Is This the Crop That Saves Florida Agriculture?

by Tom Schenk

If you’ve driven through central and southern Florida over the last several years, you may have wondered why much of the land that used to grow oranges and grapefruit in central and southern Florida now sits fallow and choked with weeds? Most people are aware of the fatal citrus greening disease that has caused one of the greatest agricultural disasters in US history. Almost every remaining grove in the Sunshine State is infected with this disease as researchers struggle to find a cure with little to show for results.

In 2017, the growers who were still in the game were spending between $1,500-$2,500 per acre in expenses to coax a profitable citrus crop out of their dying groves. These efforts were met with almost ideal growing conditions and by all accounts it appeared that their efforts would be rewarded with one of the best crops they’d seen in years.

Until the arrival of Hurricane Irma which went through Florida like a chainsaw leaving no grove untouched.

Damage reports indicate that half or more of the unripen fruit is now laying on the ground while what remains in the trees is bruised or will eventually drop off in the coming weeks.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, many groves were left standing in water far beyond the critical 72 hours which is almost always fatal for citrus trees.

Directly and indirectly, Florida’s citrus industry creates almost 45,000 jobs which translate to almost a $9 billion contribution into Florida’s economy. Today’s citrus industry has shrunk by well over half from its peak in the late ‘90’s leaving rural towns and communities distressed and struggling to survive as families and individuals move away to find work elsewhere.  There are only 7 remaining processing plants in the state and it is highly questionable how many will remain open and viable when ultimate crop losses may be as high as 80%-90%.  There’s a point where it does not make economic sense to salvage the remaining fruit in a grove or open a processing assembly line for the smallest harvest since the 1940’s. Like any commercial real estate, ag land is generally priced as a function of its income earning value plus any development potential. Citrus grove and that used to be valued at $10,000 – $15,000 or more per acre now sells for less than half to a third of that.

But why can’t some other crop fill this void?  It’s not for lack of trying.

South Florida’s hundreds of thousands of acres of sandy, shallow soils and rainy climate narrow the field of viable crops that can be profitably grown in those conditions.  Afternoon rains continually flush fertilizers and chemicals out of the soils, into the drainage canals, and ultimately Florida’s coastal estuaries and Everglades. In spite of these challenges, many growers and outside investors have ventured into some alternative specialty crops such as peaches, blueberries, tomatoes, and strawberries.  Establishment costs, however, are very high.  In the case of blueberries, it could exceed $15,000 per acre! To make matters worse, growers have found themselves struggling with a diminishing supply of farm labor. And finally, whenever prices spike higher from either early season prices or if there is a production shortfall, floods of cheaper imports arrive in a matter of days from Mexico and South America.

  • So what can work in Florida’s unique agricultural ecosystem?

There is one ray of hope that shows great promise of restoring ag land values and revitalizing business in South Florida’s rural towns.  In 2011, an enterprising group of entrepreneurs from a company called TerViva began approaching some of the state’s largest citrus growers to establish some trial sites with a tropical/subtropical tree crop called pongamia. Pongamia is an oilseed tree that is native to Australia and India.  Conceptually, the crop is like growing soybeans on trees, but at yields 8x-10x over the best Iowa farmland. Pongamia is not new to Florida.  At the turn of the last century, it was introduced as a landscaping ornamental and today a few of these trees can still be found along the turnpike, shopping centers, and in parks in south Florida.

Creating a viable agricultural industry from scratch is not an easy task, but it has been done.  Soybeans were unheard of until they were introduced in the early 1930’s and palm oil trees were developed from the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia after WWII.  Interestingly, products from pongamia are thriving industries in India where the oil is used for industrial applications like fuel, lubricants, paints, surfactants, biopesticidal horticultural sprays, and more.  The “cake” or “meal” that remains after the oil is extracted is coveted as a great fertilizer that releases its nitrogen slowly so a plant can utilize it better. In India it is used to suppress soil-borne pests like nematodes that are the arch enemy of many of our food crops.

