High-level Scientific and Technological Support for the Billion Agave Project

On May 8th, a collaboration agreement was signed in the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, between the Center for Research and Assistance in Technology and Design of the State of Jalisco (CIATEJ) and Regeneration International (RI), in order to strengthen and promote the Billion Agave Project (BAP) in the following areas: research and scientific and technological transfer, project development and implementation, human resources, dissemination, training and institutional services. The agreement was signed by Dr. Eugenia del Carmen Lugo Cervantes, Director General of CIATEJ and Luis Arturo Carrillo Sánchez, Coordinator of the BAP.

The establishment of this agreement is part of one of BAP’s strategic axes of development, which is to formalize and consolidate an active network of collaboration with various entities from the social, community, academic, public and private sectors, to enable the implementation of the project on a national scale.

This alliance with CIATEJ, one of the most prestigious research centers in Mexico and a leader in agave research, is of paramount importance for the BAP, since some of the productive projects that are being promoted through this initiative require the knowledge already developed by this research center. Such is the case of the extraction and characterization of agave inulin, which is a family of complex sugars with multiple beneficial properties for health and highly demanded in the food and pharmaceutical sector, and whose market is growing.

Adding value to agave cultivation through the implementation of sustainable productive projects that diversify its use, such as the extraction and commercialization of inulin, is one of the BAP’s strategies to encourage producers to establish agroecological agave-based plantations that strengthen bioculturality and contribute to carbon sequestration, as well as to the ecological, social and economic regeneration of the territory.

Photo credit: Joel Caldwell

Agave can be harvested from the root to the stalks. However, in some regions, the industry has focused on taking advantage of only some of its products, as is the case of tequila derived from blue agave in the state of Jalisco or the fiber obtained from henequen in Yucatan. This is why the BAP seeks to rescue the millenary vision of holistic use, generating projects that add social, economic and environmental value.

During the event, the scientific and technological capabilities of CIATEJ were highlighted through its five lines of research: Plant Biotechnology, Industrial Biotechnology, Food Technology, Environmental Technology and Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. These capabilities were presented with the objective of actively participating in the project, taking advantage of the vast experience accumulated in topics related to agave, from its cultivation to the management and reuse of residues.

Several organizations, institutions and companies attended to this event, including the Agaveros en Alianza, agave and raicilla producers, the Centro de Biotecnología Genómica del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, the Centro Universitario de Ciencias Biológicas y Agropecuarias de la Universidad de Guadalajara, the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias sede Jalisco, the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, the National Forestry Commission, the Subdirectory of Technological Innovation and Science Linkage of the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Rancho El Mexicano, the Subsecretaría de Fomento e Innovación Económica de Nuevo León, the company Sarape Social, and the Agricultural and Agroindustrial Council of the State of Jalisco.

At the end of the event, a tour of the CIATEJ facilities was conducted so that they could learn first-hand about its capabilities and resources, thus facilitating future collaborations.

The Billion Agave Project Expanding to the Mixteca Region

Biocultural recovery based on environmentally, socially and economically sustainable productive projects.
  • The Secretary of SEFADER and other personalities assisted the event, a collaboration agreement was signed between Regeneration International and CEDICAM.
  • Agave and its multiple uses, a driving force for sustainable development in the region
  • The social, academic, public and private sectors join the project

On April 9, 2024, at the Center of Integral Campesino Development of La Mixteca (CEDICAM) in Asunción de Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico, Regeneration International (RI) and CEDICAM signed a collaboration agreement to implement the Billion Agave Project (BAP) in the Mixteca, a region with a strong presence of indigenous communities and a significant loss of biodiversity due to erosion and climate change, among other factors.

CEDICAM is a campesino organization made up of Mixtec indigenous people with a solid track record of social and environmental commitment. Since 1997 it has worked on the implementation of sustainable agriculture, the promotion of good nutrition, health care, soil conservation and the reforestation of thousands of hectares of forest, work that has earned its founder and general director, Jesús León Santos, the 2008 Goldman Prize.

The BAP, with a focus on economic, social and environmental sustainability and in collaboration with the social, community, academic, private and public sectors, aims to contribute to the preservation of the environment and the holistic improvement of living conditions in the communities, through the creation and implementation of various wide-ranging productive projects that take full advantage of and add value to one of the most deeply rooted crops in Oaxacan culture: agaves.

One of the main reasons why the BAP has aroused the interest of Mixtec communities is that it offers a viable solution to one of the main problems facing the region: the loss of the ecosystem’s capacity to provide sufficient feed for productive animals. This fact forces farmers to reduce or even abandon animal husbandry, as the purchase of feed is not an option for most people, given the weak economic situation faced in the region. Most worryingly, the difficulty or impossibility of raising animals puts the food security of the indigenous communities of the Mixteca at risk.

Addressing this problem, the BAP proposes agroecological model plantations based on agave, leucaena and other species -all of them with millenary cultural roots- to produce a feed of high nutritional value for animals, such as agave silage enriched with legume protein. The advantages of this project, among others such as soil improvement and carbon sequestration, are that both water demand and costs are significantly low. In addition, the agave landscape that once characterized the Mixteca would be recovered, and with it, the possibility of obtaining mead for tepache and pulque, and stalks for barbecue, which are uses, among many others, that have ancestrally occurred in the area.

The event was attended by the general director of CEDICAM, Jesús León Santos, the coordinator of the BAP, Arturo Carrillo, the director of Technology Management of the Center for Scientific Research of Yucatán (CICY), Javier García Villalobos, the representative of the indigenous communities of the Mixteca, Maximina Montesinos Santiago, the president of the Board of Directors of CEDICAM, Elaeazar García Jiménez, and the head of the Ministry of Agri-Food Promotion and Rural Development of Oaxaca (SEFADER), Víctor López Leyva.

