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Cultural Roots: Agave’s Impact on Tucson’s Sustainable Future

Explore the Agave Heritage Festival’s pivotal role in Tucson’s journey towards sustainability and cultural appreciation with Todd Hanley and host Tom Heath. Discover how the humble agave plant is at the heart of educational initiatives, community engagement, and Tucson’s vision for a greener future.

Episode Highlights

  • Agave and Education: Dive into the festival’s mission to educate the community about agave’s ecological and cultural significance.
  • Sustainability Practices: Learn about sustainable harvesting and agave’s versatile applications, from traditional uses to modern sustainability solutions.
  • Community Engagement: Hear how the festival brings Tucson together, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose in preserving our natural and cultural heritage.

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Visit for more episodes that delve into Tucson’s rich tapestry of culture, innovation, and community spirit.

Transcript (Unedited)

Good morning. It’s a beautiful Sunday in the Old Pueblo and you’re listening to KTDT Tucson. Thank you for spending a part of your brunch hour with us on your Downtown Tucson Community Sponsor, all -volunteer -powered rock and roll radio station. This week we’re going to speak with Todd Hanley of the Agave Heritage Festival. We welcome him back to talk about year 16 of the festival, how we got here, and where we might see this thing go. Today is March 3rd, 2024. My name is Tom Heath and you’re listening to Life Along the Streetcar. Each and every Sunday our focus is on social, cultural, and economic impacts in Tucson’s urban core and we shed light on hidden gems everyone should know about. From a mountain to the University of Arizona and all stops in between, you get the inside track right here on 99 .1 FM. We’re streaming on downtownradio .org. And we’re also available on your iPhone or Android if you get our Downtown Radio Tucson app. If you want to interact with us on the show, probably

the best way to do that is Facebook and Instagram. And if you want more information about us, our book, and to listen to any past episodes, you can head over to our website, which is lifealongthestreetcar .org. And of course, we invite you to listen to the podcast on all kinds of platforms out there like Spotify, iTunes, iHeartRadio, or just ask your smart speaker to play the Life Along the Streetcar podcast, and who knows, maybe it’ll pop up. Well, the Tucson Festival of Books is kicking off next weekend. It’s the annual event that brings tens of thousands of people to the university campus to celebrate literacy and things connected to literacy. It’s the 9th and 10th. We did a show last week with Bimmy Heubner about the needs for volunteers. I’m happy to say that there’s been significant progress made on that front. Not saying they don’t need help, but certainly we as a community have stepped up to fill most of those 2 ,000 shifts. Now maybe it’s time to get out there and explore. So if

you weren’t able to volunteer, but you see yourself free, maybe go check it out. I will be out there all weekend as part of my volunteer effort But you know when you’re you’re there, even if you’re quote -unquote working you’re soaking in all this amazing culture and history that’s Coming through to our community and on that topic It’s nice to welcome back our guest today Todd Hanley who is leading up the agave heritage festival We’ve had him on the show before you get more information on our website by heading over there and searching for agave, and you’ll get some of those past interviews. But this thing just keeps growing and growing. They’ve got an international theme this year. And what started very humbly maybe 15, 16 years ago has turned into quite an event. And in talking to Todd, it sounds like we’re maybe just seeing the beginning of what it really could be. This is my interview I recorded with Todd just a couple of days ago at the Tucson Galleries Studio there on Congress. Well,

we are back in the presence of greatness here in downtown with the Todd Hanley talking about the upcoming Agave Heritage Festival. And I’ll let you know, we we did this interview not two, two, three years ago, I think it was in the lobby of the Hotel Congress, wasn’t it? Yeah. I think with your friend that was doing real estate agent slash yeah, that was for American Dream TV. I think you and I spoke for lifelong streetcar. Yeah. Maybe that was two years ago. And last year was the American dream. You’re just so popular. It’s hard to keep up. Yeah, sure. So I, if people are interested in kind of hearing a lot of the backstory, we can, you can head over to the website and, and just Google agave, not Google, but from the search bar agave in our, on our website. And you’ll pull up that interview. But I do want to give a little backstory here. Cause this thing, what year is this for the 16 this year. Jeez, it’s sweet 16. And when you started, was this what you envisioned for year 16? Or did