So what is the path to prove the viability of a new crop in the US – especially in such a challenging geography as Florida? Below is a checklist of the gauntlet it had to run.

  • Will the tree grow here?

This was the first order of business TerViva set out to prove to growers when they arrived in 2011.  The first grower who would listen to them was Ron Edwards CEO of Vero Beach – based Evans Properties. Edwards, former COO of Tropicana and co-founder of SoBe Beverages and Blue Buffalo Pet Foods, has a track record of spotting a good management team, a good business model, and an idea that had a good shot of succeeding.  Skepticism was high so Terviva offered to split the costs of the first trials.

The result was beyond expectations.  Growers such as Graves Brothers, US Sugar/Southern Gardens, DNE, Alico, Mosaic and others soon followed.  Around the state, the tree grew well in diverse sites with sandy soils, toxic soils, saline soils, and even Mosaic’s challenging clay reclamation soils. In 4 years the trees were 10’ to 16’ in height.

 

FSG_June2017-1

Pongamia orchard in Florida – Photo by TerViva

The trials have shown that these trees survived hurricanes Mathew and Irma, 2 weeks in standing water, frosts, non-irrigated fields, poor soils, higher-salinity irrigation not suited for most other crops, sand, clay, pests, and heat. Indeed, pongamia can deal with Florida’s challenging climate and soils..

  • What are the costs to grow it?

Establishment costs are very similar to citrus.  Indeed, the first thing that growers noticed was that the tree could literally be dropped right into the existing citrus infrastructure. The trees cost about the same as citrus and the planting densities are equal to or slightly less than citrus. Some growers literally planted between the stumps of former orange trees. To date in Florida, no pesticides have been used.  This hardy tree has grown through a laundry list of tropical and subtropical pests that growers spend millions of dollars on to control.  The biggest annual expense is weed maintenance until that young tree can get some height and eventually shade out a lot of the undergrowth which can subsequently be managed with mowing. So annual maintenance costs tally to about $400-$500 per acre – about one third or one fourth of what citrus currently spend.  Some growers used a small amount of fertilizer, and many used none at all.  Pongamia is a legume so it enriches the soil by making its own nitrogen.

  • How is it harvested?

Almost all of the fruit and vegetable crops grown in Florida need manual farm labor and every year that has been more difficult and costly to come by. Conversely, a crew of 2 and a nut tree shaker like those used on pistachios or almonds can harvest a pongamia tree in 3-5 seconds.  Those cost benefits accrue directly to the bottom line.  For the past 2 years as some of the young trees have produced pods early, Terviva has put on grower demos to show how easy and fast the tree can be harvested.

  • Who’s going to process it?

The beauty of the pongamia industry is that everything about it is low-tech. The tree puts out a pod that is easily shelled with a nut sheller and crushed with conventional soybean crushing equipment.  It doesn’t require elaborate $100 million processing plants or exotic enzyme formulations to make it work. The bean inside that pod looks about the size and shape as a lima bean.  It consists of about 40% oil and the 60% balance is the remaining seedcake. In 2017, the forward-thinking Hardee County IDA and its head, Bill Lambert, unanimously voted to build the first pongamia crushing plant in Florida. Because of the elite varieties that Terviva is cultivating at various commercial greenhouses in the state, an acre of their trees is conservatively estimated to yield about 400 gallons of oil and almost 3 tons of seedcake!

  • Who’s going to buy the products?

This is where it gets interesting. There is a long buffet of diverse markets for this oilseed tree crop and therein lies one of its greatest advantages.  These profitable markets range at the low end from a feedstock for industrial oils, to feed, and all the way up to highly-valued biocontrol products for the organic agriculture.  Organic growers have long been familiar with the benefits of pongamia’s oil and meal products under the Indian name karanja.

