Paul “Reppo” Chavez surveys his agave crop on a sunny morning in Yolo County, north of Sacramento, California. His largest plants sit at the top of a hillside, while the youngest and smallest are down by the road. “They look real good,” he says, nodding. The plants’ giant leaves are arranged like the petals of an open rose, but they’re as sharp as eagle talons reaching out of the earth. Chavez and many others who drive by find the agave field striking. Cyclists out for rides stop to take photos. Mexican American girls celebrating their quinceañeras pose in glimmering gowns among the plants, which stand out as strikingly different from the olive, citrus, and almond orchards typically blanketing California farmland.
Chavez, a native of Tonaya, Mexico—where mezcal is produced—grew up with agave growing in every direction and learned the skills of a jimador, or agave farmer, from relatives.