you envision a year two? Yeah. Well, we knew year two would be there because back in that particular time, 2008, 2009, not a lot of people are coming downtown without a specific reason. And it started, you know, Cinco de Mayo weekend, tequila, margaritas, cocktails. No, I mean, it’s far exceeded where I thought it would be, even when I knew I didn’t want it just to be a Mezcal bar or Mezcal festival. It’s turned into something that’s beyond really anybody’s comprehension when it comes to the festival around the celebration of the agave plant. It’s pretty wild, actually. Was there a transformative year or is it just slowly? Gary Nabhan in 2017. Okay. Gary is, you know, kind of a world -renowned ethnobotanist, food writer, food activist. He just took it to a whole new level because he just opened doors and I just blasted right on through every door he opened for me, you know, from Arizona, Sonoran Desert Museum, Mission Garden, you know, down into Mexico. Yeah, 2017. Marshall Iskra Then what,

what drives you to bust through those doors when they’re open? What was your passion for this? Well, for this festival, that larger existential question, I can’t answer here. That’s a bit too much for anybody to handle what drives me. But the festival itself is just originally to bring people downtown, originally to keep Hotel Congress relevant because it’s an adaptive historic hotel that does so much. And for me, the agave was a nice symbol of what the Hotel Congress represents. But then it grew, too. I just want Southern Arizona to be a place where you can visit, live, you know, sleep, eat, play, and understand the history, the culture, the heritage of it. So, and the agave plant is so prolific in this region. It was like a perfect symbol. I mean, Saguaro is what most people think of in the desert. But for me, I think of the agave plants. I think it has so many applications. So just my passion and love for Southern Arizona, the beauty of the desert, really. So so you get going with this

this festival It’s more like a one -day event and now it’s it’s I mean, it’s a week, right? Yeah. Well, it went from one day to ten days in 2019 and now it’s down to a robust four days and it’s by design it was Because it was just too much for people. I want everybody to come in for a three or four day weekend You know part of this reality is ecotourism, you know sales tax I mean, obviously that’s what makes the world go around on some levels but now it’s four days, 50 events. It’s really rooted in education, conservation, but the vessel, pun intended, is the spirit and the food to bring you to the table and talk and learn. So then a four day event, let’s get this, we’ll talk about at the end as well, but what are the dates of this event? Good point, we should probably start there. It’s April 18th through the 21st. So we moved it up a week, usually the last weekend in April, but just trying to take advantage of a little nicer weather. Everything is, for the most part, outside on some level.

So, 18 through the 21st, and from there, you just coast right on into Mother’s Day and graduation weekend. When when I’ve learned about this festival in the past and when you and I have talked and I’ve kind of just watched this progression over the years from a beverage to an idea to a cultural statement. But this thing is now just it’s it’s you’re encompassing everything that’s sort of regional about this. You’ve got you’ve got a like a band from Brazil coming. Yeah, I mean, regional, even international. I mean, the best way to frame the festival is there’s a Brazilian orchestra, ages 16 to 20 -ish, that are coming to the festival because it was their dream to play at the festival. And their instruments, not all of their instruments, but the vast majority of them, the guitars, the violins, the violas, are made of repurposed agave plants. And in that same vein, they are in a large research and development environment around how to use that same agave when it’s actually living into biofuel.

So replacing sugarcane because agave is 60 % more water efficient than any other plant on the earth. It’s in and of itself, if you just –


doing that? The students that are playing or – Oh no, I’m sorry. It’s a shell oil with a couple of universities in Brazil. Okay. So it’s the Brazil connection. They’re doing this in Brazil. And then the students are coming to play and you said they’re they’re like they’re the same age as this festival. Yeah, right Couple of them are asking if they could go to the fiesta and I said well No, you cannot because that’s the big party the grand tasting but yeah the the Brazilian orchestra and the fact that this plant is the future crop and commodity for Brazil in terms of biofuel is pretty much tells you all you need to know about the festival and the fact that they have asked to attend the festival and Play on a cultural exchange is Is beyond my even wildest dreams surreal would be the best word to use Well, I mean the word has to get out there that this is happening. Is this the agave? Focused event of the year for that for that plant or are you one of many different celebrations? That’s a

great question Tom and really my goal is to take it into a year -round business. We won’t call it a year -round festival, but micro festivals with tastings, educations, dinners, taking potentially people on tours. That’s the big picture. But right now, it’s just a four -day bonanza, the most impactful, unique, rich festival in this country. I would argue the world. Wow. And do you think that has to do with the proliferation of the plant here or just your passion? What causes this thing to become so popular from such humble beginnings? I would say a combination of a lot of people that are much smarter than me, but also my passion. I don’t want to see it be anything but the most important festival in this country and world. It’s because of the unique location of Tucson. You really We can’t have this festival anywhere else besides Mexico because we have 112 different agave species in the Tucson Basin. It goes back 1 ,000 years where it was used as a form of food, a form of fiber where you

could use it for ropes and bags and obviously this little thing called tequila and mezcal. But mezcal is more important to me than even tequila. Sorry tequila drinkers. That’s Todd Hanley kind of dissing on those tequila drinkers, but we’re going to find out just after the break what he meant by that and why Agave is so important to him and our region. You are listening to Life Along the Streetcar and Downtown Radio at 99 .1 FM and you’re streaming at downtownradio .org.

