Climate change could shake up Arizona agriculture

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Ava Garcia/Arizona Sonora News Service.

Tyler Crosby of Crosby Mint Farm stands at the farm’s booth at a farmer’s market on the University of Arizona campus Wednesday, April 25. Crosby’s family has operated a mint farm in Tucson for 10 years. (Photo by Ava Garcia/Arizona Sonora News Service)

The agriculture industry has a tough job ahead of it. The United Nations estimates the world will need 70 percent more food to feed the global population by 2050.

But the real challenge lies in meeting this goal under the pressure of a changing climate. As climate change progresses, it brings an emerging set of challenges for farmers.

Arizona farmers are feeling the strain of the already changing environment.

There’s been a noticeable difference in the average temperatures, according to Michael Crimmins, associate specialist in climate science with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. Phoenix and Yuma experienced their warmest years on record in 2017, according to the National Weather Service.

Local farmers such as Tyler Crosby of Crosby Mint Farm have been feeling the heat.  Crosby, whose family operates mint farms in both Tucson and Michigan, said the Tucson farm produces about 60 to 70 acres of plant material grown in an outdoor, covered and enclosed aquaponics system. Crosby said the extreme heat means the farm’s aquaponics system has to use more water than they may have used before.

“That stuff [the heat] is brutal,” Crosby said. “You can protect as much as you can on it, but there’s still going to be a lot of water evaporation out of the system.”

Smaller farms aren’t able to escape the effects of climate change.

Elena Ortiz, community engagement coordinator of Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Community Farm, said the 6-acre farm faces challenges planning for future crops when temperature and precipitation are unpredictable.

The farm, a program of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, has seen crops such as lettuce bolt earlier. Crops bolt when the plant notices warmer temperatures and starts to put its energy into reproducing and putting out flowers rather than growing, which Ortiz said can make the crops not taste as good.

As environmental conditions change, the areas suitable for certain crops may shift around the country, according to George Frisvold, UA professor of agricultural and resource economics. Frisvold said northern states may see an increase in crop yields because the temperature will rise there. That same temperature rise will have a different result where it’s already hot and dry, like Arizona. The areas’ capability to grow some crops may change.

Crops such as wheat may not do very well if the heat continues to grow, and crops such as cotton, alfalfa and corn also could have problems, Frisvold said.

In theory, warmer weather could mean more possibilities for agriculture in cooler Northern Arizona, but Frisvold points to another part of the equation: water. There is massive irrigation infrastructure that supports agriculture in certain locations, but not all over the state.

“Having weather like Yuma and water like Yuma might be good, but if you have weather like Yuma without the water, that’s not going to be so good,” Frisvold said.

If industries have to shift to new locations, Frisvold said this could create huge costs for the new locations.

Arizona agriculture hubs like Yuma have been preparing for the changes to come. Yuma County, with 1 in 4 jobs connected to agriculture, supplies nearly 90 percent of North America’s leafy green vegetables in the winter, according to Paul Brierley, executive director of UA Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.

The center was created from a public-private partnership with agricultural producers nearly four years ago to find solutions to agricultural needs through scientific research. One such project is the center’s research on plant diseases, an agricultural threat that could challenge farmers as the changing climate shapes weather patterns.

Brierley said changes in temperature or moisture in the environment could lead to plant diseases and diseases happening at different times of the year that farmers haven’t seen before.

“Plant disease is one of the biggest hindrances to maximizing production, and if the climate changes, then the disease pressures change,” Brierley said.

That’s not the only challenge Yuma faces. A shortage in the region’s water supply is Brierley’s biggest concern.

Like much of Arizona’s agriculture, Yuma farmers are dependent on surface water from the Colorado River. This water comes from snowpack in the upper basin of the river in Colorado and Utah. The water is stored in reservoirs that can have enough water in them to even out climate variability over periods of five to 10 years, Crimmins said. That means local droughts don’t often affect farmers’ water supply.

“We can have here in Southern Arizona the driest winter on record and it not really impact farmers at all because they’re using water that accumulated over the past five to 10 years in the reservoir systems,” Crimmins said.

Crimmins said climate projections show the upper Colorado River basin to be an uncertain region of the country when it comes to precipitation; it may get drier or may even get wetter. However, Crimmins said projections do show increased temperatures across the intermountain West, which could lead to a decline in the snowpack that feeds the reservoirs.

These projections have spurred Yuma’s efforts in increasing water efficiency. Brierley said the region uses 18 percent less water than it did 40 years ago, with some crops now twice as productive. Farmers incorporate water-saving techniques like leveling their fields every year to ensure less water runoff and using sprinklers to water seeds during their germination instead of using more water-intensive flood irrigation, Brierley said.

Even with this success, Brierley cautions against all farms following exactly in Yuma’s footsteps.

“There’s lessons to be learned from Yuma, for sure,” Brierley said. “But it’s not, agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s very dependent on local conditions.”

It’s also dependent on the type of agriculture. Crimmins said agriculture like ranching, which is not irrigated, is dependent on precipitation patterns and could be affected by increasing temperatures.

Increasing temperatures could also affect Arizona’s vineyards and orchards.

Growers have found that their trees and vines are starting the growing season earlier in the year, which could be an issue depending on the last spring frost, according to Jeremy Weiss, a research scientist with Cooperative Extension in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Weiss is leading a study on climate variability and changes on orchards and vineyards in Arizona and New Mexico as part of a larger Climate Assessment for the Southwest study.

Weiss said existing orchards and vineyards can use adaptations to delay the bud break of the trees and vines to try to minimize the risk of a late spring freeze. For new orchards or vineyards, future climate changes can be important to keep in mind when deciding where to site the business.

“Understanding climate variability and climate change is really relevant to orchards and vineyards, and that’s because these are investments made by people where they’re expecting to have 20, 30, 40 years of productivity from their initial planting,” Weiss said. “These are long-term and relatively expensive decisions, and I think that some of the climate information that we could provide (from the study) will be a piece of the information that they can use then to hopefully make improved decisions and help them adapt to some of the changes in temperature in the region.”

Crimmins is confident in farmers’ ability to adapt to these changes. Already, farmers are working with genetic strains of crop types that are adapted to heat and are moving to using more water-efficient drip irrigation.

“Agriculture is really about engineering the environment, so it’s taking that engineering approach and thinking about what it will be able to handle in longer time periods,” Crimmins said.

