Feeding the Future: Smart Ranching and the Southwest Center

Through research, scholarship and vigorous publishing, the Southwest Center illuminates and explores the rich cultural and historical legacies of the Southwest, drawing a fascinating picture of life in the region over thousands of years. Architecture, archaeology, folklore and ethnobotany are some of the lenses through which researchers study the area.

Folklorist Maribel Alvarez and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan are giving a lot of thought to the future of a traditional local food, the beef taco. It’s part of their “Flavors Without Borders/Sabores Sin Fronteras” project, which looks at the shared culinary traditions of the Southwest, including Northern Mexico, Southern Arizona and New Mexico.

The main ingredient of the beef taco has long been central to the economy and menu in the Southwest, but cattle ranching is a significant contributor to global climate change. Alvarez and Nabhan teamed up with local writer Kimi Eisele and photographer Josh Schachter to document the efforts of one Southern Arizona rancher who is pioneering a new way of raising cattle in the desert.

On his ranch in Patagonia, Arizona, which runs along the border with Mexico, Duncan Blair plants a forage chain that adds organic matter into the land, replenishes the ecosystem, and is better for the health of his cattle. When the cattle are ready to be finished, he won’t ship them thousands of miles north to feed lots. He’ll finish them locally, yielding more nutritious and tastier organic beef.

At the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona, researchers like Nabhan and Alvarez are using multi-disciplinary lenses to identify solutions and innovations to tomorrow’s problems. Ranchers, restaurant owners, scientists and environmentalists on both sides of the border attended their recent “Meat and Wheat” conference at the University of Arizona’s Agriculture Center.

Reaching out to ranchers and cowhands (vaqueros in Spanish) is vital, says Nabhan, because up until now they haven’t been active participants in conversations about food and climate effects. “How can people in ‘cattle country’ like the Arizona-Sonoran borderlands come to understand the connections between their ‘heritage foods’ and adverse climate changes? And what possible alternatives can they contemplate without diminishing their own sense of cultural uniqueness?”

The project is relevant not just to the beef producer, but to consumers as well, says Alvarez. “It’s so important to think about what we eat and the ethical and environmental choices we make, and to understand the vital connections between culture, economics, the environment and our shared sense of community.”

Learn more about the work of the UA Southwest Center at http://swctr.web.arizona.edu/.

Story by UA External Relations.