(from left to right) Luis Arturo Carrillo Sánchez, BAP coordinator; Jesús León Santos, general director of CEDICAM; Maximina Montesinos Santiago, representative of the indigenous communities of the Mixteca; Elaeazar García Jiménez, president of the CEDICAM Board of Directors; Víctor López Leyva, secretary of SEFADER and Javier García Villalobos, director of Technology Management at CICY.

During the presentation, Jesús León Santos commented that the signing of the agreement between RI and CEDICAM means the start of a very important process for the Mixteca, where the presence of rainfall is limited and therefore peasant agriculture is always at risk due to drought, early frosts and poor soils. A project that focuses its efforts on the intercropping of agaves and forage forest trees sets a very important precedent, because they are plants that are able to adapt to conditions of low rainfall and develop in soils poor in organic matter. On the other hand, it represents an opportunity to conserve such an important species as the pulque agaves, linked to the peasant culture, not only for the pulque, but for all the products and by-products obtained from this plant. In this way, while generating a mechanism for the integral use of both agaves and fodder trees, it can generate economic opportunities for the farming families of the region, and he added that CEDICAM, together with RI and the participating farmers, will use all our capacities so that this project contributes to the recovery of the landscape and the improvement in the quality of life of the families.

In his speech, Arturo Carrillo also explained that the BAP consists of implementing various agave production and marketing projects that recover the culture of integral use that the native communities have had since long ago and that generate sustainable economic, environmental and social solutions in the regions where they are implemented. He added that the strategy is to develop these projects initially in five implementation hubs: 1) the Vía Orgánica Ranch in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, 2) at the ranch El Mexicano in collaboration with Sarape CircuLab in Guadalajara, Jalisco; 3) at the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón in Yucatán; 4) in Suchixtlán, Oaxaca with the Koch Foundation and 5) at CEDICAM in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca. He also mentioned that some of these productive projects are the extraction and commercialization of inulin and lactic acid, the formulation of feed for productive and affective animals, the production of fermented and distilled products, and the production of molasses and syrup, among others, and all of them are being developed based on scientific and technological research of the highest level in collaboration with institutions such as the CICY or the Center for Research and Assistance in Technology and Design of the State of Jalisco (CIATEJ) and in close relationship with the native communities, who possess invaluable ancestral knowledge about their territory. He concluded by commenting that this type of project can only be developed in a harmonious collaboration between the social, community, academic, private and public sectors, for this reason -he stressed- an indispensable component on which we are working hard, is the link with these sectors.

Javier García Villalobos commented that CICY has made clear its intention to participate in the Billion Agave Project not only in the Yucatán region, but also in the state of Oaxaca. Particularly for the Mixtec region, CICY proposes, on one hand, to develop projects for the holistic use of both mezcal agaves and magueys to produce pulque, as well as to be a supplier of the plants for the implementation of the project, which will be produced in its Biofactory “Dr. Manuel L. Robert” and that present characteristics that provide advantages to the different segments of the value chain such as: reduction in the time for their maturation and the conservation of the organoleptic characteristics necessary for the production of by-products from these crops of national and international importance, just to mention a few.

In her turn, Maximina Montesinos Santiago commented that from the position of the women of the communities of the Mixteca region, the implementation of a project of this type will contribute significantly to the recovery of the soil and it is expected to improve the economy of the participating families, but more importantly, it will strengthen our culture linked to the agaves, such as the food, medicinal and related aspects of our local traditions. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly many products that can be obtained from agaves and this represents a great opportunity for our people and especially for women, in a region where there is no income due to lack of job opportunities, the mere fact of producing fodder from agaves, can profoundly change our culture of feeding our animals, providing them with better quality fodder. We women joined this project with the hope of changing our situation and demonstrating that it is possible to improve our quality of life through our ancestral crops.

Eleazar García commented that the agreement being signed will be of great benefit to the region and that CEDICAM will do everything possible to contribute to its success.

To close the speeches, the Secretary of SEFADER, Víctor López Leyva, expressed that the recovery of the agave culture in Oaxaca constitutes the opportunity to provide concrete answers of responsible development to the issues of environmental deterioration caused by deforestation and the careless opening of new territories to the cultivation of mezcal magueys, He concluded by affirming that “when an alliance is made with academia, the public and private sectors to rescue productive activities related to agaves, their preservation and durability, we are undoubtedly on the road to doing justice to the Oaxacan countryside”.

Also in attendance were several municipal presidents from the region and thirty community representatives.

To close the event, a delicious Mixteco-style barbecue was offered as a meal, accompanied by handmade native corn tortillas and pulque and tepache as a beverage.

Respaldo científico y tecnológico de alto nivel para el Billion Agave Project

El 8 de mayo pasado se llevó a cabo en la ciudad de Guadalajara, Jalisco, México, la firma del convenio de colaboración entre el Centro de Investigación y Asistencia en Tecnología y Diseño del Estado de Jalisco (CIATEJ) y Regeneration International (RI), con el fin de fortalecer y dar impulso al Billion Agave Project (BAP) en las siguientes áreas: investigación y transferencia científica y tecnológica, desarrollo e implementación de proyectos, recursos humanos, difusión, capacitación y servicios institucionales. El convenio fue firmado por la Dra. Eugenia del Carmen Lugo Cervantes, directora general del CIATEJ y Luis Arturo Carrillo Sánchez Coordinador del BAP.

El establecimiento de este convenio se da en el marco de uno de los ejes estratégicos de desarrollo del BAP, que es formalizar y consolidar una red activa de colaboración con diversas entidades de los sectores social, comunitario, académico, público y privado, que posibilite la implementación del proyecto a escala nacional.

Esta alianza con el CIATEJ –que es uno de los centros de investigación más prestigiados de México y a la cabeza en investigación sobre el agave– es de capital importancia para el BAP, puesto que algunos de los proyectos productivos que se están impulsando desde esta iniciativa, demandan del conocimiento ya desarrollado por este centro de investigación. Tal es el caso de la extracción y caracterización de inulina de agave, que es una familia de azúcares complejos con múltiples propiedades benéficas para la salud y altamente demandada en el sector alimentario y farmacéutico y cuyo mercado va en aumento.

