Exploring Edible Cactus Production as a New Specialty Crop in the Midwest

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $12,848.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: Cultivate Kansas City
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Katherine Kelly
Two Birds Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Fruits: edible cactus fruit
  • Vegetables: edible cactus leaves


  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, marketing management
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: ethnic differences/cultural and demographic change, urban agriculture

    Proposal summary:


    Three Kansas City urban farms will collaborate on a two-year project growing and marketing edible cactus (also known as nopales, opuntia) for sales to Latino and non-Latino consumers. Cultivate Kansas City is a non-profit with the mission of being a catalyst for urban grown and eaten food. The organization operates Gibbs Road Farm and the Juniper Gardens Training Farm, both of which will be production sites for this project. Gibbs Road Farm is a 2-acre certified organic vegetable farm, where Alicia Ellingsworth (lead on this grant), has been the Farm Manager for the last 4 years; in 2012, the farm will gross around $103,000 in farmers market, CSA, and restaurant sales. The farm has a track record of developing markets for unusual vegetables, including Sweet Potato Greens, a braising mix that includes squash leaves and tips, white sweet potatoes, and other “ethnic” or more unusual products.  

    The Juniper Gardens Training Farm is a 9-acre farm business incubation program where 17 refugee growers participate in a 4-year program to help them start and run ¼ acre vegetable farms; the growers come from multiple countries in Africa and Asia as refugees, the program also provides transition support as they graduate out of the program and onto their own land.

    The Training Farm Manager, Cathy Bylinowski, will lead on the project at this site; she will share the project learnings with the growers and will make arrangements for interested growers to sell the pads at the KCK Greenmarket and the Juniper Gardens Farmers Market.  

    Nopal~ito Urban Farm, Gerardo Martinez, farmer, is located in Independence, MO consisting of eight urban lots totaling 1 ½ acres. It started with several raised beds growing a variety of vegetables. At the beginnings of 2012 an NRCS funded high tunnel was installed to extend the growing season. The farm includes apricots, peaches, apples, cherry, Asian pears, garlic, melons, beets, strawberries, kale, lettuces, spinach and herbs. In addition to his farming, Mr. Martinez works full-time as a Health Community Initiatives Coordinator for the Mattie Rhodes Center, a non-profit agency that works primarily with Latino families. For the last four years Mr. Martinez has participated in workshops thru Kansas City Community Gardens, MU Extension, Lincoln University and Cultivate Kansas City. In his work with Mattie Rhodes, he launched and manages the Jubilee community Garden and the La Chalupa Farmers Market and coordinates community health events  


    This is a two-year project to grow and sell edible cactus for Kansas City markets. Three growers will collaborate to trial three varieties of edible cactus, learning about production methods, postharvest handling, yields, costs, and marketability. The project arises from several challenges/problems/opportunities:

    Latino customers in Kansas City: An average of 82 tons of edible cactus pads are imported into the US every year, primarily consumed by Latino residents. The Hispanic population in the United States grew by 43% in the last decade, surpassing 50 million and accounting for about 1 out of 6 Americans. In the state of Missouri an increase in Jackson County alone saw 2.9% in 2011 from 2010. According to the U.S. Census report, between 2000 and 2010 there was a 59.4 percent increase in the Hispanic population in Kansas. This is a large and growing market that has an existing commitment to nopales as a food product and that will appreciate the quality and taste differences between local, freshly harvested cactus and older imported product.

    Quality food product: Edible cactus is a good source of nutrients. It is high in proteins, vitamins A, B, and C and offers 17 important amino acids. High pectin levels helps in the reduction of cholesterol levels. There are a number of other health benefits.  

    Climate change: Kansas City is now zone 6-a; like other parts of the country, in 1990 it was a full zone cooler. The farmers at Cultivate began to get interested in more heat tolerant crops over ten years ago; the first harlequin bug- a hitherto unknown southern pest- showed up in 2000, devastating summer brassicas, affirming a general sense that hotter temperatures are going to require crop mix adaptations. Common prickly pear grows wild in eastern Kansas; a small planting at Gibbs Road Farm has done exceptionally well over the last 5 years.  

    The goal will be to explore edible cactus as a new product line for these three farms and to share our learnings with other growers for whom it might become a new product. In this learning process, Gibbs Road Farm and Juniper Gardens Training Farm will grow 30 plants each; Gibbs Road will grow the plants inside the greenhouse in 6-gallon pots; Juniper will grow them in the high tunnel. Nopal-itos Urban Farm will grow them in a high tunnel and will grow 60 plants total. The plants will be grown for harvesting of the edible pads and for the edible fruit.

    We will work with two cactus experts, Kelly Grummons and Dr. Rigoberto at the Monterrey Nuevo León Mexico’s University, to help with production challenges we may encounter. The first year will be learning and implementing the basics of edible cactus production, establishing the plants, observing plant growth, and beginning the harvesting and marketing process. We will harvest enough of the plant to cook and use in focus groups. The second year will be more active harvesting, selling at 4 farmers markets, and developing marketing materials, language, and know-how.

    For Latino customers, already familiar with the product, part of the marketing focus will be on quality differences between local and fresh versus imported and the importance of supporting local growers, creating compelling reasons for paying a local premium. For customers not familiar with edible cactus, the focus will be on cooking and tasting. One question for commercial production of opuntia will be the impact of the winter cold on the growth rate and productivity of the plants; we are seeking to compensate for that through growing the plants in high tunnels at two of the sites and in the greenhouse at Gibbs Road; supplemented by low-tunnels in the winter and with extra heat being provided by the application of “hot” horse/cow manure in the fall.