Support for Downtown Radio is provided by the Tucson Gallery, located in downtown Tucson inside of the proper shops at 300 East Congress Street. The Tucson Gallery offers original work, reproductions and merchandise from Tucson artists like Joe Patrick, Jessica Gonzalez, Ignacio Garcia, and many more. For information about all of the artists, including when they will be live at the gallery, head to the TucsonGallery .com or find them on Instagram and on Facebook as Tucson

Gallery. So just before the break we were talking with Todd Hanley of the Agave Heritage Festival and he was going through some of the uses of the Agave plant and of course landed on Mezcal and tequila and indicated that Mezcal was his favorite. And so we teased you a little bit there and cut that interview at that point. We’re going to pick it up and find out the difference between the two and why he favors one over the other. This is a Todd Hanley with the Agave Heritage Festival recorded a couple of days ago in our studio or in the Tucson Gallery studio on a Congress. What’s the difference between muscala and tequila? Tequila is made from one specific plant called the Blue Weber Agave Tequiliana and muscala can be made from 40 to 45 different plants and where it’s grown, fermented and distilled. So think sparkling wine and champagne. Okay. Yeah. So it’s definitely a little bit more, probably even more sustainable because you’ve got more plants available with that, but it’s flavorful.

The flavor can drastically change. And that’s why I like coming on these shows. Tom’s so smart. He even just picked up on the sustainability component of it with this 40 to 45 different plants. And it’s more complex than that, but that’s the best way to describe it is, you know, the fermentation, the yeasts, the bacteria, they all play a major role in it. And that’s what’s even more exciting about the festival is we have a gentleman coming in from Mexico, who is a specialist in fermentation and chemistry and yeasts around how that changes the flavor profile from one fermented beverage to the next. It’s, it’s very broad. But has it gotten so far that the shift of the attendee has really gone from the alcohol to the rest of it or are we still pretty much focused on the alcohol component of the plant? It’s never really been an alcohol festival. It’s just because you can’t think of it in any other context. But the demographic runs 25 to 65. I mean, truly it does. If you go to the Agave Fiesta,

which is our big grand party, grand tasting, excuse me, And it’s pretty wild to see the demographic at that event. But really, it’s a conservation festival that develops a stronger sense of community, a stronger sense of place, but we also have to have this consumption component because everybody likes to eat and drink and everybody likes to sit at a table and talk about what they’re eating and drinking. And sometimes that gets them to the table and they leave with information and practices they didn’t know they had coming in. 100%, that’s always the vision. It’s the long con, right? Absolutely. You know, don’t tell them they’re learning anything. Just give them some food and drink and then they’ll, they’ll figure it out. So it’s let’s talk more specifics about the festival. It’s a four day event. Is it a, like buy, buy one and you’re in, or do you go to each event or how does that break out? It’s a little bit too complex because a big part of the festival that you stumbled upon without

anything about is I’m driving business to downtown restaurants, to community bars, community restaurants. So basically, the short answer is no, it’s an a la carte format. We do have a passport that’s available through Tucson Foodie and their insider group. So you’re welcome, Shane, for the plug. And ultimately, there is a cool passport where you get two dinner tickets, two concert tickets, two tasting tickets, and standard save 20 % on the package. But most of it is a la carte. Okay. And another shout out to Shane, because of a couple of weeks ago, he was actually our guest. And this is just so much things that Susan Foody is doing this. He didn’t give you a shout out. So I would, I would talk to him. He was talking about all kinds of other stuff, but not the agave festival. So, well, I’ll talk to Sam because we know who runs that business over there. Shout out to Sam and Matt. I think my, my point being with that is this sort of kind of dovetails into my question about the, you know, the

