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HE FOUND HIS CALLING IN CACTUS

And his business just might be keeping rare wild plants out of the hands of poachers.

To connoisseurs of cactus, Steven Brack is the prince of prickly, the sultan of succulents - the man who keeps them flush with seeds both rare and common.

His kingdom of cacti sits on a sandy patch of desert atop a mesa in the heart of New Mexico. He guesses he's about the only full-time producer and exporter of cactus and succulent seeds in North America.

His business, Mesa Garden, might be helping to protect species of rare cacti from poachers.

"It's not worth it anymore because of all the work tramping around in the heat and the hard conditions," Brack says of cactus poaching.

"Another factor is the ethics of the growers. Most growers won't touch the selling of wild plants."

His 14 greenhouses - which he cobbled together with boards and sheets of plastic - hold about 15,000 kinds of plants in a rainbow of colors. Each year, Mesa Garden ships about 150,000 seed packets and about 35,000 live plants, Brack said.

One day, packages were ready to be mailed to Ukraine, Britain, Brazil, Romania, South Korea and China. The previous day, he sent 500,000 seeds to China, which accounts for almost 40 percent of his business.

"They're crazy about American culture in general, and there's a lot of interest in American plants," Brack said.

Sales to Europe total about 30 percent, while Russia accounts for about 20 percent and the United States makes up the rest.

"I think people want to have something new and exotic and unusual," Brack said.

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