Texan by Nature is excited to recognize Desert Door Texas Sotol (Desert Door) as a 2021 TxN 20 honoree for their leadership in conservation and sustainability. Desert Door’s commitment to conservation, their projects/programs, best practices, and lessons learned are an example and inspiration for us all.
Honoree Industry and Size: Food, Beverage, & Grocery – Small
Launched in November 2017, Desert Door Texas Sotol is the only commercial producer of sotol in the United States. Desert Door produces a line of sotol made from the Dasylirion texanum, or Desert Spoon plant, native to West Texas. Desert Door was founded by Texans Judson Kauffman, Ryan Campbell, and Brent Looby. The founders, all former service members of the United States military, met while attending The University of Texas McCombs School of Business.
“From the beginning, when we started this company, the biggest appeal, or the thing I think the three of us fell in love with was how this plant represents West Texas and more specifically, the land itself. All of our plants are wild harvested, and so for us, what’s so important is the sustainability of the plant. Whether that is through our harvesting techniques or through helping to support conservation efforts and education, so that the plant continues to be around as a long term source in the future for us. ”
– Ryan Campbell, CEO of Desert Door Texas Sotol
In just over three years of building this business with intention and authenticity at its core, Desert Door has grown exponentially. The brand uses sustainable practices, such as wild-harvesting as opposed to cultivating and farming with pesticides and herbicides. Wild-harvesting also preserves the biodiversity of an area because it does not require clearing large plots of land.
Desert Door sotol is available in two variations: The Original Desert Door Texas Sotol and a 100-proof Desert Door Oak-Aged Sotol, both of which can be found at retailers where Desert Door is sold. Desert Door also has an 8,000-square-feet distillery and tasting room located at 211 Darden Hill Road, Driftwood, Texas. The distillery, complete with a patio and event space offers craft cocktails and tastings. Desert Door earned the title of Best Specialty Craft Spirit Distillery by USA Today in both 2019 and 2020.
What is Desert Door’s conservation and sustainability mission and why is it important to your culture?
Desert Door Texas Sotol operates according to three core values: originality, authenticity, and connection. When the company was founded and began distilling wild-harvested sotol from West Texas, it was essential to make sure the land was preserved and restored to ensure this plant continues to thrive in the wild. Desert Door also wanted to tell others the story of the sotol plant, not only in the past, but in the present and for the future. Our story depends on the restoration and preservation of the wild lands of West Texas.
How is conservation and sustainability a part of Desert Door’s business strategy?
Desert Door Texas Sotol embeds conservation and sustainability in almost every aspect of our business. Beginning with production, our commitment to conservation and sustainability is a priority throughout the entire production process – from harvest through the manufacturing of Desert Door Texas Sotol. This commitment is evident in the significant investment Desert Door has made in both equipment, infrastructure, and human capital. Desert Door has developed and patented a system of highly efficient and sustainable manufacturing techniques and production systems/processes. Our conservation-focused harvesting and production practices have yielded positive results, such as an increase in water retention and a healthy balance of plant species on the land.
At Desert Door Texas Sotol, our employees are considered storytellers who share the history and importance of the wilds of Texas through the lens of conservation. We fully support and encourage our employees to develop a passion for and connection with Texas’ natural resources. All of our employees are engaged in conservation and sustainability efforts taking place within the distillery and on partnering ranches as a commitment to the company’s core values. Desert Door not only offers various opportunities for the team to engage in unique experiences in the wild, but we also support conservation initiatives proposed by our team members. This employee engagement strategy takes us back to our core values of authenticity and connection and helps us engage the community in conservation and sustainability.
What are your company’s short and long-term goals as they relate to conservation and sustainability?
At Desert Door distillery, we believe one of our most imperiled natural resources is land, the magnificent wide-open spaces described in Texas lore. The kind of land you find when you’re exploring the West Texas desert — which coincidentally, is where we stumbled upon the sotol plant and got inspired to create our signature product.
As such, Desert Door Texas Sotol has short- and long-term conservation and sustainability goals. Short-term, Desert Door plans to continue the development and improvement of our environmentally friendly harvesting and production practices, educate our staff and the community about land conservation and sustainability practices, and support land stewardship projects across the state of Texas. Long-term, we believe it’s important that these untamed, awesome expanses of land are preserved. That’s why we started Wild Spirit Wild Places, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to support conservation and land stewardship across Texas by funding the research, education, and practice of land conservation for generations to come.
Who in your company is leading your conservation and sustainability efforts and what are some examples of employee engagement in conservation and sustainability at your company?