Agregar valor al cultivo del agave a través de la implementación de proyectos productivos sostenibles que diversifiquen su aprovechamiento –como es el caso de extracción y comercialización de inulina– es una de las estrategias del BAP para incentivar a los productores a establecer plantaciones agroecológicas basadas en agave que fortalezcan la bioculturalidad y contribuyan al secuestro de carbono, así como a la regeneración ecológica, social y económica del territorio.

Photo credit: Joel Caldwell

Los agaves son aprovechables desde la raíz hasta las púas. Sin embargo, en algunas regiones, la industria se ha enfocado en aprovechar solo alguno de sus productos, como es el caso del tequila derivado del agave azul en el estado de Jalisco o la fibra que se obtiene del henequén en Yucatán. Es por ello que el BAP busca rescatar la visión milenaria de aprovechamiento holístico generando proyectos que agreguen valor social, económico y ambientalmente.

Durante el evento, se destacaron las capacidades científicas y tecnológicas del CIATEJ a través de sus cinco líneas de investigación: Biotecnología Vegetal, Biotecnología Industrial, Tecnología Alimentaria, Tecnología Ambiental y Biotecnología Médica y Farmacéutica. Estas capacidades fueron presentadas con el objetivo de participar activamente en el proyecto, aprovechando la vasta experiencia acumulada en temas relacionados con el agave, desde su cultivo hasta el manejo y la reutilización de residuos.

A este evento asistieron varias organizaciones, instituciones y empresas, entre ellas los Agaveros en Alianza, productores de agave y raicilla, el Centro de Biotecnología Genómica del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, el Centro Universitario de Ciencias Biológicas y Agropecuarias de la Universidad de Guadalajara, el Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias sede Jalisco, la Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, la Comisión Nacional Forestal, la Subdirección de Innovación Tecnológica y Vinculación de la Ciencia de la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, el Rancho El Mexicano, la Subsecretaría de Fomento e Innovación Económica de Nuevo León, la empresa Sarape Social, el Consejo Agropecuario y Agroindustrial del estado de Jalisco

Al finalizar el evento, se llevó a cabo un recorrido por las instalaciones del CIATEJ para que pudieran conocer de primera mano sus capacidades y recursos, facilitando así futuras colaboraciones.

Agave para el Futuro: El Rol del CIATEJ en el Billion Agave Project

El día 8 de mayo en la subsede Zapopan del CIATEJ se llevó a cabo la firma de un acuerdo de colaboración entre el CIATEJ y Regeneration International, con el fin de trabajar en conjunto en el Billion Agave Project, una estrategia innovadora de regeneración de ecosistemas y busca una producción y transformación sostenible del agave. El acuerdo fue firmada por la Dra. Eugenia del Carmen Lugo Cervantes, directora general del CIATEJ y Luis Arturo Carrillo Sánchez Coordinador Internacional de Billion Agave Project.

El objetivo de este proyecto es el tener cultivos, pero no devastemos, que no nos acabemos la tierra, que tengamos cultivos ecológicos, hay que buscar un equilibrio… CIATEJ ha trabajado con agaves ornamentales, agaves productores de destilados y actualmente estamos trabajando más con semillas (conservación), esperamos que este convenio sea el inicio de una colaboración más estrecha”, señaló la Dra. Eugenia Lugo en sus palabras de bienvenida.


Billion Agave Project Initiative is Presented at the CICY

MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN, NOVEMBER 24, 2023 – On November 23rd, the “Billion Agave Project Initiative, between Regeneration International and CICY” was presented at the Scientific Research Center of Yucatán (CICY), in the framework of which a collaboration agreement was signed between these two entities, whose purpose is to develop the science and technology that will allow the implementation of the Billion Agave Project (BAP) in Yucatán.

The BAP, with a focus on economic, social and environmental sustainability and in collaboration with the social, academic, private and public sectors, aims to contribute to the preservation of the environment and the holistic improvement of people’s living conditions, through the creation and implementation of various wide-ranging productive projects that take full advantage of and add value to Yucatán’s flagship crop: henequén.

The event was attended by Dr. Pedro Iván González Chi, the general director of CICY; Ercilia Sahores, the LATAM director of Regeneration International (RI); M.C. Javier García Villalobos, the director of Technology Management of CICY and project liaison;  Arturo Carrillo, the national coordinator of the Billion Agave Project (BAP); Sotuta de Peón William Lübke, the owner and general manager of Hacienda Sotuta; and Ing. Ignacio Alberto Vadillos Coral, Director of Planning, Financing and Sector Coordination, who attended on behalf of MVZ; and Jorge Díaz, head of the Secretariat of Rural Development (SEDER) of the Yucatán State Government.

In the presentation, Dr. Pedro Iván González said that CICY, since it was formed, has focused on the study of agaves, not limited to henequen, but also has experience in agaves for the mezcal and tequila industries, with specialists that from science and technology provide solutions along the value chain that is formed for the different crops. He expressed the willingness of the institution he represents to articulate actions with the different actors, from the small producer to our leaders in the State Government, to guarantee the success of the project.

Likewise, Ercilia Sahores commented that Regeneration International emerged in June 2015, at a meeting in Costa Rica with representatives of businesses, farming and scientific communities, educational institutions, policy makers and NGOs from 21 countries, to develop a blueprint for an international movement united around a common mission: To build a global network of farmers, scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, journalists, consumers and public policy shapers that will promote and implement regenerative agriculture and land use practices that provide abundant and nutritious food; revitalize local economies; regenerate soil fertility and its capacity to retain water; nurture biodiversity; and restore climate stability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, while capturing excess carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it in the soil.