city of gastronomy and, and you know, a lot of people, if you don’t fully understand that award, don’t recognize that it’s really historical and cultural award more than a food award. And what you’re doing and what Hotel Congress is doing with Pueblo de Mays and all these other events that celebrate our region, the things that are natural and inherent to where we are, that’s a big part of why Tucson’s so popular on that scene. I would say that’s the single most impactful part of why Southern Arizona, Tucson has become a wonderful tier two city in the eyes of people outside of Tucson is, you know, that whole city of gastronomy, that cultural and heritage component of the agriculture and the food. And, and quite honestly, you know, agave was a staple food. You, there are many, many research documents. There’s documentaries that agave was one of the, we’ll call it the fourth sister, not just squash, beans and corns, but agave was a source of food. And it, and it played heavily into the city

gastronomy’s designation when they wrote it, you know, Jonathan and Gary and that crew. So yes, 100%. And for me, that’s why the festival is so unique is because it’s not just a beverage festival, it’s not just a culture festival, it’s also a food festival. And we know how unbelievably amazing our food is in this region. Every year, James Beard comes here and just gives us accolade after accolade. Well, that component of gastronomy is something that’s been fairly, It seems obvious when I think about it, but it took me a while to realize that we’re getting back to a sense where we’re looking at things holistically. We’re not looking at, hey, this thing provides this item. It’s this thing provides these items. And how do we use all of this and use it wisely versus just extracting what we need and discarding the rest? And I think that’s a really interesting take on how the city of gastronomy has opened my eyes to a more sustainable way of living. Agreed. And I think we all can be very myopic

at times with our approach to life because it’s hectic, it’s difficult. But if we just slow down and realize that the agave plant isn’t just tequila or mezcal or the prickly pear isn’t just a prickly pear margarita. I mean, you know, you could go so far with these metaphors and analogies, but at the end of the day, we have one Earth, we live in the deserts, we should celebrate the culture and the heritage around what has been here for a thousand plus years and beyond, and really do it justice. Don’t get overly critical and overly analytical, you know, have fun, obviously. I mean, that’s critical for me anyways. But yeah, you’re right. And extracting and not giving back is


another topic for a, maybe a, another podcast. Well, how do we get more specifics? Is there a website? Instagram? What, how do we get the details? How do we buy these tickets? Great question. Agaveheritagefestival .com. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. And the tickets are all up available. It ends at .com. The lemon, the easy squeezy is not part of the website, right?

Www .agaveheritagefestival .com. So yes, it’s all there. We’re about 85 % up and running with the events. poetry readings, a screening of a regenerative farm that’s down in Mexico that’s producing delicious sotal, which is a kind of a similar type of spirit to agave. They also have mezcal. It’s screenings, it’s poetry readings, it’s concerts. We have a Grammy award -winning trio of female mariachis playing on Friday. The Brazilian orchestra will open up for them. It is, it’s hard for me to really explain in any more detail how impactful and amazing this festival is. And all of that’s available. Like you can go through the website and find it. And I, you know, there’s other festivals in Tucson where I’ll go and they have this expansive menu and no one is probably going to absorb all of it, but you’re going to find what you like. So look at it. Don’t be turned off because you don’t like one or two items, but find what you like and then hone in on that. Yeah. There is truly something for everyone.

If you just want to have a guided tasting with a beautiful tequila brand, if you want to have a dinner at Maynard’s Market and Kitchen, dinner at Coronet, you want to go to a concert, you want to go to a poetry reading, there is something for everybody. If you want to go to an educational panel on how water and our current desert reality is interfacing, then there is an event for that through Flowers and Bullets. It’s just an on and on scenario. And again, I’m just the steward. I’m just the messenger. The amount of involvement that I have within this community is almost brings you to tears because everybody really does embrace what’s unique and special about Southern Arizona and Tucson. Well, to that end, as we wrap up here, what if somebody does want to be part of that push to make this a year -round educational event? How do they do that? Great. I mean, you can contact me through the festival website. We have a volunteer opportunity if you want to just come out and hang out and learn

a little bit about a panel and just register the first 40 people. There’s a contact form where you can email me any idea you have. I had a gal from Detroit ask me if I could get her some agave fiber for an art project she’s doing up in Detroit. And obviously I asked her to come attend the festival and I would happily give her some agave fiber. No, I told her I could get it, but it would probably be easier just to maybe contact. But yeah, there’s just no, no bad idea, no, yeah, every idea, every person that’s interested in coming into the festival in whatever form or fashion, please, the website’s the best way to go. All right. Well, Todd Hanley, Agave Heritage Festival coming up here in April. And pretty soon we won’t even be saying that, we’ll just be saying part of the Agave Heritage Education Team. Absolutely. And it’s always, it’s always here. And who knows, maybe we’ll have a storefront in some near future time. Oh, a storefront would be good downtown. That would be fun. I’m putting

