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Wanted: growers with a pioneering spirit

By Doug Rich

"It was fun to try something different; it was like the pioneering spirit," Karl Retzlaff said. Retzlaff was talking about his experience growing specialty crops on his farm near Morris, Minn.

Farmers plant specialty crops for different reasons. Some are looking for a premium on a few acres to improve their bottom line. Others are looking for a crop to rotate with their commercial crops of corn, soybean, or wheat. Then there are others who just like trying something different.

There are several interesting specialty crops available right now. Some are for contract production on just a few acres, and others have the opportunity to break out as commercial crops and cover thousands of acres.

Contract growers

Technology Crops International is a privately held corporation based in North Carolina that works with producers and end users on a number of specialty crops. TCI has offices in North Dakota, Canada, and Europe and is establishing new locations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.

"Our business is managing the contract growing and the supply chain in specialty oil seed for high-value niche applications where our customers would rather not rely on the open market to source their raw material," said Andrew Hebard, president and CEO of TCI.

Hebard said they try to pay enough of a premium to attract farmers to grow their crops year after year. They make sure their customers get what they want in terms of oil supplies because it can't be sourced on the open market.

Lesquerella, a domestic replacement for castor oil, is one of the crops TCI handles. The oil from this plant is also being considered for use as biolubricant and by the plastics industry. Hebard said a crop that is well suited to the High Plains region is high erucic acid rapeseed. The oil from HEAR is used by the pharmaceutical industry and the plastic industry.

TCI just introduced a new type of sunflower this year, called high stearic sunflower. Hebard said this plant produces oil that is perfect for the food industry to replace transfats and reduce the dependence on imported tropical oils. TCI took oil from this crop to a food industry show in Chicago this summer.

"This will be a really valuable premium food oil and very different from regular sunflowers," Hebard said.

TCI contracted with growers in Texas and Kansas this year and expect to see a significant increase in production next year.

Research

Russell Gesch, USDA Agricultural Research Service research plant physiologist in Morris, Minn., has been growing several different specialty crops to see how they fit into crop rotations, determine fertilizer requirements, and other agronomic issues. Among the crops he has grown at the station are camelina, calendula, and pennycress.

"We develop best management practices for these crops," Gesch said.

Gesch said camelina is gaining a lot of interest here in the U.S. as an oil seed crop that can be cheaply produced, has high oil content, and can be used for biofuels. While it is a relatively new crop in the U.S., camelina has been grown for many years in Europe, where they have developed improved varieties.

"There are very few crops like corn and soybeans that have a lot of money invested in improved varieties," Gesch said.

Gesch has been working with calendula, a member of the marigold family. It has been grown for some time on a small scale in Europe, where the oil from its flowers has been used in burn creams.

"We are working with it here because the oil of its seed can be used to replace volatile organic compounds," Gesch said.

Volatile organic compounds are used as drying agents in paints and pesticides. The oil of calendula seeds oxidizes rapidly, so it can be used to replace VOCs. Gesch said it grows very well in the upper Midwest.

Pennycress

Terry Isbell, bio-oils researcher at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research station in Peoria, Ill., is working with several crops including lesquerella, meadowfoam, cuphea, camelina, canola, pennycress and crambe.

"We try to develop end uses for all of these crops, but we get involved from the very beginning with germplasm collection and evaluation," Isbell said. "We establish some agronomic parameters so farmers can get started."

Pennycress, a member of the mustard family, has the most potential to take off and become an oil seed crop. Isbell said pennycress is attracting a lot of attention because it grows off-season in between corn and soybeans.

"You are not displacing a current production crop but squeezing it in between them," Isbell said.

Brad Glenn, a farmer from Bloomington, Ill., grew 300 acres of pennycress this past winter. Glenn said pennycress is a winter annual, like winter wheat, and they really want to get it planted in September.

"Just like winter wheat, we want it to get a good start in the fall for best yield potential in the spring," Glenn said.

Weather conditions last year did not allow that to happen. It was very wet and corn harvest was delayed, which meant Glenn was not able to plant the pennycress in a timely manner. He aerial seeded almost all of the pennycress he planted last fall. Late wet conditions resulted in poor fall germination with most of the crop germinating in the spring. The question was whether the crop would reproduce at all.

Generally, pennycress is ready for harvest late in May or early June. Glenn said it is a heat degree crop just like corn, and the warmer the weather the faster it will reach harvest.

The plan is to plant after corn and follow with a full-season soybean crop. To some extent, this deflates the food-versus-fuel debate.

Pennycress seed has two times more oil content than soybeans seed, and from a biodiesel point of view the oil has the same chemical properties as soybean oil. Gesch, who has been working with pennycress, said the crop has a harvest index of 40 percent in the wild, which is very good compared to developed crops such as corn and soybeans that have a harvest index of 50 to 60 percent. It produces a lot of seed with high oil content that lends itself to making high-quality biodiesel fuel.

Glenn said he farms about as far north as pennycress can be grown successfully in a double-crop situation. Any farther north and you begin to give up too much yield on the soybean end of the equation. Glenn thinks the crop can be grown from locations in Illinois south to I-70 and west into Nebraska and Kansas.

"It needs a cold dormancy period, but we don't know how cold and how long. Remember, this is still an experimental crop," Glenn said.

If you have a pioneering spirit, specialty crops like these might be worth a try. Don't bet the whole farm, however. While some of these crops could become large-scale commercial crops, others have a limited market and are grown on contract only for specific markets.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.



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