By Nina Sajovec, Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Photos by Jewel Clearwater
Growing up in Ajo during its hay days as a mining town meant feasting on juicy pomegranates in the fall – the old-timers tell us that kids used to know very well which neighbor had the biggest sweetest fruits and when they ripened. Burlap bags stuffed full of ripe fruits were shared across the old Mexican town, as well as often being brought back from Magdalena, Sonora after the St. Francis Feast. But what used to be Ajo’s staple fruit quickly disappeared from the diets after the mine closed and families moved away, as several of the best trees were left to die off at abandoned houses, or were cut down by new owners.
However, some survived, a living testament to the rich cultural and biological history of Ajo’s foodscape. Based on the suggestion by Gary Nabhan, a renowned ethnobotanist of the region, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) decided to revive this traditional fruit tree in Ajo. The intention was to preserve the remaining plant materials, produce healthy food, and potentially create a business opportunity in Ajo. In 2009, ISDA brought on Gregg Dugan, an orchard specialist from New Mexico, who spent years researching the growing conditions and remaining trees, and collecting the cuttings from backyard trees. Gregg also collected several other regional varieties from the nurseries, most of them originating from the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project which was designed by Jesus Garcia of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to preserve the fruit tree stocks (cultivars) introduced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. In the winter of 2009/2010, the first trees were planted at experimental orchard at the Curley School Courtyard.
Originally cultivated in the ancient Persia (modern-day Iran), pomegranates are a perfect fruit for our desert environment: they easily tolerate high summer temperatures and alkaline soils, thrive by monsoon rains, and can survive for years without additional irrigation. This “seeded apple”, which some presume to be the original apple shared by Adam and Eve in the biblical Garden of Eden, was a popular tree to be grown in family backyards around the Sonoran Desert on both sides of the border. It was found in Quitobaquito Oasis at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Park, and ethnobiologist Amadeo Rea has recorded its importance among the indigenous peoples of the area as well. In addition to the better known red varieties, Sonoran Desert boasts an “albino” variety – the skin of the fruit is pale green even when ripe, and soft-seeded arils range in color from pink to completely white. High in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber, pomegranate is known to be extremely healthy. It can help lower blood pressure and improve the cardiovascular health. In ancient cultures, pomegranate was also believed to be the fruit of fertility.
The orchard was passed into the stewardship of Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture in 2011, and is now an integral part of the Center’s Many Hands Urban Farm and Learning Center. This ½ acre urban farm is nestled around the newly-opened Sonoran Desert Conference Center on the restored Curley School Campus, which offers accommodations and meeting services with a menu of authentic cultural, artistic, scientific and outdoor adventures for individuals and groups. The farm combines permaculture and bio-intensive natural growing methods with traditional Tohono O’odham and urban agriculture methodologies, in order to demonstrate and teach best desert-adapted agricultural practices. In addition to the heirloom orchard, the farm includes several demonstrational and market gardens areas, a “green” chicken coop, a rainwater harvesting tank, solar irrigation setup and other innovative agricultural elements. Just recently, the farm earned a “Certified Naturally Grown” accreditation. The name of the farm honors the community nature of the farm’s work, as most work is being done by volunteers, and was inspired by the famous Tohono O’odham artist Michael Chiago’s mural on the wall of the office building.
Currently, there are 24 pomegranate trees in the Ajo orchard, and 13 varieties, including several of the white pomegranates. The wide range of varieties results in a very long ripening season from July through October. This range also offers an amazing journey through diversity that the pomegranate has to offer: from white to dark red seeds, from tart to sweet tastes, with soft or hard seeds.
To celebrate the sixth year of the planting of the orchard and the rich biological, historical and cultural diversity of Ajo and the surrounding region, the community of Ajo is coming together on October 31 to host its first pomegranate festival. The festival will be held at the Many Hands Farm and Learning Center at the Curley School campus from 9 am to 1 pm, and will feature activities for families and enthusiastic tree growers alike. The day will start with a speakers’ session, including the orchard’s originator Gregg Dugan, Gary Nabhan, Jesus Garcia and Dana Cowan. The speakers will share their knowledge on the biological and cultural background of pomegranates. After the morning session, visitors will be able to tour the farm, participate in fun activities for kids, and visit a variety of informational booths, including tastings of varieties from the orchard and learning about the health benefits of the pomegranate. The one thing you will not want to miss is the tasting of pomegranate-based foods prepared by Ajo Unified School District’s culinary students under the guidance of the culinary teacher Cody Manuel! In addition, local growers, bakers, and artists will display their products for sale, featuring pomegranate theme. The festival is free to attend; tasting tickets will be offered for sale in advance as well as on site.
The festival is organized by the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture in cooperation with the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, Sonoran Desert Conference Center, Desert Senita Community Health Center, Ajo Unified School District, Ajo Chamber of Commerce, Desert Artists Guild, Ajo Regional Food Partnership, Authentically Ajo Farmers Market, and other community members. For more information, contact Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture at email@example.com, or visit their Facebook page.