Tom on the spot, everybody. Teaser alert. But that’s okay. I have edit power, so this might never make it. Todd, I appreciate your time. Thanks, Tom. That is Todd Hanley of the Agave Heritage Festival coming up here in a little over a month, happening April 18th through the 21st. We’ll have more information on our website and Facebook page, but I do want to remind you that right now, being March 3rd, my name is Tom Heath and you’re listening to Life Along the Streetcar on Downtown Radio 99 .1 FM, streaming on downtownradio .org. You’re listening to KTDT Tucson, Arizona 99 .1 FM, Downtown Radio, I’m Brother Mark, host of a show called Radio Club Crawl that airs every Tuesday at 3 p .m. We try to focus on most of the bands that are coming through Tucson and we give you a tasty taste of their music. If you want to check out what’s happening around Tucson, check out Radio Club Crawl, Tuesdays 3 p .m. right here on KTDT Tucson, Arizona 99 .1 FM, Downtown Radio. Thank you very much. Enjoy your

evening. Bye bye. All right. Well, we’re wrapping up here. Episode 286. I keep trying to say 300. I want to get to that 300 number, but we’re 14 shows away. Episode 286, we had Todd Hanley on. He has been a fixture running Hotel Congress. And Hotel Congress then has branched out and done a lot with different festivals and heritage events, Pueblo de Maíz, the Dillinger Days, the Hoco Fest, and of course it was the launching point for the Agave Heritage Festival, which you just heard is in its 16th year, making its way from a very simple and humble cocktail contest, if you will, to now an international sensation that sounds like it might be moving to a year -round platform based upon what Todd was saying there. He made reference to a store front in downtown, and we’ve talked about having a place for all of this amazing ecotourism that we have in Tucson, and that we should have a central location where people can get information on this and we’re at the beginning stages I told him I’d do some

work on it so I think he was just needling me there a little bit to get me going which he did so I’ll do my job and start working on it. The other thing we kind of touched on briefly was Tucson Foodie which again Shane Reiser was our guest just a few weeks ago we got his video and audio up so it’s on our web page you can head over to Lifelongstreetcar .org, and then just put in Shane or Tucson Foodie, and it’ll pop up both the audio and video version of that interview. And again, just amazing things that they’re doing. You know, I kind of joked that we didn’t talk about the Agave Heritage Festival, but that’s because he was doing the beer crawl, we’ve got the vegan market coming up, and then he’s got the beginning stages of what next year will be an entire health and wellness festival surrounding lifestyle, food, and others. So Tucson Foodie is bringing it to the table and places, this partnership with people like Todd Hanley and those putting on the Agave Heritage Festival just really

make it a welcoming and warm environment for all of these things to take place. So I hope they continue to collaborate and just, I kind of feel like we’ve, and I talked about this in my interview with Shane, I kind of feel like we’ve set the table, I guess pun intended, we’ve set the table And now we’re really about to start to dig into some of these amazing events here in Tucson I thought we’d seen tremendous growth, but I think what I saw was just a foundation being laid and Yeah, anyway, it’s exciting Next week. We’re gonna talk about a new event center coming downtown and the ability to maybe work with Ben’s bells and get your name On a on a piece of the wall there But we’ll have more for that next Sunday And if there’s a topic you want us to cover something that you think we should be discussing Well, tell us, you know, you’re listening to a very hyper vocal show So you’re probably in tune with what’s happening around Tucson let us know through Instagram Facebook or head over to lifelong

streetcar .org and Use the contact button there. Well in just a few minutes stay tuned for Ted Przelski He interviews writers and others from the labor movement as part of his show words and work Tie Logan at the top of the hour and back into the music with speaker box X at 1

I want to remind you that James Portis is our production specialist. My name is Tom Heath I’m the host and producer and I want to thank Ryan hood as we do every week for the Courtesy to use their song Dillinger days as our opening music and we’re gonna leave you with some Beautiful music from a group from Brazil that Todd mentioned in his interview. It’s called Sombra Saizal. It’s a 13 -piece youth orchestra, and their instruments are made of the agave plant. And they’re going to be performing live here at the Agave Heritage Festival on night two. I hope you have a great week, and tune in next Sunday for more life along the streetcar.