Arturo Carrillo explained that the BAP consists of implementing various productive agave based projects that recover the vision of integral use that the native communities have had since time immemorial, and that generate sustainable economic, environmental and social solutions in the regions where they are implemented. He added that the strategy is to develop these projects, initially, in three implementation hubs: at the Vía Orgánica Research Farm in San Miguel de Allende, Gto, at the Centro de Desarrollo Integral Campesino de la Mixteca (CEDICAM) in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, and at the Sotuta de Peón Hacienda, in Yucatán. Some of these productive projects include the extraction and commercialization of inulin and lactic acid, the formulation of feed for productive and affective animals, the production of fermented and distilled products, and the production of molasses and syrup, among others, and all of them are being developed based on scientific and technological research of the highest level, in collaboration with institutions such as the CICY.

He concluded by saying that this type of projects can only be developed in collaboration with the social, academic, private and public sectors, which is why -he remarked- an indispensable component in which we are working hard, is the linkage with these sectors.

In his speech, William Lübke commented that the project represents a great opportunity, giving continuity to the tests currently being carried out with plants produced by CICY, to identify an integral use of the henequen crop. He added that a project that comes with more information on what can be done with the plant is wonderful and encouraging for the peninsula itself and for the producers.

Mr. Vadillos, an engineer from SEDER, pointed out that the BAP project has great potential, as it coincides with other initiatives, such as the implementation of silvopastoral systems, indicating that there is an opportunity for collaboration to promote the resurgence of Yucatan’s green gold. He emphasized the importance of the projects having the support of research and always focusing them on environmental care.

He added that it is very gratifying to know about projects such as the BAP that integrate the participation of the research area and the private sector, a combination to which he predicts great success, and emphasized that the governmental sector will always be present to support this type of projects as much as possible.

To end the event, Mr. M.C. García Villalobos, Director of Technology Management at CICY, emphasized that this project is a clear example of articulation of the Pentahelix, which is the basis of the Mexican innovation model, and invited the academic community of the Conahcyt Research Center to contribute proposals for the BAP project from CICY’s areas of expertise, which participates as a member of the alliance, to provide solutions derived from scientific and technological research and to propose alternative strategies for henequen cultivation, as a supplier of the plants that would be used, which have been produced by CICY in its “Dr. Manuel L. Robert” Biofactory, as well as in its “Dr. Manuel L. Robert” Biofactory, as a supplier of the plants that would be used, which have been produced by CICY in its “Dr. Manuel L. Robert” Biofactory. Manuel L. Robert” Biofactory, as well as options for its integral use (JCDO-Divulgación CICY).

Agave Power: Greening the Desert

Read in Spanish here.

Agave, from the Greek word αγαυή, meaning “noble” or “admirable,” is a common perennial desert succulent, with thick fleshy leaves and sharp thorns. Agave plants evolved originally in Mexico, but are also found today in the hot, arid, and semi-arid drylands of Central America, the Southwestern U.S., South America, Africa, Oceana, and Asia. Agaves are best known for producing textiles (henequen and sisal) from its fibrous leaves, syrup sweeteners, inulin (a food additive), and alcoholic beverages, tequila, pulque, and mescal, from its sizeable stem or piña, pet food supplements and building materials from its fiber, and bio-ethanol from the bagasse or leftover pulp after the piña is distilled.

Agave’s several hundred different varieties are found growing on approximately 20% of the earth’s surface, often growing in the same desertified, degraded cropland or rangeland areas as nitrogen-fixing, deep-rooted trees or shrubs such as mesquite, acacia, or leucaena. Agaves can tolerate intense heat and will readily grow in drylands or semi-desert landscapes where there is a minimum annual rainfall of approximately 10 inches or 250 mm, and can survive temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius).

The several billion small farmers and rural families living in the world’s drylands are often among the most impoverished communities in the world, with increasing numbers being forced to migrate to cities or across borders in search of employment. Decades of corrupt government policies, deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, destructive use of agricultural chemicals, and heavy tillage or plowing have severely degenerated the soils, fertility, water retention, and biodiversity of most arid and semi-arid lands. With climate change, limited and unpredictable rainfall, and increasingly degraded soil in these drylands, it has become very difficult to raise traditional food crops (such as corn, beans, and squash in Mexico) or generate sufficient forage and nutrition for animals. Many dryland areas are in danger of degenerating even further into literal desert, unable to sustain any crops or livestock whatsoever. Besides struggling with corrupt or inept officials, degraded landscapes, poverty, and crop failure, and social conflict, drug trafficking, and organized crime often plague these areas, forcing millions to migrate to urban areas or across borders to seek safety and employment.


Agaves basically require no irrigation, efficiently storing seasonal rainfall and moisture from the air it in their thick thorny leaves (pencas) and stem or heart (piña) utilizing their Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthetic pathway, which enables the plant to grow and produce significant amounts of biomass, even under conditions of severely restricted water availability and prolonged droughts. Agaves reproduce by putting out shoots or hijuelos alongside the mother plant, (approximately 3-4 per year) or through seeds, if the plant is allowed to flower at the end of its 8-13 year (or more) lifespan.

A number of agave varieties appropriate for drylands agroforestry (salmiana, americana, mapisaga, crassipina) readily grow into large plants, reaching a weight of up to 650 kilograms (1400 pounds) in the space of 8-13 years.

Agaves are among the world’s top 15 plants or trees in terms of drawing down large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing plant biomass. [Footnote: Park S. Nobel, Desert Wisdom/Agaves and Cacti, p.132] Certain varieties of agave are capable of producing up to 43 tons of dry weight biomass per hectare (17 tons of biomass per acre) or more per year on a continuous basis. In addition, the water use of agaves (and other desert-adapted CAM plants) is typically 4-12 times more efficient than other plants and trees, with average water demand approximately 6 times lower.