Like soy, pongamia oil is a long-chain C18:1 compound that can readily be refined into biodiesel or bio-jet A fuel.  Those tests have been tested and validated by Shell, Valero, REG, and ARA Labs. Refiners view a pongamia crop in Florida as a new oilfield that faithfully produces oil every year. Fuel is the base-case end market and can produce fine investment returns.

Classified as a politically correct “non-food” feedstock it can be used to make biodegradable polymers such as fracking fluids, plastics, detergents, paints, and other industrial products.  Secondary compounds found in the oil have documented and long used in India as extraordinarily effective biopesticides as good as or more effective than more commonly known neem products that are widely used by organic farmers, gardeners, and in the fast growing cannabis industry.  Because of the lack of need for inorganic chemicals used in growing pongamia, these high-value end-products are in growing demand by organic feed and growing operations. Sales into these channels alone can double or triple the value of the cake and oil.

The seedcake or meal can be further refined to produce a (30%) high-protein animal feed, or simply be used as an environmentally-friendly, slow-release 4-1-1 fertilizer that plants can better utilize.  Because the backbone of the oil shares similar properties to various food oils, scientists have told Terviva that the secondary compounds could be stripped out to upgrade the oil to “food quality” which could be of great value in parts of the world where pongamia could be grown on a footprint not adaptable to traditional oilseed crops.

  • Bus 101

The arrival of the pongamia farming model into the staggering agricultural void created by the citrus greening disease could be a classic business school case study.  The trail has been blazed.  A deeper dive into this business model reveals some very unique attributes.  The trees high yields offer an extraordinary margin for error in any given crop year.  For many alternative oilseed row crops planted elsewhere in the US (often as a new rotational crop), the entire growing season can tolerate few hiccups or else the yields will have a difficult time justifying the risks of planting and new machinery investments.  Pongamia’s low annual maintenance costs also allow a lot of margin for adverse weather surprises.  Pongamia’s diverse downstream markets mitigate marketing risks.  Low-tech processing that can create products from fuel and feed to fertilizer and biocontrol horticultural sprays can allow plenty of flexibility to target up-cycling markets and reduce dependency on single consumer markets.  And depending on those markets, Terviva estimates that at maturity, the groves could generate a net income between $700- $1,500 per acre.

What would the ideal replacement crop look like if it showed up at growers’ doorstep? Probably something like pongamia.

The Alchemy of Nitrogen-Fixation

By Kevin Hancock

With an ever-increasing world population comes an increased demand for food, fuel, and fiber. Land, water, and energy resources are becoming scarcer. Nitrogen is abundant worldwide, and is needed for the growth of most plant species. The majority of the world’s nitrogen is in the gaseous form, which cannot be utilized by most plants. This means that most plants must rely on additions of synthetic fertilizers to supply the needed nutrients.

There are very few plant species that are capable of fixing atmospheric, N2 gas, converting it into a usable form like ammonia, and storing it in root tissue. These plants are referred to as nitrogen-fixing. Symbiotic nitrogen-fixation (snf), which occurs naturally in some leguminous crops, can play a vital role in transforming atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonia that can be utilized by these plants.

Biological reduction to ammonia can only be performed by prokaryotes and is a highly oxygen-sensitive process. Symbiotic interactions between prokaryote partners occur in two groups of soil bacteria — rhizobia in symbioses in legumes and Frankia bacteria in actinorhizal symbioses.

Snf is highly important in the production of biofuel feedstocks. Many current plants which produce abundant amounts of biofuels such as oil palm, canola, and corn are not nitrogen-fixers and consequently they rely on inorganic nitrogen fertilizers. Every step in the production, delivery and application of nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels. Even though the formation of fossil fuels occurs naturally through anerobic decomposition of plants and animals, they are not considered renewable sources of energy.  Decomposition takes millions of years to form large enough quantities of fossil fuels. Those reserves are being depleted at a much higher rate than they are being formed.