Ava Garcia is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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Exploring gender gap in Arizona’s college leadership

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Jamie Verwys.

An Arizona Sonora News analysis of salary data for leadership positions, such as deans and directors, at Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona found that the average salary of women in those leadership roles at ASU and UA were lower than men.

All three colleges have experienced an increase in the average salary of female leaders over time. However, the University of Arizona’s male averages for deans and directors continued to increase at a slightly higher rate. Female average salaries for deans and directors roles rose about 30 percent over the last five years, while men’s average salaries in those roles rose about 33 percent.

In an effort to address equal pay at the UA, college leaders hope to perform an independent study, according to Lynn Nadel, chair of the faculty senate. Though the study is in a developmental stage, Nadel said UA President Robert Robbins has begun to look at national firms for a pay equity evaluation.

“I don’t expect to hear anything other than there are gender inequities,” said Nadel. “But we need to know the extent of them, where they are situated, some areas more than others, at some levels of the system more than others, and we need to have good data.”

Nadel said gender pay gap issues have not been a major concern of faculty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

“In my time as chair of faculty this has not been one of the things that the faculty care about … they care about the daca students or they care about the scandals in athletics. … Those are things I hear about on a regular basis,” he said. “I’ve almost never heard about pay equity in the same way, but that might be because of the nature of the problem more than anything else.”

Right on trend

Jacqueline Bichsel of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, a nonprofit human resources in higher education organization, said the university’s trend of lower salaries for women in leadership roles reflects the findings of one of their latest studies.

“There’s definitely a wage gap between men and women, and there’s also a representation gap in leadership positions,” she said. “Bias against women occurs on a daily basis and academia is no exception.”

Looking at data from 2001 to 2016, the study found that men occupied the majority of executive positions in higher education.

The UA’s demographics for 2016 to 2017 reveal disparities in particular positions of power. Out of 85 department heads, including directors, 63 were men and 22 were women. The number of male deans, 14, also far outweighs the number of female deans, four.

ASU’s most recent demographics show that male and female administrators are almost 50/50, and NAU has more women in administrative positions that fall under “Business and Financial Operations,” 340 to 121.

The UA is currently facing a lawsuit from former Honors college Dean Patricia MacCorquodale who alleged that she and other female deans at the UA are underpaid.

Citing the current lawsuit, the university refused to comment on this story.

The lawsuit is the type of situation the UA’s Commission on the Status for Women took notice of. The group of female and male faculty and staff works to advocate for equality on campus, and it wrote an open letter offering support to MacCorquodale and other women on campus in January.

“We know this is an issue that’s happening at industries across the nation,” said Cheree Meeks, chair of the commission. “So, we would be silly to pretend that this isn’t happening in higher education as well.”

Gender equality is one topic that the commission is interested in addressing on campus through advocacy on campus policy and through workshops aimed at empowering all faculty and staff.

“We recently went to a symposium and we were able to host a session and sort of listen to people about hiring and pay disparity and campus climate,” said co-chair Holly Brown. “Its something that’s on our radar as we listen to faculty and staff.”

Tenured professors

One of the positions with the largest difference in the number of male to females at all three state colleges are that of tenured professors. The most recent demographic data shows that at NAU, women make up 40 percent of tenured professors and men make up 60 percent. At ASU, about 37 percent are women and 63 percent are male, and at UA, it’s about 35 percent of tenured professors who are female and 65 percent are men.

Jennifer Jenkins, a full tenured professor of the UA’s English Department, has been a part of the university since 1997. While she said that the path to tenure status was clearly outlined and she has no complaints about the process, she knows she makes less than her male counterparts.

“I am paid fully 25 percent below the male full professor average in the English department,” she said. “Indeed, my salary falls below the salaries of three male associate professors in the department.”


Jenkins said that she has raised the issue with the college repeatedly, and has received little or no response.

“ I’ve been continually put off and told to wait for college-wide salary reviews,” she said. “While I did receive some money in an equity raise, it still leaves me below male associate professors and far behind other full professors in my unit.”

Jenkins has been told in the past that she is a victim of a “loyalty tax,” or unable to make as much money as faculty who move around because she has stayed at one institution, she said.

“As a first-generation college student and a graduate of an Arizona high school and the UA, I believe in giving back to Arizona students like me in terms of mentoring and creating a welcoming pathway to success,” Jenkins said. “That is work that is undervalued, particularly when done by women.”

Jessica Summers, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies, was voted in to replace Nadel as faculty senate chair starting June 1. She said tenure status is a challenge for women to achieve.

“If tenure is a barrier and promotion is a barrier, that makes leadership a difficult barrier,” Summers  said.

The way women think about salaries

Gender equity and diversity in hiring changes the climate of an industry.

“It’s not surprising that when you have diversity around any table you make better decisions you have better input, and that’s becoming evident everywhere,” said Gloria Feldt, an ASU professor and former CEO of Planned Parenthood.

Feldt teaches a class at ASU called Women, Power and Leadership, which is offered in partnership by the business school and has 25 percent male students. She recently completed research for her book, “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” exploring how women think about the gender gap and equal pay.

“What the research found is that the pay gap is very much related to the question of how much women ask for in the first place, what we expect for ourselves,” she said. “Now this is not to say there is anything wrong with women and how women think because in fact those barriers in our heads are partially caused by the implicit bias that remains socially learned in our lives.”

Feldt believes the biggest barriers to gender equity in any industry, including academia, is the way women value their own work and their negotiation skills. She sees better training as a solution.

She likes to use an analogy about a women she met in a conference who said her male counterparts in her department never invite her to coffee.

“You invite the group to coffee, invite them to your office, do something where you are setting the table and dont wait to be asked,” Feldt said. “I know thats hard and it’s annoying to be left out, but the only way you can get yourself into the circle is get yourself into the circle.”

The solution is to close those gaps

Salary and promotions in the university system are made of many moving parts, and evaluating gender equity and equal pay can be complex. There are many factors that go into a person’s pay, including their performance, length of time in their position, the size of the school or department they work in and their department’s budget.

When it comes to the reasons gender inequalities still exist, Bischell and her study place the blame on discrimination plain and simple.

“The evidence is there that the bias exists, that the wage gap exists, the representation gap exists and there is no reason to explore the factors underlying them,” she said. “What institutions need to do is start looking at the wage gap not just a moral issue that is something nice to have fixed but it needs to be looked at as risk management ..they need to work to close those gaps or they risk being sued.”

