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Q&A from the Conservation You Can Taste Tour

These are various questions that were given to Gary Paul Nabhan by hosts of his tour Conservation You Can Taste. In particular, these came from representatives from the University of Ohio, and the University of Minnesota.

QUESTION: You have worked as a plant explorer and now you are an orchard-keeper of over 150 varieties of wild and heirloom fruits. What prompted your interest in food biodiversity?

NABHAN: Our Lebanese grandfather was an immigrant who grew trees in the Old World and peddled fruit along the shores of Lake Michigan when he came to the New World. My earliest memories are of him arriving in his beat-up old fruit truck at our home in late afternoon and sharing with us “all the fruit that the rich people did not want to buy.” I loved the flavors and textures of pomegranates, plums and figs from then on.

QUESTION: What kinds do you grow, and why are your initiatives “conservation you can taste.”?

NABHAN: On our five acres, I grow heirloom agaves, almonds, apples, apricots, elderberries, figs, guavas, jujubes, loquats, maypops, mesquite, olives, perennial chiles, persimmons, peaches, pinyon nuts, pistachios, pomegranates, plums, prickly pears, quinces, Szechuan peppers, and several varieties of each. This is a paradigm shift in conservation, from protectionists locking up rare resources in land reserves and gene banks, to restorationists and resurrection ecologists getting forgotten fruits back in orchards, hedgerows, brews, and community feasts. This new phase of collaborative conservation will allow us to taste what we have worked to save.

QUESTION: Your friend Poppy Tooker from Slow Food says that for conserving food diversity, “you gotta eat it to save it.”
How does that apply to your fruit production and marketing?

NABHAN: Growing 150 varieties of fruits means I have few trees of each heirloom, but 150 good stories to tell, and 150 great flavors to sell. So I am beginning a line of herb-infused varietal fruit syrups called “shrubs,” or in the original Arabic, sharabs. I am launching a Barnraiser crowd funding campaign this next month to build out a bottling kitchen where underemployed members of our community can help us process the fruit into variety-specific shrub syrups, both for mixologists and for people suffering from diabetes. The products are sweetened with stevia and yaucon, both of which we grow, along with fruits and herbs we use. Then each fruit has its own identity, story and product to help keep it alive.

QUESTION: Your interest in fruits extends from low-chill heirlooms to wild fruits like paw paws that have a relatively brief history of cultivation. Why both?

NABHAN: Some of the native wild fruits routinely used by early Americans not only taste great but are well-adapted to our soils and to changing climatic conditions. Of some 8 native food crops that Richard Felger and I proposed as new desert crops 40 years ago, six have already made it into cultivation, and are on the table in restaurants and home kitchens in the Southwest. Lets open the floodgates of America’s native diversity again, because the floodgates of cheap water and energy are getting shut off.



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