The problem with the use of synthetic fertilizers is that plants only absorb a small percentage of applied fertilizer at any one time. The remainder of the applied fertilizer (30-50%) is subject to runoff, volatilization, and are leached beyond the root zone or denitrified. In many areas this can create algae blooms and eutrophication – a condition of high concentration of nutrients, but low oxygen levels. For example, Lake Okeechobee in Florida is experiencing this due to nutrient runoff from adjacent croplands.

Snf reduces the plant’s dependence on inorganic nitrogen sources and can provide a substitute for nitrogen fertilizers, thus reducing costs and helping the environment at the same time. Biological nitrogen fixation has been estimated to produce approximately 200 million tons of nitrogen annually.

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Leguminous root nodules – PC: NMSU

It would be very beneficial to humanity as well as the environment if all agriculturally important plants were capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen.  Although a lot is still unknown, a lot of work has been conducted to better understand the intricacies involved in symbiotic nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen-fixation is composed of 3 components; first, the formation of nodules which provide the correct environment for nitrogen-fixing bacteria; second, the regulation of nodule numbers by both internal and external factors, and third, the actual conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia by the invading bacteria using the nitrogenase enzyme complex.

Nitrogen-fixing plants are not capable of extracting N2 gas directly from the atmosphere, they work in concert with common soil bacteria called Rhizobium. Rhizobia attached to root hairs, induce a pronounced curling of root hair cells. The root hair becomes deformed and the bacteria enter the plant by a newly formed infection thread growing through it. At this same time, cortical root cells are mitotically activated giving rise to the nodule primordium. Infection threads will grow towards the primordium and the bacteria are released into the cytoplasm of the host cells. The bacteria become encapsulated in the small compartment formed by the curling. The bacteria enter the plant’s root system and form nodules along the root pathway. The plant supplies all the essential nutrients as well as energy to the bacteria. Within a week after infection, nodules will become visible by the naked eye. Under field studies, nodules appear within 2-3 weeks. The nodules allow the plant to absorb the N2 gas that is present in the soil, and the plant converts it into ammonia that enters into a biochemical pathway producing both organic and inorganic forms before reverting it to N2 gas. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria need high calcium levels to work efficiently. Three micro-metabolic elements, iron, molybdenum, and cobalt are essential for the nitrogen-fixing process in bacteria.

KH nodules 2

Nodule Formation Cycle in Pea Plant – PC: Pearson Education

Most legumes form symbiotic relationships with a select few Rhizobium, however Pongamia pinnata is able to produce snf relationships with various strains of Rhizobia as well as Bradyrhizobium. In areas of India the results clearly demonstrate the major advantage of the leguminous nature of Pongamia when compared to the Jatropha tree, another plant feedstock being evaluated as a source of biofuel energy.

Since the presence of oxygen can inactivate the process of nitrogen-fixing, it is important to know that legumes can regulate the gas permeability in their nodules allowing enough oxygen to maintain respiration without deactivating the nitrogenase enzyme. Nodules contain a heme protein called leghemoglobin. Leghemoglobin is present in the cytoplasm of infected cells at high concentrations (700 uM in soybean nodules). This protein gives the nodule a pink color.

The mystery of the symbiotic relationship is that it only occurs through a complex exchange of signals between specific genes of the plant host and symbiont. Infection and nodule organogenesis occurs simultaneously during root nodule formulation. The symbiotic relationship between legume and bacteria is not obligatory. It is quite possible for a seedling to live out its life cycle without becoming associated with a symbiont.

Among many compelling characteristics, the reduction of dependence on commercial, nitrogen fertilizers, the reduction of runoff and minimizing other environmental concerns all show the benefits of the snf process inherent in Pongamia pinnata.

 

References:

Majda, W. (2014). How to increase the rate of biological nitrogen fixation. Retrieved from https://permaculturenews.org/2014/09/25/increase-rate-biological-nitrogen-fixation/

Meyer, S. B., Anderson, D. B., Bohning, R. H., & Fratianne, D. G. (1973). Introduction to plant physiology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: D. Van Nostrand Company.

