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Alternative crops like sunflowers performed well for producers despite good prices for traditional crop leading to reduced acres. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo.)

Alternative crops like sunflowers and black-eyed peas experienced a mixed bag of production and market conditions this season, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

Some crops are showing their value within opportunistic growers’ portfolios, while others’ potential continues to rise as their popularity increases among consumers.

Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Lubbock, said alternative crop acres dipped somewhat due to good prices among traditional commodity crops like corn, sorghum and cotton.

Farmers who typically grew confectionary sunflower and sesame seed reduced alternative acres or dropped the crops for the 2021 season altogether to take advantage of higher prices elsewhere, Trostle said. But alternative crops also made gains from technologies that will increase efficiency and new products that could translate into increased market demand.

“Alternative crops are typically grown as part of a producer’s rotation schedule, but some of them are showing more and more potential,” he said. “It is difficult for these crops to compete with large commodity crops in acres, but for a grower, they represent options that can improve the soil and bottom line.”

Sunflowers

Texas sunflower acres dropped to between 30,000 and 40,000 acres compared to 50,000 in 2020, Trostle said. Sunflower prices were good and kept pace with traditional crops, but buyer contracts were scarce for confectionary sunflower.

Contracts for oilseed sunflowers were enhanced by a single buyer who buys a range of Texas grain and seed crops for export to Mexico to meet demand there, he said.

There was also some sunflower demand from a bird food-packaging operation in Central Texas that finds better prices on Texas sunflower seeds compared to paying for out-of-state imports, Trostle said.

Sesame

Sesame probably struggled the most, Trostle said. Prices were above normal relative to historic sesame markets but could not compete proportionally with other crops.

Trostle said acres dropped as producers took other options. Last year, growers planted more than 50,000 acres in Texas.

The crop is the No. 4 oilseed globally, but it is a delicate crop that continues to be hand-harvested throughout most of the rest of the world because traditional varieties shatter their seed, which makes mechanical harvest difficult. Texas producers have a technological advantage over international producers because of recent advancements in non-shattering plant varieties and the use of harvesting equipment that separates seeds from the pods with little yield loss.

One positive note for sesame’s future, Trostle said, is that another non-shattering variety has shown potential in Texas. The non-shattering varieties and new products such as tahini continue to gain consumer interest.

“There could be some opportunities for some growers in North Texas because there is a proposed processing plant in Oklahoma,” he said. “Sesame is one of those crops that could be interesting because certain products are driving demand higher.”

Guar

Guar’s struggles continue, Trostle said. Guar seeds produce a polymer gum and emulsifier used in oilfields, cosmetics and some foods, Trostle said. It experienced a bump in demand as fracking emerged as a cost-effective way to regenerate abandoned oil wells.

Prices collapsed after a high run-up that ended in 2013, and guar lost traction among other products, Trostle said. There is still some organic production of guar in Texas, but it was not contracted in Texas for 2021.

A potential boon for future guar prospects is current U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency work that could bring federal program crop insurance to guar by 2023.

“The source material is inexpensive, and if the price goes too high, product makers and manufacturers find other alternatives to use,” he said.

Black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas and beans average around 30,000-40,000 acres, but the crop turned out to be a good opportunity for growers south of Lubbock, Trostle said.

A large hailstorm in June devastated tens of thousands of cotton acres past the window to replant, he said. Black-eyed peas were an option for any grower with experience, as supply and demand economics worked in their favor.

California’s vegetable crops, including peas and beans, suffered heavily due to drought and water restrictions, which left a supply void filled by Texas growers, Trostle said.

Seed and buyer contracts were readily available to growers with experience with peas, he said.

“Peas are a lesser alternative crop but are a great option for rotation because they are a legume,” Trostle said. “It’s also a short-season crop with modest water requirements compared to peanuts. It is a favorable outcome as black-eyes are doing well this year, and next season cotton will follow legumes.”

Alternative food crop future looks bright

Trostle said he expects a continued evolution in the future for alternative crops here in Texas and beyond. The American Society of Agronomy has recently added balanced nutrition in foods to its standards related to food supplies and security.

“The emphasis has been food security for a long time, but now they are looking at the importance of nutritional security and foods that provide balanced nutrition and health benefits,” he said. “Anthocyanins for instance provide anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory anti-cancer benefits, and some of our alternative crops represent food options that have a much higher nutritional density than other traditional crops.”

Trostle said producers are likely to see increased opportunity to expand their crop-growing potential by gaining experience and building relationships with buyers as market demand continues to grow.

Landing a contract and contract renewal rates favor experience and reliability, Trostle said. Building knowledge and know-how and a reputation as a reliable grower who can meet demand on a variety of high-demand crops can add value to a producer’s bottom line in a range of circumstance any given growing season.

“The key with alternative crops is for producers to experiment with a portion of their land to increase their opportunity by learning how to grow something new,” he said. “It can be for rotation or just to experiment, but the learning experience of success or failure and improving on what they get right or learning from what they get wrong can lead to new opportunities that might relieve the pressure on an operation when weather or market conditions are working against it.”

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