From the beginning, the founders of Desert Door Texas Sotol agreed that the wild harvested sotol plant, a symbol for the wild lands of West Texas, is essential to the success of the company. The founders have led the company in developing and implementing conservation and sustainability efforts across all areas of the company. These efforts ensure that the plant is preserved and will continue to thrive in the wild. Desert Door also wanted to share the story of the sotol plant with others, making people feel a part of the sotol plant’s past, present, and future. The future of the sotol plant depends on the restoration and preservation of the sotol plant’s habitat, the wild lands of Texas.
The company’s founders have prioritized and maintained a commitment to conservation and sustainability by educating all employees about conservation to develop a deeper understanding of land conservation efforts and its positive impact. Desert Door Field Marketing Director, Bobbi Hitchon, has facilitated ongoing opportunities for professional learning. In 2020, Hitchon organized a field experience in which Desert Door employees supported a prescribed burn where they actively monitored the fire and provided meals for volunteers at the 7-Oaks Ranch. The prescribed fire fosters new plant growth, expands wildlife populations, and creates a healthy ecosystem. Desert Door employees also helped in juniper removal at the Spoke Hollow Ranch in Wimberly, Texas. Juniper removal improves rangeland function and watershed health. Desert Door provides additional educational opportunities for team members to visit ranches owned by the East Foundation, participate in mentored hunts with Stewards of the Wild, and explore archaeological sites with staff from the Shumla Foundation.
“I like to think that the 7 Oaks Ranch is about land and people. You have to have people to take care of the land. That’s what’s so special about meeting great people. Our conservation partners and the people we meet along the way help restore a balanced ecosystem. It’s really about fire, water, land, and people.”
-Philip Walker described the significance of the support from Desert Door to complete a prescribed burn on the Ward Walker 7-Oaks Ranch in Ozona, Texas
“Conservation is something we all benefit from….The land needs to undergo conservation, which means protecting the natural resources and elevating it to the highest level. The benefit of having land around us that is protected and elevated to the highest level is that it creates clean air and clean water. Those two things are the very foundation of life itself– Without them, there would be no life”.
-Josh Crumpton of Spoke Hollow Ranch in Wimberly, Texas also spoke of the importance of the conservation work supported by Desert Door
What conservation and sustainability programs and projects does your company lead and participate in?
Dedicated Desert Door staff led the development of apiaries at both the Desert Door and Spoke Hollow ranches. In 2020, a hive was found in the exterior walls of the dilapidated homestead on the Desert Door ranch. In partnership with Desert Door, a couple of West Texas beekeepers helped move the hive into Langstroth boxes. This first experience yielded some old beeswax, which was rendered to make salve. The salve was sold in the Desert Door Cargo space to raise money to add more hives to the apiary. At this time, there are three hives, and a longitudinal plan has been developed to create a large colony on the ranch. Desert Door also sponsored a beekeeping apprenticeship for staff, so the Desert Door hives could be well-managed. This course was taught by a local beekeeper.
Since the beginning, Desert Door has been dedicated to educating consumers about native plants, their uses, and why they are fundamental to our land. Various members of the Desert Door team have conducted plant walks focused on the identification and use of regional plants, inspiring others to learn more. Our brand designer created field guides with illustrations of various native plants and different facts about each to support and encourage learning. In the field guide, participants can make notes about what they were observing and record plant-specific attributes, uses, and other interesting facts.
While Covid-19 prevented community members from gathering in 2020, Desert Door staff wanted to find a way to connect with the community by creating a seed exchange. Its purpose was to inspire Austin community members to create their own gardens. Personal gardening helps to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, waste from food packaging materials, and harmful chemicals polluting waterways and the rest of the environment. Desert Door staff worked with a couple local chefs as farmers to erect a seed exchange at Eden East in Austin. The Desert Door production team worked together to build the box, and Desert Door purchased the first order of seed packets so the public’s first seed exchange was free.
How do you see the future of conservation and sustainability evolving, and what role will Desert Door play in that progress?
The future of conservation and sustainability is becoming increasingly important to Texas and across the world. Due to rapid growth and development, our wide expanses of land across the country are in danger of disappearing. This loss has profound effects on the Texas landscape, altering natural habitats and increasing pressure on natural resources throughout the state. However, we can take action to mitigate these circumstances and preserve the land for generations to come.
In July 2020, Desert Door Texas Sotol launched its nonprofit Wild Spirit Wild Places. Desert Door created this 501(c)(3) organization to support conservation and land stewardship across Texas and the U.S. by funding the research, education, and practice of land conservation for generations to come. Additionally, the Wild Spirit Wild Places land conservation projects will provide opportunities for the public to participate as well as inspire future limited-edition releases of Desert Door. A portion of the proceeds from these limited Desert Door variations will directly fund Wild Spirit Wild Places’ future land conservation projects.