Bichsel said the gap overall hasn’t narrowed much over the last 15 years. If nothing is done, she said the gender wage gap will only increase.

At NAU, women in leadership roles actually average higher than male counterparts, making about 4 percent more than men in the last fiscal year. The college also has a female president, a position Bichsel said predominantly goes to men.

Institutionally, Feldt said that colleges should strive for gender-blind hiring practices, not ask new hires for previous salaries and perform independent studies to ensure gender equity and equal pay. She believes great strides forward are in store for the future.

“First, women are just better prepared and secondly, it’s now clear that having gender parity in leadership makes for better leadership overall,” she said. “The third factor is let us thank the Me Too and Times Up movements because now there is really a growing structure where women are really finding their voices more strongly.”

The UA’s Commission on the Status of Women is hopeful that President Robbins will work to address these issues.

“Robbins is very new, so we are sitting and watching and seeing what he’s working on,” Brown said. “We know there’s this career architecture project this has been ongoing and we are hoping that that will result in looking at how people are hired, and so we are eager to see results of this project too in regards to hiring and pay disparity.”

The commission hopes to bring in workshops to help women and minorities better prepare to ask for raises or face equity obstacles.

“This is not something that’s a one-off, every few years this happens,” Meeks said. “… I believe this is a systemic issue, so we need to be looking at what is it about our system that creates these disparities and what creates them and allows them to be maintained over such a long periods of time.

“As institutions of higher education where we prepare students for their first job, we need to preparing professionals for next step as well.”

According to Nadel, the UA does a good job of ensuring equal salaries coming in the door, but issues of gender equity take constant vigilance.

“We should be leaning over backward to change the diversity of the profile, but you can’t lean over backward at the cost of quality because then you sacrifice what you are trying to do,” he said. “We need to make sure equality and diversity are actually being maintained every day, day in and day out, decision by decision and it comes down to people and accountability.”

As Summers prepares to take over the faculty senate this summer, she is confident Robbins is aware of the disparities and on board to move forward with a task force.

“I think he will do the right thing, so we are counting on him to do that,” Summers said.

As for women in higher education, she said they should stick together and speak up.

“Maybe it’s time,” Summers said, “to change our tact and become better negotiators and better enablers of each other.

“We don’t have to fight these battles alone.”

Jamie Verwys is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photos.

Learn more about our investigation

With a gender discrimination lawsuit underway at the University of Arizona, the Arizona Sonora News decided to look at salaries and gender at all three state colleges. This project began by compiling salary information for the last five years at the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University.

The most recent salary databases are public record, and can found here:

University of Arizona

Northern Arizona University

Arizona State University

We encourage you to take a look at this information for yourself.

This project deals only with “leadership” roles. We looked at the combined average salaries of male and female deans and directors over the last five years and saw that all three state colleges are seeing a climb in those averages for women. Men’s averages in these positions are increasing as well.

We also took a look at demographic information on faculty and staff from each college, available in each college’s factbook online. This is when the disparity between male and female tenured professors at each college appeared.

Salary information and rates are complex, involving many factors, some of which could not be obtained by the time we published this story. When looking at salary data in higher education, it’s important to keep the following things in mind.

  • Though we found a pay gap in the salary data that echos other studies, we can not conclusively say this is caused by gender discrimination.
  • To make that conclusion would require looking at performance information, raises and promotions and the number of years in service.
  • Different departments and schools within a college have different budgets, based on their sizes. For deans in particular, this affects salary in a big way.
  • Jacqueline Bichsel’s study found that in roles where women are most underrepresented, like president, women tend to make more than their male counterparts.

To achieve true diversity and equity in higher education also takes looking at representation of minorities. This information can be seen in the college’s factbooks.

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Closer to closure: Solving homicide cold cases in Arizona

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Shaq Davis.

Caption: (From left) Fabian Cano, 19, was killed January 2012 in a drive-by shooting as the suspected gunman’s bullet went through a window striking him in the head. David Hayward, 19, was shot and killed July 2005, after being in an altercation with a male at a house party. Laurie Jean Wardein, 26, was found dead in her apartment by police June 1985. Police say she was stabbed multiple times by a man she went on a date with. (Bottom left) Elvina LeGarde, 69, was killed June 2008, on her way back from a church service when a gunman shot at her car in a road rage incident. Harold Boykin, 33, was killed at a bar called the Jaguar Club in Phoenix March 1985. He was shot after trying to wrestle a gun away from a gunman inside the bar. Nicole Glass and Melissa Mason, both 27, were found strangled in their Phoenix home in December 2010. Mason was also around eight weeks pregnant. The six cases remain unsolved as of 2018. (Phoenix Police Department)


When three armed suspects entered a Dollar Store around 5 p.m. June 16, 2001, the men assaulted a store clerk and murdered a 41-year-old customer. Phoenix Police Department detectives worked tirelessly to find those involved and what motivated the attack.

For 11 years, the detectives’ case into the homicide went unsolved. It wasn’t until homicide detectives reviewed the case in 2012, using advances in forensic technology, were they then able to uncover a new lead. By resubmitting evidence, police identified one of the suspects as 35-year-old Michael C. Moye and obtained a warrant for his arrest.

While Moye remains in custody since 2014, the two additional suspects in the murder of Jaime Olivera-Perez remain outstanding.

Within the United States in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported 14,392 murders and nonnegligent manslaughter cases. Of those cases, 61.5 percent were cleared by an arrest.

But for the fewer than four out of 10 cases that go unsolved, families and friends of the deceased are left to carry on the memories of their loved ones without closure.

The Phoenix Police Department’s Homicide Cold Case Unit continues to keep the cases open and hunts for leads they hope will end in arrest.

Sgt. Jon Howard has seen the ins-and-outs of how cold cases are dealt with at the Phoenix Police Department. Five years ago, detectives were assigned to specifically look at cold cases. They brought back positive results.

“What they found was they were able to go through and identify pieces of evidence that we still had in our possession and submit them for analysis based on today’s standard of technology,” Howard said. “We had dozens of cold-case arrests within a couple of years.”

Howard said the use of technology is only one of the three main methods used by the department in its approach to the cases.