Agave-Based Agroforestry

Agave’s nitrogen-fixing, deep-rooted companion trees or shrubs such as mesquite and acacias have adapted to survive in these same dryland environments as well. From an environmental, soil health, and carbon-sequestering perspective, agaves should be cultivated and inter-planted, not as a monoculture, as is commonly done with agave azul (the blue agave species) on tequila plantations in Mexico (often 3,000-4,000 plants per hectare/1215-1600 plants per acre), but as a polyculture. In this polyculture agroforestry system, several varieties of agave are interspersed with native nitrogen-fixing trees or shrubs (such as mesquite or acacias), native vegetation, pasture grass, and cover crops, which fix the nitrogen and nutrients into the soil which the agave needs to draw upon in order to grow and produce significant amounts of biomass/animal forage. If grown as a polyculture, agaves and their companion trees and shrubs can be cultivated on a continuous basis, producing large amounts of biomass for silage and sequestering significant amounts of carbon above ground and below ground (approximately 130 tons of CO2 per hectare on a continuous basis after 10 years), without depleting soil fertility or biodiversity.

In addition to these polyculture practices, planned rotational grazing on these agroforestry pastures, once established, not only provides significant forage for livestock, but done properly (neither overgrazing nor under-grazing, keeping livestock away for several years after initial planting), further improves or regenerates the soil, eliminating dead grasses, invasive species, facilitating water infiltration (in part through ground disturbance i.e. hoof prints), concentrating animal manure and urine, and increasing soil organic matter, soil carbon, biodiversity, and fertility.

Although agave is a plant that grows prolifically in some of the harshest climates in the world, in recent times this plant has been largely ignored, if not outright denigrated. Apart from producing alcoholic beverages, agaves are often considered a plant and livestock pest, along with its thorny, nitrogen-fixing, leguminous companion trees or shrubs such as mesquite and acacias.

But now, the development of a new agave-based agroforestry and holistic livestock management system in the semi-arid drylands of Guanajuato, Mexico, utilizing basic ecosystem restorations techniques, permaculture design, and silage production using anaerobic fermentation, is changing the image of agave and their companion trees. This agave-powered agroforestry and livestock management system is demonstrating that native plants, long overlooked, have the potential to regenerate the drylands, inexpensive feed supplements and essential fermented forage for grazing animals, especially during the dry season, and alleviate rural poverty.

Moving beyond conventional monoculture and chemical-intensive farm practices, and combining the traditional indigenous knowledge of native desert plants and natural fermentation, an innovative group of Mexico-based farmers have learned how to reforest and green their drylands, all without the use of irrigation or expensive and toxic agricultural inputs.

Farmers and researchers have created this new agroforestry program by densely planting, pruning, and inter-cropping high-biomass, high-forage producing species of agaves (1000-2000 per hectare, 405-810 per acre) among pre-existing deep-rooted, nitrogen-fixing tree or shrub species (400 per hectare) such as mesquite and acacia, or alongside transplanted tree saplings. For reforestation and biodiversity in the agave/mesquite agroforestry system, the Via Organica research farm in San Miguel has developed acodos or air-layered clones of mesquite trees. These mesquite acodos are essentially mesquite branches from mature trees transformed into saplings planted into the ground, which, after six months to a year of being watered and cared for in the greenhouse, can grow up to two meters tall.

Agaves (especially salmiana, americana, mapisaga, and crassipina) naturally produce large amounts of plant leaf or pencas every year, which can then be chopped up and fermented, turned into silage.  Agave’s perennial silage production far exceeds most other forage production (most of which require irrigation and expensive chemical inputs) with three different varieties (salmiana, americana, and mapisaga) in various locations producing approximately 40 tons per acre or 100 tons per hectare, of fermented silage, annually. The variety crassispina, valuable for its high-sugar piña content for mescal, produces slightly less than 50% of the penca biomass than the other three varieties (average 46.6 tons per year).

The fermented agave silage of the three most productive varieties has a considerable market value of $100 US per ton (up to $4,000 US per acre or $10,000 per hectare gross income). This system, in combination with rotational grazing, has the capacity to feed up to 40 sheep, lambs or goats per acre/per year or 100 per hectare, producing a potential value added net income of $3,000 US per acre or $7,500 per hectare. Once certified as organic, sheep and lamb production will substantially increase profitability per acre/hectare, especially if organic viscera (heart, liver, kidneys etc.) are processed into freeze-dried nutritional supplements.

In addition, the agave heart or piña, with a market value of $150 US per ton, harvested at the end of the agave plant’s 8-13 year-lifespan for mescal (a valuable distilled liquor) or inulin (a valuable nutritional supplement), or silage, can weigh 300-400 kg. (660-880 pounds), in the three most productive varieties. Again the crassispiña variety has a much smaller piña (160 tons per 2000 plants). The value of the piña from 2000 agave plants for the salmiana, americana, and mapisaga varieties, harvested once, at the end of the plant’s productive lifespan (approximately 10 years) has a market value of $52,500 (over 10 years, with 10% harvested annually) US per hectare, with the market value for inulin being considerably more.

Combining the market value of the penca and piña of the three most productive varieties we arrive at a total gross market value of $152,500 US per hectare and $61,538 per acre, over 10 years. Adding the value of the 72,000 hijuelos or shoots of 2000 agave plants (each producing an average of 36 shoots or clones) with a value of 12 pesos or 60 cents US per shoot we get an additional $43,200 gross income over 10 years. Total estimated gross income per hectare for pencas ($100,000), piñas ($52,500), and hijuelos ($43,200) over 10 years will be $195,700, with expenses to establish and maintain the system projected to be to be $15,000 (including fencing) per hectare over 10 years. As these numbers, even though approximate, indicate, this system has tremendous economic potential.


Pioneered by sheep and goat ranchers, Hacienda Zamarippa, in the municipality of San Luis de la Paz, Mexico and then expanded and modified by organic farmers and researchers in San Miguel de Allende and other locations, “The Billion Agave Project” as the new Movement calls itself, is starting to attract regional and even international attention on the part of farmers, government officials, climate activists, and impact investors. One of the most exciting aspects of this new agroforestry system is its potential to be eventually established or replicated, not only across Mexico, but in a significant percentage of the world’s arid and semi-arid drylands, (including major areas in Central America, Latin America, the Southwestern US, Asia, Oceana, and Africa). Arid and semi-arid drylands constitute, according to the United Nations Convention to Prevent Desertification, 40% of the Earth’s lands.

