A small North Carolina-based specialty crops company is trying to turn a humble wildflower into a major new oilseed crop that could produce an alternative to coconut and palm oils.
CHARLESTON, S.C. A small North Carolina-based specialty crops company is trying to turn a humble wildflower into a major new oilseed crop that could produce an alternative to coconut and palm oils.
After 20 years in development, cuphea (koo-FEE-ah) will start its second planting this spring in the Midwestern United States.
"It's grown (as a crop) nowhere else in the world," said Andrew Hebard, chief executive of Technology Crops International in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is leading the commercialization of cuphea.
The plant's seeds contain novel fatty acids along with lauric acid, which is used as a wetting and foaming agent in soaps, detergents, shampoos, toothpaste and even airplane fuel.
The world market for lauric oil was about 4.5 million tons in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are widely available, according to market reports. The United States consumed about 1.5 million tons of that, mostly from Southeast Asia.
Cuphea could reduce U.S. reliance on imported tropical oils like palm and coconut. It could also cut dependency on some petrochemicals and give American farmers a new crop to rotate with corn.
Partners in the development of cuphea include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Western Illinois University, the University of Georgia, TCI and the chemicals division of Procter & Gamble Co., cuphea's main industrial sponsor.
The first commercial crop, in 2005, was small -- about 100 acres. But judging from industrial demand, Hebard said there was potential for that to grow eventually to hundreds of thousands of acres, if the economics can be made to work.
"There's a lot of interest from other countries to grow it," said Dr. Terry Isbell, research leader in the new crops and processing technology unit at the U.S. Agriculture Department in Peoria, Illinois. "It's going to have a very large number of applications. Once it's established and developed, the interest will continue to grow."
VIABLE NEW RAW MATERIALS FOR POWER AND ENERGY?
Hebard, an agricultural scientist from Cambridge, England, bought out U.S.-based Kings Ltd. and moved to North Carolina in 2002 to form Technology Crops International. It has added a Midwest office in Fargo, North Dakota. A British office, Technology Crops Ltd., is located in Braintree, Essex.
Hebard said Technology Crops International has 16 employees and manages crops on up to 5,000 farms worldwide with the help of independent farm agents.
The crops TCI manages are used for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics or specialty nutrition. They include high erucic acid rapeseed, crambe, high oleic sunflower, high oleic canola, echium, camelina, borage and lesquerella.
Lesquerella, which produces an oil and fatty acids useful to the biofuel and biolubricant industries and the personal care industry, is another new commercial plant being developed by TCI.
"We try to find new crops to bring to the grower," Hebard said. "They have to be sustainable and have traceability -- soil to oil. For example, we can trace a soft-gel capsule of oil all the way back to the field it was grown in."
As demand increases for renewable energy, Hebard said he sees the new oils in cuphea, lesquerella and other specialty crops as sustainable and economically viable new raw materials for power and energy.
"We're looking for new raw material that can be processed into biodiesel fuel," he said, especially crops that are not also used in the food industry.
A product like Willie Nelson's BioWillie Diesel, for example, uses soybeans, which also are used for food and animal feed.
"When Willie Nelson puts his soybeans in his truck, he's competing with the food market," Hebard said.
PERSUADING FARMERS TO TRY NEW CROPS
TCI provides the seed, contracts with farmers, checks on the fields, buys the yield and supplies it to a processing plant where they crush the seeds and extract the oil.
"The challenge is a grower can grow one of quite a few different crops on his land," Hebard said. "Wheat or corn or beans or canola or flax. We've got to persuade him to grow these new crops. He looks at these with a degree of enthusiasm and a degree of risk. Farmers are generally very traditional."
USDA's Isbell agreed. "Not every farmer is going to be ready to tackle this yet," he said. "There's no crop insurance. It's a risk ... Less than 5 percent of crops grown worldwide are grown for tech uses."
However, "these new crops offer unique chemistries that traditional crops don't," Isbell said.
The introduction of new crops like cuphea from domesticated wild plants is rare, he said.
"This is a very difficult process, to go from wild plant to a fully mature, harvestable, plantable thing that industry is interested in," he said. "It doesn't happen often. There are a lot of false starts."
And the growing, Hebard said, is trial-and-error: "Do you plant it on April 1 or May 1? It's important.
"We go into the fields, get the data, talk to the farmer and then find out he did it under a waxing moon, and the whales were leaping in the bay, and his crop did really well. So all good to the whales!" he said, laughing. "But seriously, there are many climatic and geographic issues that impact a crop's performance, and we try to identify and quantify the fact and fiction."