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Cactus crusader

Sept./Oct. 2010 California Country magazine

Farmer grows a fan base for the prickly plant.


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Farmer John Dicus started growing cactus in 1993. He now ships anywhere from 200 to 3,000 pounds of cactus paddles each week to customers nationwide.

The adage of "it's what's inside that counts" certainly comes to mind when you think of eating cactus. To be sure, most of these desert dwellers wear a sharp and intimidating armor of spines, but their sweet, crunchy interior is what has people excited.

John Dicus is one of those people. The owner of Rivenrock Gardens began growing cactus on his 10-acre farm in Nipomo to supplement the income he made from growing greens, which he sold at farmers markets across San Luis Obispo County.

"But then people started asking me to ship the greens to them, which didn't work too well because they are so perishable," he explained. "Then I said, 'Ah-ha! Cactus is pretty durable. Why don't I start shipping that instead?'"

Edible cactus, also known as nopales, proved to be a winner for Dicus. And while shipping it is fairly easy, harvesting is another story. Dicus must wear rubber gloves when he works with the plants and occasionally must wield a knife to cut off the fleshy oval leaves, or paddles. But usually he can simply snap the paddles off from the base of the plant. Then they are cleaned, the spines cut off and the paddles "polished," which means Dicus takes a cloth and rubs off any remaining spines. Finally, he carefully packs the paddles in a box, with tissue paper between each layer to ensure they arrive in pristine condition to customers across the nation.

"My cactus sales are huge on the Internet," Dicus said. Still, his main obstacle is that many Americans have difficulty understanding the preparation of the plant.

"When they see me at the markets they always ask, 'Can you really eat that?'" he said.

The key is in the particular kind of cactus at Rivenrock Gardens. Dicus specializes in the Nopalea Grande variety. This nearly spineless cactus is easy to prepare and yields a sweet and delicate-tasting "meat" that can be used in a variety of ways—raw or cooked.

Dicus likes to add finely chopped cactus to his hamburgers and meatloaves. "It makes them so tender and juicy," he said. "People always ask me, 'What's your secret tenderizer?'"

He and his wife Vickie have created and posted a half-dozen recipes on their website, including cactus salad, cactus stew and their favorite—cactus salsa.

"That's a real crowd-pleaser at parties," Dicus said. "Once they realize they're eating cactus in their salsa, it's a real conversation starter too."

For more information about Rivenrock Gardens, visit rivenrock.com.

For more information about Reposado, visit reposadorestaurant.com.

Recipe

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@californiacountry.org.


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