The department makes sure more than one detective looks at a case to potentially find new approaches. Detectives use their experiences to pick up on something the first detective didn’t see.

Howard said over the course of a cold case, the mindset of a witness may change.

“We may go back if we had a witness say 20 years ago that was unwilling to talk with us because of their situation or the type of lifestyle they were living and now we reach out 20 years later and they’re willing to share new details with us,” Howard said.

The department includes a unit for cold-case sex crimes, and together the units have about 2,500 unsolved homicides and sex crimes in the region dating back to the 1950s.

While police are looking for new leads in a case, an Arizona organization called Homicide Survivors Inc. is helping families spread the word about a loved one’s unsolved case.

Becky Porter, a victim advocate with the organization, said the group takes a delicate approach when it comes to homicide cold cases.

“It can be very difficult especially when you have an unsolved case and you see families who are just struggling to get answers,” she said. “That can really weigh heavily on anybody, law enforcement included.”

She said the cases bring uneasiness to the families who must adjust in their own lives with a feeling of injustice that weighs on them. The organization helps to create opportunities mainly through alerting media of a cold case and creating promotional materials.

“One of the things we did recently, was put up billboards and bus stop ads but everything like that takes money and that’s a challenge for a lot of families,” Porter said.

An emotional challenge also presents itself to those working with the non-profit.

“Practicing self-care is probably the most important thing that I have learned and for me personally that is exercise and art, those are requirements on a daily basis,” she said.

Porter’s routine allows her to be the most effective at her job when energy can be expended in other areas of her life, she said.

Howard said the satisfaction of solving a difficult case and being able to notify a family carries him further.

“I can go out and do the bad side of policing. I can go get yelled at and spit on,” he said. “And I can solve one case where a family shakes my hand and says thanks — and it carries me for a year.”

Shaq Davis is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News , a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

Click here for a word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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Local author returns home after controversial book tour

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Maritza Cruz/ Arizona Sonora News.

The writer Francisco Cantú, photographed March 23, 2017, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

Writer. Professor. Fulbright Fellow. Former Border Patrol agent.

Francisco Cantú is all of these things. Though, the title that gets him the most attention is the last one.

Cantú, 32, author of “The Line Becomes a River,” sits outside the Starbucks on University Boulevard. The wind rocks the umbrella blocking the tense Tucson sun. It’s good to be back home.

From his thesis project to nationwide phenomenon, Cantú’s book has reached audiences far and wide. He’s just returned from a book tour overseas in the United Kingdom. Though, the journey hasn’t been without bumps.  

Cantú, a third generation Mexican American, is from Prescott, Arizona, where his mother worked as a park ranger. After studying U.S. and Mexican relations, Cantú wanted to see the border up close, so he joined the U.S. Border Patrol. He spent four years with the agency picking up the dead and taking undocumented migrants to detention centers.

One of the most harrowing instances from the book is when Cantú first witnesses his colleagues intentionally destroying lifesaving supplies in the scorching desert. “I watched as several of my classmates ripped and tore at the clothing, scattering it among the tangled branches of mesquite and palo verde,” he writes. “… others laughed loudly and stepped on a heap of food. Nearby, Hart giggled and shouted to us as he pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings.”

This wasn’t the last time this would happen.

After returning home, Cantú was haunted by his experience, so he coped the only way he knew how. He wrote. As he pursued a master’s degree at the University of Arizona in creative writing, he found clarity in chronicling his experience through critical analysis and self-reflection.

Cantú anticipated pushback, but never imagined it would come from the left. “There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘No you’re a cop we don’t need to listen to you,’” he says. “I think part of it is that migrant voices are the ones that should be heard, and I agree with that so it was strange that I agreed with a lot where the protesters were coming from.”

Activists asked two local bookstores to cancel his readings in San Francisco, arguing he is a cop who doesn’t deserve sympathy in a time of increased law enforcement involvement in deportation. In Austin, Texas, protests erupted as demonstrators believed Cantú to be a “traitor.”

“After coming home and having a little bit of distance from it I feel pretty grateful for the way that responding to that has made me think more critically and speak more critically about my work, and where it’s being positioned in this political landscape,” Cantú says. “That’s been a gift.”

When Cantú was studying creative writing at Arizona, he says everyone saw him as a writer. “The weirdest part of having the book come out is now all of a sudden the world is being introduced to me as a former border patrol agent,” he says. “Well, I left the Border Patrol like (four) years ago, so it’s like I have this whole other identity.”

Since stepping into the spotlight, Cantú has been interviewed more times than he can count. He’s talked on panels about immigration. The coverage has been constant. When President Donald Trump deployed the national guard to the border, people wanted Cantú to give his opinion, something he still can’t get used to these days.

“This weird thing happens when you publish a book, where all of sudden kind of overnight people look at you as kind of an expert,” he says. Cantú believes it’s problematic because there are advocates out there who know more about immigration than he does, especially immigrants themselves. He says they are the most affected as they risk their lives and live in fear of deportation everyday.

The cover of “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantú. (Courtesy of Glory Plata)

Cantú isn’t invested in debating or public speaking. “I think the best work I can possibly do is as a writer,” he says. He explore subjects more critically when he can flesh his thoughts out into words. “Writing is sort of antithetical to our culture of social media of instant reactions, instant response.”

The recent push for border security is nothing new to Cantú. When he was an undergraduate in college, the George W. Bush administration passed the Secure Fences Act of 2006 which called for construction of more border fencing along the Southern border. “We’re doing the same exact thing that we’ve done before, and we’re expecting different results,” he says. “Almost as if we do it bigger and louder that it will somehow change things.”

Though, the rhetoric toward immigrants has shifted recently. “We are being encouraged more than ever before to lump migrants into a big indistinguishable group of people like they’re one in the same,” Cantú says. Although there was about a 44 percent drop in migrants arrested along the border under the Trump administration, there was an increase in migrant deaths. Cantú believes people need to take this humanitarian issue into mind when crafting new policies.

Cantú says he had the opportunity to talk to community groups which has helped him learn more about their work and become more aware.

“I’m here because of the generosity of other writers who’ve been mentors to me or have talked about my work or recommended my work to others or put me in touch with different opportunities,” he says.

Now, he’d like to pay it forward and lead people to other work that doesn’t get such widespread attention. As a Spanish to English translator, Cantú thinks that’s how people get exposed to new cultures and ways of thinking.