Alleviating Rural Poverty

Besides improving soils, regenerating ecosystems, and sequestering carbon, the economic impact of this agroforestry system appears to be a long-overdue game-changer in terms of reducing and eliminating rural poverty. Currently 90% of Mexico’s dryland farmers (86% of whom do not have wells or irrigation) are unable to generate any profit whatsoever from farm production, according to government statistics. The average rural household income in Mexico is approximately $5,000-6,000 US per year, derived overwhelmingly from off-farm employment and remittances or money sent home from Mexican immigrants working in the US or Canada. Almost 50% of Mexicans, according to government statistics, are living in poverty or extreme poverty.

The chart below compares the high productivity of agave (in terms of animal forage or silage production) compared to other forage crops, all of which, unlike agave and mesquite, require expensive and/or unavailable irrigation or crop inputs. The second chart compares the productivity, in terms of penca or leaf biomass, from the species salmiana. See appendix for comparisons of other agave species in a number of different locations.

Deploying the Agave-Based Agroforestry System

The first step in deploying this agave-powered agroforestry and holistic livestock management system involves carrying out basic ecosystem restoration practices. Restoration is necessary given that most dryland areas suffer from degraded soils, erosion, low fertility, and low rainfall retention in soils. Initial ecosystem restoration typically requires putting up fencing or repairing fencing for livestock control, constructing rock barriers (check dams) for erosion control, building up contoured rows and terracing, subsoiling (to break up hardpan soils), transplanting agaves of different varieties and ages (1600-2500 per hectare or 650-1000 per acre), sowing pasture grasses, as well as transplanting (if not previously forested) mesquite or other nitrogen-fixing trees (400 per hectare or 135 per acre) or shrubs. Depending on the management plan, not all agaves will be planted in the same year, but ideally the system contains an equal division of 200 plants per year of each age (planted in ages 1-10) so as to stagger harvest times for the agave piñas, which are harvested at the end of the particular species 8-13 year lifespan.

Planting in turn is followed by no-till soil management (after initial subsoiling) and sowing pasture grasses and cover crops of legumes, meanwhile temporarily “resting” pasture (i.e. keeping animals out of overgrazed pastures or rangelands) long enough to allow regeneration of forage and survival of young agaves and tree seedlings. Following these initial steps of ecosystem restoration and planting agaves and establishing sufficient tree cover, which can take up to five years, the next step is carefully implementing planned rotational grazing of sheep and goats (or other livestock) across these pasturelands and rangelands, at least during the rainy season (4-6 months per year), utilizing moveable solar fencing and/or shepherds and shepherd dogs (neither overgrazing nor under-grazing); supplementing pasture forage, especially during the six-eight-month dry season, with fermented agave silage. During the dry season many families will choose to keep the breeding stock on their smaller family parcels or paddocks, feeding them fermented silage (either agave or agave/mesquite pod mix) to keep them healthy throughout the dry season, when pasture grasses are severely limited.

By implementing these restoration and agroforestry practices, farmers and ranchers can begin to regenerate dryland landscapes and improve the health and productivity of their livestock, provide affordable food for their families, improve their livelihoods, and at the same time, deliver valuable ecosystem services, reducing soil erosion, recharging water tables, and sequestering and storing large amounts of atmospheric carbon in plant biomass and soils, both aboveground and below ground.

Fermenting the Agave Leaves: A Revolutionary Innovation

The revolutionary innovation of a pioneering group of Guanajuato farmers has been to turn a heretofore indigestible, but massive and accessible source of fiber and biomass, the agave leaves or pencas, into a valuable animal feed, utilizing the natural process of anaerobic fermentation to transform the plants’ indigestible saponin and lectin compounds into digestible carbohydrates, sugar, and fiber. To do this, practitioners have developed a relatively simple machine, either stand alone or hooked up to a tractor, that can chop up the very tough pruned leaves of the agave. After chopping the agave’s leaves or pencas (into what looks like green coleslaw) producers then anaerobically ferment this wet silage (ideally along with the chopped-up protein-rich pods of the mesquite tree, or other protein sources) in a closed container, such as a 5 or 50-gallon plastic container or cubeta with a lid, removing as much oxygen as possible (by tapping it down) before closing the lid.

The fermented end-product, golden-colored after 30 days, good for 30 moths, is a nutritious but very inexpensive silage or animal fodder, that costs approximately 1.5 Mexican pesos (or 7.5 cents US) per kilogram/2.2 pounds (fermented agave alone) or three pesos (agave and mesquite pods together) per kilogram to produce. In San Miguel de Allende, the containers we use, during this initial experimental stage of the project cost $3 US per unit for a 20 liter or 5 gallon plastic container or cubeta with a lid, with a lifespan of 25 uses or more before they must be recycled. Two hundred liter reusable containers cost $60 US per unit (new, $30 used) but will last considerable longer than the 20 liter containers.

As the attached business plan for fermented agave silage indicates, harvesting and processing the pencas alone will provide significant value and profits per hectare for landowners and rural communities (such as ejidos in Mexico) who deploy the agave/agroforestry system at scale. In addition, Billion Agave Project researchers are now developing silage storage alternatives that will eliminate the necessity for the relatively expensive 20 liter or 200 liter plastic cubetas or containers.

The agave silage production system can provide the cash-strapped rancher or farmer with an alternative to having to purchase alfalfa (expensive at 20 cents US per kg and water-intensive) or hay (likewise expensive) or corn stalks (labor intensive and nutritionally-deficient), especially during the dry season.

