Visit to a Nopal Cactus Farm
Pablo manages his family nopal farm about two hours north of Vallarta in the state of Nayarit. He has one hectare, about 2.5 acres, planted in 4200 plants with an additional 6 hectares available for future growth. Pablo grows the Azteca variety known for its large size and well-developed pads. One plant cutting can fill two boxes weighing about 25 to 30 kilos each. Pablo and his workers cut after 11 am so the cactus pads are dry. Otherwise, if they harvest before the sunrises, the flavor of the pads is too lemony and prone to spoilage. He cuts a plant’s pads every 8 days as they grow very fast in this hot, dry climate. They also grow year-round!
Pablo only fertilizes with natural minerals including Ca, Ph, K, N, and a little urea to keep pests away. He uses no chemical pesticides. One of the men working with him is an agronomist who helps manage the growth and quality of the plants. Nopales, as the cut pads are called, have a shelf life of about 15 days so shipping from farm to market is critical for fresh pads to be in good shape for customers.
The nopal cactus, commonly known as the prickly pear cactus, is native to Mexico. Over 7 million acres of land in Mexico are dedicated to growing nopal on either commercial plantations or family farms. The farming of nopal provides many subsistence communities with employment, food, income, and most importantly allows them to remain on their land.
Nopal pads and fruit are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Studies have shown the nopal may lower blood sugar, reduce insulin levels, reduce inflammation, and improve cholesterol. Many people eat nopal regularly to help manage their diabetes. Of the three colors of the prickly pear fruits — red-purple, white-green, and yellow-orange — the juice from the red-purple variety has the highest antioxidant content as well as a sweeter taste.
There are numerous herbal products on the commercial market from bottled juices to powered extracts to organic snacks. Some claim nopales can also be used to restore your hair as it replenishes your scalp, alleviates itchiness, and fortifies your follicles for stronger roots and thicker, sturdier-growing hair! Although some of these products may help manage our health, I prefer to eat the fresh nopal with its natural qualities including fiber and antioxidant properties.
So what do you do with a fresh raw cactus pad?? Here are some suggestions. Be sure the spines are removed first! Nopales have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. They are at their most tender and juicy in the spring although available year-round, especially here in Mexico.
Nopales can be eaten raw but more often are combined into many delicious dishes. You can sauté them and add them to scrambled eggs, meat dishes, soups, tacos, or in a salad with tomatoes, onions, and some panela or queso fresco cheese. Grill the pads for a wonderful addition to your outdoor meals. Serve by themselves or under frijoles topped with pico de gallo or your favorite salsa. Also, add some diced nopales to your green juice. It goes well with cucumber, cilantro, celery, spinach, and some pineapple juice. Loaded with nutrition, the nopal cactus can be a great and tasty addition to your diet.