    • Activity


    • Organize project! Purchase project materials for grow plots; initiate record keeping systems


    April– Jun      

    • Prep growing spaces w amendments; install irrigation
    • Create & install educational signage at Gibb Road, Juniper Gardens; develop web page on Cultivate KC website Finalize plant selection; start propagation; plant
    • Trip and consult w/ Kelly Grummons; purchase plant material
    • Articles published; press releases sent out



    • Monitor pad growth, assessing growth rates of different varieties, pad size, etc., observe & treat for pests/diseases  


    Jul - Sept        

    • Research and develop harvest and post harvest handling plan
    • Develop marketing plan and materials, incl. focus groups and customer feedback mechanisms
    • Light harvest of juvenile pads for taste test in focus group; recruit mixed focus group to determine best taste and quality of pads; host group; analyze results
    • Photograph and document development of plots and projects  



    • Winterize production areas using manure, low tunnels Oct - Dec       
    • Evaluate performance of varieties in different settings
    • Choose and recruit chefs to develop recipe cards and do market demos in 2013
    • Develop workshops for 2013
    • Monitor winter growth  



    • Publish marketing materials, including recipe cards



    • Purchase packaging/display supplies
    • Organize workshops; logistics, marketing, curriculum, develop handouts, etc. Book Chefs for cooking demos; work with them on recipes, presentation, etc
    • Photograph and record development of plots and projects  



    • Evaluate crops for growth and winter hardiness, replace winter kill



    • Manage production areas- soil amendments as needed, irrigation, etc
    • Do Workshop I
    • Photograph and record development of plots and projects
    • Nopales events at KC Green Market-Juniper, KCK Greenmarket, Mattie Rhodes La Chalupa, and Brookside Market



    • Continue harvest and tracking production



    • End of September harvest Fruit
    • Reconvene focus group for taste evaluation of fruits; evaluate fruits for taste, seediness, meatiness and determine best use of fruits
    • Articles on project published
    • Photograph and record development of plots and projects  



    • Prepare and winterize production plots



    • Monitor winter growth
    • Analyze harvest records and compare production rates; Evaluate performance of varieties in different settings
    • Do Workshop II
    • Complete evaluation of project and create poster  



    • Round table discussion of project and future opportunities



    • Present Poster at Great Plains Growers Conference; annual Cultivate KC Urban Farmers and Friends Meeting
    • Determine next steps for project and future production/ marketing plans



    No previous research has been conducted on developing opuntia as a commercial crop in the Midwest; there has been work done in latitudes hundreds of miles south of Kansas City. There has been only one SARE grant researching Opuntia and it was focused on growing it for the textile industry and dyeing. This grant is focused on the edible portion of the crop. Another SARE grant looked into new crops to grow for an ethnic market in Washington DC. Through an ethnic focus groups they found Prickly Pear (or Opuntia) was a desired food.

    Ph.D Rigoberto E. Vázquez will consult with us on this project; Mr. Martinez visited with Dr. Vázquez in August of 2012 and toured the nopales research farms in Escobedo Nuevo León  México (University Autónoma of Nuevo León). He and his collaborators present every year a National/International Simposium-Taller Nacional y III Internacional Producción y Aprovechamiento del Nopal (October-November every year), Dr. Vázquez has provided literature and research and has committed to providing ongoing guidance.

    Kelly Grummons will also advise us one day in person at his farm in Colorado and will provide phone consultations. He studied botany and horticulture at the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University in the early ‘80’s and moved to Denver in ’86 to work as a horticulturist at a large retail nursery (Paulino Gardens) where he developed systems for growing over 2000 varieties of native and exotic perennial plants. Kelly has spent his lifetime collecting, studying and hybridizing native Opuntia with a growing concentration in edible varieties. His collection of hardy cacti is compiled from the most garden worthy species and varieties from across North America.


    Cultivate Kansas City will promote learnings from this project through publishing two articles in the bimonthly Urban Grown newsletter; Mr. Martinez will get 2-3 stories placed in the Mattie Rhodes newsletter; we will also send out annual press releases to Cultivate’s media list; and promote the project through our website, and through our technical assistance staff. Mr. Martinez will work with local Hispanic radio stations to get coverage (they have covered his events in the past). We will organize two workshops, one by the Get Growing KC team targeting urban and suburban growers, and one at the Great Plains Growers Conference, where urban and rural farmers from a six state area attend. We will also develop a poster to be presented at our stand there and at the annual Urban Farmers and Friends meeting in January, 2014. Mr. Martinez will share his learning process with his group of Latino gardeners and farmers based in the Mattie Rhodes program; Ms. Bylinowski will share with the refugee growers at Juniper Gardens and with neighborhood growers through the learning networks established there; Ms. Ellingsworth will share through her ongoing apprenticeship and volunteer training.


    We will take photos and written notes, meet every other month to evaluate the process; set up a common record-keeping system for all three production sites to use to monitor and evaluate production; yields, marketing; sales. Our focus groups and market feedback will give us data for evaluating market potential and marketing strategies.  

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Trial three varieties of edible cactus, learning about production methods, post-harvest handling, yields, costs, and marketability.

    2. Explore edible cactus as a new product line for three farms.

    3. Share our learnings with other growers for whom edible cactus might become a new product.  

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.