According to Dr. Juan Frias, one of the pioneers of this process, lambs or adult sheep readily convert 10 kilos of fermented agave silage into one kilo of body weight, half of which will be marketable as meat or viscera. At 1.5 to 2 pesos per kilo (7.5-15 cents per pound), this highly nutritious silage can eventually make the difference between poverty and a decent income for literally millions of the world’s dryland small farmers and herders.

Typically, an adult sheep will consume 2-2.5 kilograms of silage every day, while a lamb of up to five months of age will consume 500-800 grams per day.  (Cattle will consume 10 times as much silage per day as sheep, approximately 20-25 kg per day.) Under the agave system for sheep and goats it costs approximately 20 pesos or one dollar a pound (live weight) to produce what is worth, at ongoing market rates for non-organic mutton or goat, 40 pesos or two dollars per pound (live weight). (Certified organic lamb, mutton, or goat will bring in 25-50 percent more). In ongoing experiments in San Miguel de Allende, pigs and chickens have remained healthy and productive with fermented agave forage providing 15% of their diet, reducing feed costs considerably.

The bountiful harvest of this regenerative, high-biomass, high carbon-sequestering system includes not only extremely low-cost, nutritious animal forage (up to 100 tons or more per hectare per year of fermented silage, starting in years three-five, averaged out over ten years), but also high-quality organic lamb, mutton, cheese, milk, aquamiel (agave sap), pulque (a mildly alcoholic beverage), inulin (a nutritional supplement), and distilled agave liquor (mescal), all produced organically with no synthetic chemicals or pesticides whatsoever, at affordable prices, with excess agave biomass fiber, and bagasse available for textiles, compost, biochar, construction materials, and bioethanol.

Regenerative Economics: The Bottom Line

In order to motivate a critical mass of impoverished farmers and ranchers struggling to make a living in the degraded drylands of Mexico, or in any of the arid and semi-arid areas in the world, to adopt this system, it is necessary to have a strong economic incentive.  There absolutely must be economic rewards, both short-term and long-term, in terms of farm income, if we expect rapid adoption of this system. Fortunately, the agave/mesquite agroforestry system provides this, starting in year three and steadily increasing each year thereafter, producing significant amounts of low-cost silage to feed livestock and a steady and growing revenue stream from selling surplus pencas, piñas, and silage from individual farm or communal lands (ejidos).

Given that most dryland farmers have little or no operating capital, there needs to be a system to provide financing (loans, grants, ecosystem credits) and technical assistance to deploy this regenerative system and maintain it over the crucial 5-10 year initiation period. Based upon a decade of implementation and experimentation, we estimate that this agave agroforestry system will cost approximately $1500 US dollars per year, per hectare to establish and maintain, averaged out over a ten-year period. See chart below. By year five, however this system should be able to pay out initial operating loans (upfront costs in years one or one through five are much higher than in successive years) and begin to generate a net profit.

The overwhelming majority of Mexican dryland farmers, as noted previously, have no wells for irrigation (86%) and make little no money (90%) from their subsistence agriculture practices (raising corn, beans, and squash and livestock). Although the majority of rural smallholders are low-income or impoverished, they do however typically own their own (family or self-built) houses and farm sheds or buildings as well as title or ownership to their own parcels of land, typically five hectares (12 acres) or less, as well as their livestock. And beyond their individual parcels, three million Mexican families are also joint owners of communal lands or ejidos, which constitute 56% of total national agricultural lands (103 million hectares or 254 million acres).  Ejidos arose out the widespread land reform and land redistribution policies following the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20. Large landholdings or haciendas were broken up and distributed to small farmers and rural village organizations, ejidos.

Unfortunately, most of the lands belonging to Mexico’s 28,000 communal landholding ejidos are arid or semi-arid with no wells or irrigation. But being an ejido member does give a family access and communal grazing (some cultivation) rights to the (typically overgrazed) ejido or village communally-owned land. Some ejidos including those in the drylands are quite large, encompassing 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) or more. In contrast to farmers in the US or the rest of the world, most of these Mexican dryland or ejido farmers have little or no debt. For many, their bank account is their livestock, which they sell as necessary to pay for out of the ordinary household and personal expenses.

As noted earlier, most Mexican farmers today subsist on the income from off-farm jobs by family members, and remittances sent home from family members working in the US or Canada. They understand first hand that climate change and degraded soils are making it nearly impossible for them to grow their traditional milpas (raising corn, beans, and squash during the rainy season) or raise healthy livestock for family consumption and sales. Most are aware that their livestock often cost them as much labor and money to raise (or more) than their value for family subsistence or their value in the marketplace.

Mexico has a total of 2400 municipios or counties located in 32 states. Across Mexico small farmers are already cultivating agave or harvesting wild agave in 1000 municipios and nine states, harvesting piñas for mescal or pulque production. Only a few these areas, however, Hacienda Zamarippa in San Luis de la Paz, Via Organica (and surrounding ejidos), a 5,000 hectare organic beef ranch called Canada de la Virgen in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and pulque producers in Coahuila and Tlaxcala are currently harvesting pencas or agave leaf to produce fermented silage for livestock. However, as the word spreads about the incredible value of pencas and the agave/mesquite agroforestry developing in the state of Guanajuato, farmers in most of the nation’s ejidos and municipios will be interested in deploying this system in their areas.

With start-up financing, operating capital, and technical assistance (much of which can be farmer-to-farmer training), a critical mass of Mexican smallholders should be able to benefit enormously from establishing this agave-based agroforestry and livestock management system on their private parcels, and benefit even more by collectively deploying this system with their other ejido members on communal lands. With the ability to generate a net income up to $6-12,000 US per year/per hectare of fermented agave silage (and lamb/sheep/livestock production) on their lands, low maintenance costs after initial deployment, and with production steadily increasing three to five years after implementation, this agave system has the potential to spread all across Mexico (and all the arid and semi-arid drylands of the world.)  As tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farm families start to become self-sufficient in providing up 100% of the feed and nutrition for their livestock, dryland farmers will have the opportunity to move out of poverty and regenerate household and rural community economies, restoring land fertility and essential ecosystem services at the same time.