In the future, Cantú sees himself exploring immigration and social justice issues through reflecting, reading, researching and creating a piece in either a magazine article, op-ed or possibly another book.

For now, he says, it’s good to be home.

Maritza Cruz is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at



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Understanding joint health can prevent and even improve arthritis

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Jessica Blackburn.

Atrophic arthritis x-ray showing marked atrophy, some destruction of bone and telescoping in some joints. (Photo by: American quarterly of roentgenology.)

Younger adults without arthritis can do a whole lot to prevent it, those living with arthritis can make adjustments — and those considering joint replacement surgery should be more curious about their treatment.

That’s advice from Dr. Michael Dohm, an orthopedic surgeon at Banner University Medical Center.

“Arthro means joint and itis means inflammation,” Dohm said. “You can get arthritis in any joint, but as far as surgeries go, 70 percent of them are for knee and hip replacements.”

This is because the knees and hips are the most weight-bearing joints in the body, he explained.

“That’s why younger people should know what good joint health is,” Dohm said. “Good nutrition helps. Avoiding carbonated beverages, caffeine and nicotine, which leach calcium from the body.”

This is no coincidence, since it has been shown that out of the millions of Americans living with arthritis, 49 percent have heart disease, 47 percent have diabetes and 31 percent are obese, according to the Arthritis Foundation. 

In fact, being even slightly overweight can increase exponentially the joint forces going through the weight-bearing joints, according to Dr. Lukas Tvedt of Athlon Physical Therapy.

“Arthritis might also be familial or genetic,” he said. “Or it might just be micro-traumas that happen over time. For example, someone who had an ACL surgery in their teens probably has a higher risk of incidents of arthritis down the road no matter what they do.”

Tvedt added that extreme obesity will start to cause degeneration of the hip joints. This dysfunction can predispose you to arthritis.

Dohm said younger people are able to mitigate these micro-traumas by making all-around healthier decisions in the kitchen and taking the time to work out on a regular basis since it promotes muscle strength and protects the joints.

“Paying attention to early supplementation of Vitamin D is also a good idea,” Dohm said. “You begin to lose calcium at age 35.”

A diagram showing a healthy knee joint and a knee joint with rheumatoid arthritis. (Photo by: A Lot About Health.)

But those living with arthritis in other joints can make similar exercise, nutritional and medicinal changes to try to mitigate the pain their arthritis is causing them.

“There are a lot of times where making proper changes can improve and resolve arthritis over time,” Dohm said. “It’s just a matter of doing the research. Taking the right medication can also help.”

For those considering joint replacement, taking the time to decide what’s best for their form of arthritis is important because there are so many elements and factors that go into a replacement, according to Dohm.

“There are lots of different ways to look at the primary problem,” he said.

Physical therapy, metal allergy testing and researching different forms of joint replacement surgery are good ways to identify what treatments might help people suffering from arthritis.

For example, in many cases, it is possible to do a partial knee replacement rather than a complete replacement, which is a more invasive procedure.

“Say it’s a problem with the ball (of the joint),” Dohm said. “There are some (surgeons) who just completely resurface the ball, but a newer idea is to do a small resurfacing of the socket and to put a cap at the end of the ball.”

This’s why, according to Dohm, patients should act more like the consumers that they are.

“Countless times, educated people come in wanting joint replacement surgery,” he said. “I recommend something, and they go with it. No questions asked.”

An audience finds their seats at Dr. Michael Dohm’s talk titled “Facts, Fads and Fiction About Joint Replacement Surgery” on April 4 at the Banner University Medical Center. (Photo by: Jessica Blackburn)

Rather than blindly trusting a physician, Dohm recommends asking questions regarding a surgeon’s experience, surgery time, recovery time and what components will be involved with the replacement.

Tvedt also noted that physical therapy is equally as important after surgery as before surgery.

“After surgery, the pain you had before doesn’t just go away,” he said. “In fact, it’s typically magnified because of the trauma from the surgery, so getting back into physical therapy will allow for proper retraining of the muscles that have been traumatized.”

Not only should those with arthritis consider different forms of treatment, but also the cost of treatment as well.

According to the Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Health of America Report, the same knee-replacement procedure “could cost as little as $11,327 in Birmingham, Alabama, and as much as $73,987 in Boston, Massachusetts.”

According to Dohm, by asking questions and doing research, those suffering from arthritis, or any other medical condition, for that matter, will find the ideal treatment at the right price for them.

Jessica Blackburn is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at 

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Teens turn to drug trafficking in Nogales, Arizona

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Genesis Lara/ Arizona Sonora News.

The border fence separates the sister cities of Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Son. (Photo: Genesis Lara/Arizona Sonora News)

With 1.2 pounds of methamphetamine concealed on his back and legs, 13-year-old Rene was arrested at the Interstate 19 Border Patrol checkpoint in April 2016.

He was charged with unlawful transportation of a dangerous drug for sale.

Fast forward to March of this year. The now 15-year-old was recently present in a juvenile court hearing to receive his sentence.

He sat before the judge in his juvenile detention uniform, with a couple of family members in the audience declaring their willingness to help after his release.

Rene represents only one of several teen drug traffickers who have become a small part of the culture along the border town of Nogales, Arizona. For them, it’s a quick trip to money and fame.

As of March 30, the Santa Cruz County Detention Center was housing eight individuals between the ages of 15 and 17, four of whom were apprehended with substantial amounts of drugs, according to Tivo Romero, the county’s chief probation officer.

One of these individuals was charged for possession of 41 pounds of methamphetamine; two co-offenders were charged with 139 pounds of marijuana; and the other was accused of driving a vehicle with 699 pounds of marijuana.

While many factors play a role in adolescents succumbing to the drug business, Romero says instability at home is the most common influencer.

“Oftentimes, they come from families that are very poor and I can understand why some of these kids make the choice to try to traffic drugs,” says Romero. “I’m not justifying what they did, but it makes sense.”

As Romero puts it, anyone might consider turning to the drug business if it means being able to help put food on the table for the entire family.

But economic factors are not always to blame. .

As Romero and the chief of the Nogales Police Department agree, the social pressure along the border plays a great deal in these teenagers’ decisions.

“No matter how you see it, it’s a lucrative business. It’s easy money,” says Police Chief Roy Bermudez. “Unfortunately, there are some kids that get into that, but [majority of the time], it’s the values that they were raised with.”