Wild Spirit Wild Places exists to protect these dwindling ranch lands and rangelands. Through this effort, Wild Spirit Wild Places will educate the public on the true ecological and economic value of conserved lands, fund and facilitate research to advance land stewardship, and organize specific actions to help restore weakened and damaged acreage. The motivation is simple — we don’t want to sit idly by while Texas’ wild places disappear.
How does Desert Door quantify investment and return on conservation and sustainability?
Desert Door Texas Sotol has not quantified an overall financial return on the company’s conservation or sustainability efforts. However, we firmly believe there is a significant return on investment in terms of finances, community and employee engagement, and natural resources.
To date, Desert Door has produced two limited releases of Desert Door Texas Sotol named after conservation projects at selected sites – Backburn Conservation Series #1 and Spoke Hollow Conservation Series #2. Overall production costs for these limited release conservation series were approximately $77,000, of which $35,000 was returned to fund conservation efforts conducted by Wild Spirit Wild Places. Going forward, Desert Door will release new versions of its sotol spirit specific to each new conservation project to fund new conservation projects each year.
Outcomes of the company’s investment in conservation and sustainability efforts in terms of community and employee engagement is anecdotal at this time. Desert Door appears to have a lower staff turnover rate compared with other similar companies, providing the company with hiring and training savings. Desert Door attributes this lower turnover rate to employee reports of feeling connected to the land and the sotol plant and valuing the environmental consciousness as the company conducts business. Additionally, consumers often report they are compelled to continue purchasing Desert Door Texas Sotol, not only because they enjoy it, but also because they are supportive of the company’s conservation and sustainability efforts.
Desert Door invested in environmentally friendly equipment and systems to support harvesting and production practices. Major capital investments at the manufacturing plant included a rainwater catchment system, production equipment (e.g., boilers, cookers, screw press), water holding tank, and a wastewater management system that contributes directly to water conservation in production. The holding tank alone saved an estimated 20,000 gallons of water in 2020.
Desert Door strategically wild harvests sotol plants that meet specific selection criteria to ensure the plant’s sustainability in the wild and to aid in the management of an often invasive plant species. Each sotol plant requires about 12” of water per year. When Desert Door harvests the sotol plant, it is estimated that 12” of water per plant is saved. Based on this calculation, Desert Door retained an estimated 145,169 gallons of water out on the West Texas landscape.
What is the one lesson that Desert Door has learned from your conservation and sustainability efforts that others can take back and think about applying within their own space?
Since the beginning, Desert Door has been dedicated to educating our consumers about native plants, their uses, and why they are fundamental to our land. Desert Door staff have encouraged others to identify and use native plants in their own yards and on their lands. Native plants provide many benefits to people and wildlife, and they contribute to healthy soil and water in urban and rural areas. Specifically, native plants require less fertilizer, pesticides, and water. They contribute to clean air and food for wildlife, and they support pollinators.
Additionally, Desert Door seeks to create community engagement around land stewardship. Individual properties and public spaces are an interconnected part of the environment. These include our own yards, parks, roadsides, schoolyards, etc. Thoughtful environmental stewardship of these places have an important impact on our air, streams, wetlands, lakes, and wildlife. Everyone has a critical role.
Why is Texas an important home or base of operations for Desert Door?
Desert Door founders share a passion for wild authenticity and the deliberateness of craft. When these three Texans and military veterans connected at The University of Texas MBA program, they knew they had to resurrect and share the unique story of the native Texas sotol plant.This plant has thousands of years of history, and it plays a large role in the culture of West Texas residents. In remote areas of Texas, rock art depicts the importance of sotol to native peoples who used the plant for daily life and ceremonial purposes. When Desert Door Texas Sotol was founded and began distilling, it was essential to make sure the land of West Texas was preserved to ensure this plant continues to thrive in the wild.
Learn more about Desert Door’s conservation and sustainability efforts here.
Desert Door employees supported a prescribed burn at the 7-Oaks Ranch in Ozona, Texas and helped with juniper removal at the Spoke Hollow Ranch in Wimberly, Texas.
Desert Door’s limited releases of Backburn Conservation Series #1 and Spoke Hollow Conservation Series #2 overall production costs were approximately $77,000, of which $35,000 was returned to fund conservation efforts conducted by Wild Spirit Wild Places. Going forward, Desert Door will release new versions of its sotol spirit specific to each new conservation project to fund new conservation projects each year.
Capital investments at the manufacturing plant included a rainwater catchment system, production equipment, water holding tank, and a wastewater management system that contributes directly to water conservation in production. The holding tank alone saved an estimated 20,000 gallons of water in 2020.
Desert Door started Wild Spirit Wild Places, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to support conservation and land stewardship across Texas by funding the research, education, and practice of land conservation for generations to come.
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