The extraordinary characteristic of this agave agroforestry system is that it generates almost immediate rewards. Starting from seedlings or agave shoots, (hijuelos they are called) in year three in the 8-13-year life-span of these agaves, farmers can begin to prune and harvest the lower plant leaves or pencas from these agaves (pruning approximately 20% of leaf biomass every year starting in year three) and start to produce tons of nutritious fermented animal feed/silage. Individual agave leaves or pencas from a mature plant can weigh more than 20 kilos or 45 pounds each. In the areas where wild agaves are growing, (often at fairly low-density of 100-400 agaves per hectare) land managers can detach the shoots from the mother plant and transplant hijuelos, so as to achieve higher (and eventually maximum) density of agaves in the large amount of the nation’s lands where agave are growing wild.

Because the system requires no inputs or chemicals, the meat, milk, or forage produced can readily be certified organic, likely increasing its wholesale value in the marketplace. In addition, the piñas or plant stem from 2000 agave plants (one hectare) with an average piña per plant of 300-400 kg (3 pesos or 15 cents US per KG) can generate a one-time revenue of $52,500 US dollars) at the final harvest of the agave plant, when all remaining leaves and stem are harvested. But even as agaves are completely harvested at the end of their 8-13-year life span, other agave seedlings or hijuelos (shoots) of various ages which have steadily been planted alongside side them will maintain the same level of biomass and silage production. In a hectare of 2,000 agave plants, approximately 72,000 hijuelos or new baby plants (averaging 36 per mother plant) will be produced over a ten-year period. These 72,000 baby plants (ready for transplanting) have a current market value over a ten-year period of 12 Mexico pesos (60 cents US) each or $43,200 US ($4,320 US per year).

Financing the Agave-Based Agroforestry System

Although Mexico’s dryland small-holders are typically debt-free, they are cash poor. To establish and maintain this system, as the chart above indicates, they will need approximately $1500 US dollars a year per hectare ($370 per acre) for a total cost over 10 years at $15,000.  Starting in year five, each hectare should be generating $10,000 or more worth of fermented silage or foraje per year.

By year five, farmers deploying the system will be generating enough income from silage production and livestock sales to pay off the entire 10-year loan. From this point on they will become economically self-sufficient, and, in fact, will have the opportunity to become moderately prosperous. Pressure to overgraze communal lands will decrease, as will the pressure on rural people to migrate to cities or to the US and Canada. Meanwhile massive amounts of atmospheric carbon will have begun to be sequestered above ground and below ground, enabling many of Mexico’s 2400 counties (municipalidades) to eventually reach net zero carbon emissions. In addition, other ecosystem services will improve, including reduced topsoil erosion, more rainfall/water retention in soils, more soil organic matter, increased tree and shrub cover, increased biodiversity (above ground and below ground), restoration of grazing areas, and increased soil fertility.

Natural Carbon Sequestration in Regenerated Soils and Plants

Mexico, like every nation, has an obligation, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) through converting to renewable forms of energy (especially solar and wind) and energy conservation, at the same time, drawing down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing, through the process of enhanced forest and plant photosynthesis, this “drawdown” carbon in its biomass, roots, and soil. Agave-based agroforestry (2000 agave plants and 400 mesquite acodos per hectare) as a perennial system, over 10-15 years can store aboveground and below ground approximately 143 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare (58 tons of CO2 per acre) on a continuous basis. In terms of this above ground (and below ground) carbon/carbon dioxide sequestration capacity over 10-15 years (143 tons of CO2e), this system, maintained as a polyculture with continuous perennial growth, is among the most soil regenerative on earth, especially considering the fact that it can be deployed in harsh arid and semi-arid climates, on degraded land, basically overgrazed and unsuitable for growing crops, with no irrigation or chemical inputs required whatsoever. In Mexico, where 60% of all farmlands or rangelands are arid or semi-arid, this system has the capacity to sequester 100% of the nation’s current Greenhouse Gas emissions (590 million tons of CO2e) for one year if deployed on approximately 2% or 4.125 million hectares (2000 agaves and 400 mesquites) of the nation’s total lands (197 million hectares). If deployed on 41.25 million hectares, it will cancel out all of Mexico’s GHGs over the next decade. Communally-owned ejido lands in Mexico alone account for more than 100 million hectares. The largest eco-system restoration project in recent until now has been the decade-long restoration of the Loess Plateau (1.5 million hectares) in north-central China in the 1990s.

In a municipalidad or county like San Miguel de Allende, Mexico covering 1,537 Km2 (153,700 hectares) with estimated annual Greenhouse Gas emissions of 654,360 t/CO2/yr (178,300 t/C/yr) the agave/mesquite agroforestry system (sequestering 143 tons of CO2e above ground per hectare after 10 years) would need to be deployed on approximately 4,573 hectares or 3% of the total land in order to cancel out all current emissions for one year. If deployed on 45 thousand hectares it will cancel out all FHG emissions over the next decade. There are 2400 municipalidades or counties in Mexico, including 1000 that are already growing agave and harvesting the piñas for mescal.

In the watershed of Tambula Picachos in the municipality of San Miguel there are 39,022 hectares of rural land (mainly ejido land) in need of restoration (93.4% show signs of erosion, 53% with compacted soil). Deploying the agave/mesquite agroforestry on most of this degraded land 36,150 hectares (93%) would be enough to cancel out all current annual emissions in the municipality of San Miguel for one year.

The gross economic value of growing agave on this 4,573 hectares (including silage, piñas, and hijuelos) averaged out over 10 years would amount to at least $89 million dollars US per year, a tremendous boost to the economy. In comparison, San Miguel de Allende, one of the top tourist destinations in Mexico (with 1.3 visitors annually) brings in one billion dollars a year from tourism, it’s number one revenue generator.