at one point, but that was abated by sprinkling the plants with ground chili pepper.

He said birds that roost in poplar trees planted nearby, for another project on biofuels, do not seem to pose a problem. In fact, some occasionally take out gophers if they leave their tunnels and emerge atop the soil.

Banuelos is pleased with the promise that Opuntia could provide for using West Side soils that have become too harsh for growing conventional crops.

Banuelos and Diener have worked on other projects that involved crops tolerant of salinity and boron and able to pull some selenium from the soil, including mustards and canola.

Banuelos said the cactus grown in challenging conditions may actually have a higher nutritional value because of adaptations it makes. And he is also looking at deficit irrigation in grapes, peaches and pomegranates to see if nutritional value can actually be increased by some water deprivation.

 

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