María Badilla, Rene’s cousin, says his neighbors in Mexico threatened him that harm would come to his family if he did not transport the drugs.

“I don’t think those kids are picked randomly,” says Bermudez. “I think there has to be an interest, there has to be a circle of who they are hanging out with, who they socialize with.” 

The ages of young minors also play a major role in the social peer pressure to traffic drugs.

“Kids can often get lured in as a result of the thinking that, because they’re kids, nothing is gonna happen to them,” says Romero.

However, this thinking has not always shown to be true.

For example, Romero says the teen who allegedly had 41 pounds of meth committed the crime so close to turning 18 that he’s now being prosecuted as an adult.

“He’s 17, and there’s a pretty good possibility that he’s going to earn a felony conviction,” says Romero. “That’s something a lot of these kids don’t understand – that it’s gonna follow them.”

Bermudez also adds that laws have gotten stricter on minors committing these drug-related offenses.

“They used to use juveniles to drive these cars, so they were stopped with 300 to 400 pounds. And since they were juveniles, they wouldn’t get prosecuted,” says Bermudez. “The County Attorney George Silva has sent the message that it doesn’t make a difference how old you are.”

Romero explains that the U.S. Attorney’s Office often does not prosecute minors involved in drug-related offenses when caught by federal agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. However, there are community authorities who decide to take over those cases.

“To avoid having these juveniles walk away without consequences, the cases are picked up by the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office and prosecuted,” says Romero.

The county’s Juvenile Probation division processed 33 of these cases in fiscal year 2017, and has processed 19 in fiscal year 2018 so far, according to Romero.

“That’s the only way we’re gonna make a difference in this community,” says Bermudez. “We can’t ignore the problem because we’re just condoning it.”

Rene serves as a clear example of these stricter actions against teen drug trafficking, as his case was initially picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, but prosecuted through the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s office.

On March 20, Judge Thomas Fink allowed for Rene’s release from the juvenile detention facility under several conditions. Rene was to live with his cousin, María, in Tucson, where he was to enroll in school and obey by all laws; he was prohibited from entering Mexico to avoid another related incident; and he was to return to court in May for a check-in and follow-up of his case.

The border fence stands 18 to 30 feet tall along the border in Ambos, Nogales. The structure of the fence gives border agents visibility to the other side. (Photo: Genesis Lara/Arizona Sonora News)

Safe town despite the border issues

Regardless of the issues that naturally surround the community, Bermudez states that Nogales, Arizona, remains a very safe town.

There may be a small trend of juveniles turning to the drug business, but it does not mean that every adolescent will wind up trafficking drugs.

Romero explains they have received an overall average of 450 referrals in the last few fiscal years. About 20 percent of these referrals were for drug-related offenses, and 10 percent of those consisted of substantial amounts of drugs.

Romero also points out that some cases involve the same individuals who may be getting referred multiple times in one year.

As Bermudez lays it out, many people have the wrong idea of the safety in the community.

“Unfortunately, we take a bad rep because of our sister city Nogales, Sonora,” says Bermudez. “A lot of people don’t bother to differentiate the U.S. and the Mexico side of Nogales.”

According to the Mexican newspaper El Imparcial, Nogales, Sonora, saw a total of 38 homicides between January and August 2017. In the same time period, there were 226 homicides in 2010 and 66 in 2014.

In the sister city of Nogales, Arizona, records showed only two murder cases in the past six years. Aside from assisting other agencies, some of the top incidents that the NPD responded to in 2017 were 69 traffic violations, 26 served warrants and 17 assaults.

Bermudez says the community is fortunate to have strong law enforcement and the smooth collaboration between each agency, but he believes the city needs to strive toward being more visible and building a strong trust with the public.

“This is their police department, this is their community,” says Bermudez. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep it safe, so we need everybody’s help.”

Genesis Lara is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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Alzheimer’s to grow 43 percent in Arizona by 2025

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Megan Gibbs.

Xiara Rodriguez’s Great Grandmother and Cousin visiting in a Alzheimers care facility. 

By 2025, Arizona will see a 43 percent increase in residents with Alzheimer’s disease, officials say, but they fear the state is unprepared to handle the upsurge.

“We do not have the resources needed for this rapid growth of seniors,” said Morgen Hartford, the Alzheimer’s Association’s regional director for Southern Arizona.

About 140,000 Arizona residents are diagnosed with some form of Alzheimer’s, but association officials say that number will grow to over 200,000 people by 2025.

“What we are looking at is nothing short of a phenomenon in demographic change in the Baby Boomer generation,” said Adina Wingate of the Pima Council on Aging.

Arizona would have the largest growth rate in the country for Alzheimer’s, according to the Arizona Alzheimer’s State Plan. And according to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), the disease is the fourth-leading cause of death in the state.

There is no current cure for Alzheimer’s, and it cannot be prevented. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a progressive disease that causes mental deterioration of brain cells that affect memory and behavior.

Those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are not the only ones affected. “In most cases the individual’s families become their caregivers,” Hartford said.

s there are more than 15 million caregivers in the United States who provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Xiara Rodriguez, a student at the University of Arizona, has had three cases of Alzheimer’s in her family in which her mother and grandmother were the caretakers.

“My mom and grandma would get them ready in the morning, give them their pills, get breakfast ready, bathe them, dress them, make them food, keep the house clean, make sure groceries were stocked, doctors’ appointments made, and finances controlled,” Rodriguez said.

When things get too overwhelming, “sometimes people need more care than their family can provide, and that is a hard decision to make,” Hartford said.

“Everyday I’m consciously thinking of my mom, grandmother, my sister and I growing old and getting Alzheimers,” Rodriguez said.

Not only is the caretaking of individual with Alzheimer’s a tremendous responsibility, but “the financial burden is huge,” Hartford said.

The Medicaid cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s is $364 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. As of 2017, Medicare spending per capita is $23,885 in the United States.

“We better do something,” Hartford said. “It is important for our state legislatures to take notice, for members of Congress to federally step up and support the living with Alzheimer disease and those caring for them.”

Megan Gibbs is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at


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Living off the land with the Tohono O’odham tribe

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Sammy minsk.

The cholla buds are dumped into a pot and boiled until they become rubbery. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

What tastes like a mix between an asparagus and artichoke, has about the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk and is found in the Sonoran Desert?

