If you find yourself driving down an endless expanse of US - 90 in West Texas, keep going. Because eventually you will find yourself slowly rolling down the main street of Marfa, Texas - a high desert city with a population resting just under 2000.
If you find yourself driving down an endless expanse of US – 90 in West Texas, keep going. Because eventually you will find yourself slowly rolling down the main street of Marfa, Texas – a high desert city with a population resting just under 2000. The tiny town is snuggled against the Davis Mountains, 200 miles from the nearest airport and 20 miles from the next town over. Yet, this Texas town has achieved international notoriety for its minimalist art, great Instagram photos ops, and, from June 6 – 10, 2018, the celebration of agave.
This was the second year the Agave Festival Marfa celebrated agave and its influence on art, food, music, and science. The Festival offered free programming including talks by noted historians, botanists, artists, anthropologists, and archeologists. The event also hosted food tastings, film viewings, live performances, and exhibitions that further told agave’s story.
Bats and agave
Agave plants have stalks nearly 20 feet tall that boost nectar-filled flowers which attract several species of nectarivorous bats. Endangered bats, such as the Mexican long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis), flock to these flowers and feed from the flower mouths. There are 200 species of agave and many of them rely on the Mexican long-nosed bat alone for pollination.
Every year, these bats migrate over 600 miles between Central Mexico and Northern Mexico/U.S. Southwest. Along the way, the female bats give birth to one pup and rely on the energy-rich nectar of agaves for their survival. While bats feed on the agave, they pollinate them by exchanging genetic material between plants, increasing the plants’ resistance to pests and disease.
The International Program Manager of Bat Conservation International, Jon Flanders, who was able to attend the festival, explained how the festival relates to BCI and its mission:
“In Marfa, I spoke with a lot of people about the importance of bats and how they’re great bioindicators, keep insect pests and agricultural pests down (the impact they have on this alone is huge), and their seed dispersal and pollination services. I mean, without bats you wouldn’t have a lot of the species of agave that we have today.”
The goal of the festival was to bring people together to share their passion for agave and also for people to learn more about it. The conference organizer, Tim Johnson, explained, “We’re trying to build a cultural festival where people can see and learn about Mimbres pottery, discuss border politics, listen to ranchera music, drink tequila, and learn about how to advocate for more ecologically sustainable policies concerning the propagation of the agave and what that means for the Mexican long-nosed bat.”
Like bats, humans have long relied on agave for food. On a quick trip to any grocery store, one can find shelves stocked with rows of agave nectar, sweeteners, and of course tequila and mezcal.
Flanders learned from one of the speakers at the festival that besides being a resource for a hard alcohol or an important food source for endangered bats, agave has been cultivated by rural Mexican communities and tribes, such as the Hohokam Native American tribe, since 1100 AD and is considered a large part of their culture and area. Flanders explained, “There is this collective appreciation and love of the Borderlands landscape and agave is such a feature of that. There is really this deep, ingrained love for the area.”
Other notable speakers that Flanders was able to enjoy listening to were Wendy Hodgson, one of the leading agave specialists in the world who talked about identifying indigenous cultivation of agave; Rodrigo Medelln, a leading bat conservationist who stressed the importance of the bat and agave relationship; and David Suro, who talked about responsibly promoting tequila and mezcal production and his involvement with the Tequila Interchange Project.
In turn, Flanders was able to talk with a variety of people about BCI at the festival and said,
“I was blown away by the number of people who were saying they love bats and they love the work that BCI does. As soon as you mention bats and agave, most people don’t realize the connection until we started talking about it, but then there was an immediate ‘oh of course! Because it’s really high up on the stalk, that makes perfect sense.'”
With a high number of people attending the festival daily, Flanders was impressed by the diversity of people. Flanders enjoyed how casual the festival was, allowing for people to share their experiences in a non-formal way; “you had a mixture of artists, landscape gardeners, foundations, ranchers, people from the tequila and mezcal industry, archeologists, botanists, and then you had myself and Rodrigo pushing the bat side of things as well. It really reached a wider audience.”
Flanders thought the variety of people, from professionals to people who were simply interested in the plant, led him to a greater understanding of the different implications of agave when he explained, “It’s interesting how all these things link together. This plant is important to the landscape, not just for the bats, but for the people and the other cultural implications.”
While agave is an essential resource for bats, Flanders found the love for the plant itself to be moving: “The passion in people about this plant is incredible.”