Ciolim, also known as “the cholla bud,” is native to Southwest Arizona and is a food staple of the largest Native American tribe in Southern Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation.     

Right before the cholla bud blooms is the optimal time to be picked, noting the vibrant purple tips. (Photo Credit)

At the tribe’s San Xavier Food Co-op Farm, members hold workshops sharing traditional crop processing techniques of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Due to its richness in calcium and accessibility on the reservation, the cholla bud is one of the many crops in the tribe’s diet.

The bud can be harvested using different methods, including utilizing other plants from the environment.

“People are surprised how much you can use from the land,” said produce coordinator Jamie Encinas.

On the co-op’s 27-acres, the cholla cactus scatters the land with clustered branches jetting out in different directions. Saul Camacho, whose mother used to work at the co-op, said “the bud has to be picked before it blooms. Look for the small buds with purple tops. Once it blooms, you can’t eat it anymore.”

To avoid the thorns, kitchen tongs are necessary to twist and pluck off the bud off the cactus. Traditionally, two pieces of saguaro ribs wrapped in cloth at one end, called wa:pai, were used for tongs.

Wa-pai tongs made from saguaro ribs. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

“You have to be careful of how you pick the buds because the thorns can get on you or fly onto your clothes,” said Saul’s mother, Thomasina Camacho.  

There are a number of ways to get the thorns off the bud, which have been refined over the years. Natives use to cut off branches from creosote bush and whack the buds while they lay on a flat surface.

The creosote bush is used to wack off the thorns of the cholla buds. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

People also used a large metal screen, with wood bordering the edges. The buds are poured onto the screen and people on either side of the screen hold on to it and rock it back and forth in a swinging motion for about 10 minutes, or until most of the thorns get caught in the holes and fall off.

    The most popular way today to remove the thorns is by using a heat-free pepper roaster, which churns the buds in a 50 gallon metal mesh drum. Just like the screen, the thorns are caught in the holes and fall off onto the ground.

After the buds are dethorned, they are poured into a large pot of boiling water and cooked until they become rubbery. “If they are cooked too long, they break like a pickle,” said events coordinator and resident Phyllis Valenzuela. The buds should only be cooked partially, as they will be cooked again before they are ready to be eaten.

Cholla buds are dumped onto a screen and shaken back and forth. Thorns are caught in the holes and fall off. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

The buds are drained and placed onto a table outside, where they dry for one to two weeks. The table is lined with metal mesh and bordered with thin slabs of wood to keep the buds from flying off. “The weather is the main issue because if it’s windy the buds fly off,” said nursery coordinator Cie’na Schlaefli. “And if it rains, we have to quickly put a tarp over them. They also have to be turned so they don’t mold, but the color of the buds interpret what to look for. If they are whitish gray, then they’ve been sitting too long.”


Produce coordinator Jamie Encinas checks to make sure the thorns have fallen off the buds while in the roaster. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

After they’ve been dried, the buds are ready to be stored. Before they are eaten, they are boiled for a few minutes to put the moisture back into the cholla bud.

“They’re good on salads,” said Thomasina Camacho. “You can pickle them, make pico de gallo, eggs, lots of stuff.”

Sammy Minsk is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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Autism Spectrum Disorder: No two alike

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Gabby Goduco and Alexa Wallen/Arizona Sonora News.

One in every 68 children is impacted by autism, according to the National Autism Association. Autism effects the section of the brain that’s responsible for social skills, communication and cognitive function.

When autism is caught early,  treatment, therapy, and medication can help children improve. However there is no cure.

Adults with autism especially have difficulty integrating into adult life after graduating high school. Programs like privately funded Chapel Haven West, which was founded in 1972, have made it their mission to assist adults ages 18 to 25 in this transition to living independently.

Kelli Foreman, Speech Language and Hearing Pathologist at Chapel Haven West, said, “We have our students live with us in their apartments, most of them have a roommate. They’re working on independent living skills like cooking, cleaning, and banking, and all those things that we need to learn how to do on our own.”

After two years most Chapel Haven students are able to move out and live on their own. Joe Cox, former Chapel Haven resident and now senior at the University of Arizona, lives on his own with two roommates that he met at Chapel Haven West.

Cox is considered a hybrid student and uses Chapel Haven West for other resources that includes, assisting him with his budget and recreational trips the program takes its students on.

“The skills we learn at Chapel Haven West are invaluable…They’re really helpful to people, and you know adults between the ages 18 to 25 with mild autism or other cognitive impairments,” Cox said. “They’re really helpful because it’s important for kids to learn how to live on their own away from their parents. And it’s important for them to learn how to get along with roommates. So Chapel Haven West is a really helpful program to that effect.”

According to Dr. Jennifer Casteix, a clinical associate professor in the department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona,  autism can be caused by genetics, but it’s also believed to be caused by environmental factors.

“The belief appears to be that there is a genetic predisposed position to autism that is then triggered by an environmental cause. And by environmental cause, we mean maybe the mom during pregnancy had a infection, and so there was a viral or bacterial infection,” Casteix said.

“Maybe the mother was under huge stress. Advanced maternal and paternal age, so if the mother or father are older, that maybe leads to a predisposition to autism. So that’s an environmental factor. Being born and having the mom during pregnancy be three miles of a freeway. They also wonder if that’s a causal factor. So there’s still so much research, but we do know there are over 200 genes that are possibly implicated in autism,” said Casteix.

Since autism is considered a spectrum disorder, there are varying types of autism and some people who require more assistance than others.

“Some people refer to it as like the spectrum of colors on a rainbow. So you’ll have your reds and oranges, and yellows and greens and what not,” said Foreman. “So you do have folks who are needing higher support, much more higher level of support and are not really living independently nor are they really thinking that that’s their goal,” said Foreman.

Notable people such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Mozart, and Bill Gates all fall on the autism spectrum.

However, students like Cox, say that referring to autism as high and low functioning can be offensive.

“I really don’t like it when people say, “oh I didn’t even know you were on the autism spectrum, like oh you’re so high functioning,” I’m sorry, but to me that just feels really insulting, and really lack of a better word, patronizing,” Cox said. “People with autism are just like you and me, it’s just that we have other issues. And I don’t really like it when people say “oh you’re so high functioning,” that not a really nice thing to say… We’re just like everybody else we just have different challenges that may come up in certain ways.” 

While Chapel Haven West is a great resource for people with autism seeking to live independently, many have found finding affordable outside support once they turn 18 can be a challenge.

According to Casteix, adults with autism who do not have a place to live or someone to care for them often end up in state funded foster homes, and she said for every good home there’s a not so good one.

“So, estate planning, just planning for the future which is something we always need to be thinking about is scary, and I have a feeling a lot of families don’t think about it. So if they don’t have an adult sibling who can care for them, they’re placed in a state care home,” said Casteix.

Casteix said  it’s the public school’s responsibility to assist adults with autism until the student turns 21. After turning 21, some adults end up in foster care. 

“Adults with autism are starting to call themselves autistic. I’m an autistic adult. They are claiming that cause that is part of who they are. And when we talk about curing them they counter with ‘hey wait a minute I have autism, this makes me special in this way. And why would I want to cure that? Why would I want to fight autism? That’s who I am,’ ” said Casteix.

Curing this cognitive disease is not the current goal, but for people like Joe Cox and Casteix, it’s about growing awareness and creating a place in society for those living with autism as they are because no two are the same.

Alexa Wallen and Gabby Goduco are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at and 

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There’s more to agave than tequila

Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Carly Oseran/Arizona Sonora News.


The agave is one of the most common landscape plants around Tucson, Ariz. This plant is good for the warm weather and requires little to no water. (Photograph by: Carly Oseran / Arizona Sonora News)

You can sip me, you can eat me and you can moisturize with me—what am I?

The agave plant.

Today, this plant is widely known as the key ingredient in the alcoholic beverage that is taken with lime and salt or mixed in to make margaritas, but agave has a much greater importance in the Sonoran Desert than just tequila.

“We think about tequila as the major way we know the plant today, but up until a century ago more people ate it in this region than they drank it,” said Gary Nabhan, an agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist, who has been studying agave and other Sonoran Desert plants for decades.

Agave has been a survival essential in the Arizona-Mexico borderlands region for more than 8,000 years.

“It’s really like a staff of life plant that was important to the people of the desert southwest as buffalos were to the people of the great plains,” Nabhan said.

Before grocery stores, shopping malls and hospitals, agaves served as all of these things wrapped into one. People ate from them, made clothes from them and practiced many medicinal uses, some which are still used today.

The Hohokam people specifically harvested Agave murpheyi as a main source of food and cooked the agave hearts in oven pits built in the ground. They also baked the agave leaves to extract long pieces of fiber that were used to weave clothes and make rope, according to an article published by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Even though we no longer need agave fibers to make our clothes, the plant has become greatly underappreciated in recent years.

In order to revive the importance of agave, Nabhan has partnered with Hotel Congress to help turn its Cinco de Mayo tequila competition into a city-wide festival that educates people and celebrates the significance of agave.

“His [Nabhan’s] collaboration in the festival really helped shine a light on all the other aspects of agave outside of just spirits,” said Dalice Shepard, the senior marketing and events manager at Hotel Congress.

Gary Nabhan discussing how to cultivate agave at an Agave 101 presentation in Tucson, Ariz. Nabhan gave this presentation during the Agave Heritage Festival event that included tastings of different agave spirits. (Photograph by: Carly Oseran / Arizona Sonora News)

Tucson’s Agave Heritage Festival began in 2008 as a one-day event to help bring some attraction to Downtown Tucson. This year, the 2018 festival grows into 10 days of over 25 activities spread throughout the Tucson area. From April 27 until May 6, events that are a part of the festival happened all over the city.

“One of the things I think is really special about this festival is even though it is still a Hotel Congress event…There are more events that are happening outside our scope than within,” Shepard said. “That’s just one way to sort of show how the partnerships throughout the community have grown.”

After Tucson received its designation as the first U.S. UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild wanted to use this as an opportunity to ramp of Tucson’s recognition for festivals as a fun way to educate people on the region’s food.

“This is a community where we value education, not just value education but try to give people a better education so what better way to do that than doing it in a festival kind of setting,” Rothschild said.

This festival is the first one to have a Tucson UNESCO City of Gastronomy sponsorship, and with the support of local businesses it has also become a community initiative to show people that there is more to agave than meets the eye.

“It’s not just about alcohol it’s about all the uses of agaves and how significant they’ve been for ten thousand years prior even to the cultivation of corn, beans and squash in Mexico and also the southwest,” said Doug Smith owner of Exo Roast Co. Smith is an anthropologist who earned a Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Anthropology from Stanford University.

Kyle Bert, a local artist, playing a didgeridoo he created out of the stalk of agave in Tucson, Ariz. at an event for the Agave Heritage Festival. Bert has been transforming agave into didgeridoos for over 17 years. (Photograph by: Carly Oseran / Arizona Sonora News)

As an anthropologist and professor, Smith researched agricultural history in Mexico and he became fascinated with the mezcal traditions in different communities. Mezcal is the general term for any alcoholic beverage made with agave, while it’s sibling, tequila, can only be made with blue agave.

Smith had been an attendee at the heritage festival in past years, but this year he and his coffeehouse are part of the festival events. It was his idea to do an educational bacanora event at Exo Roast Co. that will focus on the sustainability of agave. Bacanora is Sonora’s mezcal, a special kind of alcohol that by law can only be made with a specific kind of agave, agave Pacifica.

“The key thing is the amazing process to make bacanora, it’s really, really hard work,” Smith said. “I want people to really get into it, get interested in it so that there is a lot of positive and constructive energy behind the different things that I think need to be done in order to make it viable in the future.”

The heritage festival’s combination of delicious food, authentic drinks and fun combined with the educational value will help showcase why people should care about agave and other local plants.

“There’s something about this plant that will always be relevant as long as we stay aware of its importance and recognize the sustainability of it,” Shepard said.

The agave plant can grow in and withstand some of the most brutal weather conditions.It grows in rocks and bad soil conditions with little to no water and can still produce sweet liquid and be used as food.

The agave plant serves as a reminder and tribute to the people of the Sonoran Desert and the traditions of their cultures. And the Agave Heritage Festival is the reminder to the people of Tucson to appreciate what’s in their backyard and support local plants.

“We’re lucky that it’s not just something that’s forgotten here, that it’s still a living part of our culture. This isn’t about history, this is about living heritage,” Nabhan said.

Carly Oseran is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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