Rhoades, H. (2017). Nitrogen nodules and nitrogen fixing plants. Retrieved from https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/nitrogen-nodules-and-nitrogen-fixing-plants.htm

Taiz, L., & Zeiger, E. (2002). Plant physiology (3rd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Wikipedia. (2017). Nitrogen fixation. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_fixation

Flynn, R, & Idowu, J (2015) Guide A129 Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes. Retrieved from http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A129/

Market Driven Restoration: Stepping Beyond Sustainability

by Drew Wilkinson, TerViva Propagation Associate

As a farmer, I’m naturally drawn to the diverse array of agriculture solutions that hold potential for making significant strides towards a carbon neutral future. While combing through the spring 2017 issue of Permaculture North America Magazine, I came across an interview that ignited my attention. It was on David Karr, the co-founder of Guayaki Yerba Mate, and featured a unique business model I knew little about, but came to greatly admire. It is called market driven restoration. Karr explains one of their main missions is to “steward and restore 200,000 acres of South American Atlantic Rainforest and create over 1,000 living wage jobs by 2020.”

With their roots planted deep in the soil, I was excited to learn about this company striving to go beyond sustainability. The more I read, the more I reflected on the intricate relationships between consumers, businesses, agroforestry, community, environment, and the resulting impacts on global climate change.

DW cyrus sutton

Rainforest in Paraguay – Photo Credit: Cyrus Sutton

Guayaki specializes in fair trade organically grown yerba mate, an herbal tea made from the leaves and stems of the holly tree, Ilex paraguariensis found in the South American Atlantic Rainforest. Yerba mate has been a long standing cultural drink in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It’s a healthy alternative to coffee and according to the Guayaki website it includes 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, a surplus of antioxidants, and naturally occurring caffeine all which provide a smooth energetic lift. Guayaki sells a variety of yerba mate products ranging from canned drinks to loose leaf.

There are many sustainable components of Guayaki’s business model that set them apart from the crowd. They have a very thought out supply chain that incorporates biodiesel powered cargo vehicles, biodegradable packaging, and chemical free facilities to name a few. They are a certified B Corp, which is a rigorous certification process completed by B Lab, a non-profit that verifies companies meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. The most impactful part of Guayaki’s supply chain lies within their approach to producing forest grown yerba mate and their ability to sequester 573g of carbon for every 454g of yerba mate produced.

According to Project Drawdown, which describes the top 100 ways to reverse global climate change, Paul Hawken and his team of international scientists and policy makers have ranked the reforestation and preservation of tropical forests as #5 on the list of 100 solutions. Guayaki has incorporated reforestation as a standard for cultivation of yerba mate. The highest quality yerba mate grows beneath the shade canopy of taller hardwoods. As Guayaki expands their agriculture production, they are replanting hardwood trees along with fruit trees to create the perfect environment to grow yerba mate, all the while restoring biodiversity.

A sustainable hand harvesting approach is used to collect yerba mate. Yerba mate produces more income per acre than cattle or agricultural products such as corn, soy, or wheat. Guayaki is able to provide a stable annual living wage for these small farmers, which allows them the ability to plan and make long term decisions about the health of the land and their people, while adding a “market driven” incentive to restore and protect the forest.

DW Harvesting

Hand harvested yerba mate – Photo courtesy of Guayaki

Guayaki achieves this by building relationships and working with native forest communities. They help construct tree nurseries, organize grower conferences, and provide safe and just working conditions. The revenue generated from selling yerba mate in North America cycles back to these indigenous communities and helps fund the rainforest restoration. This steers the local economy in a regenerative ideology away from the clear cutting mentality for lumber, cattle grazing, and monocrop agriculture that has eradicated 90% of the South Atlantic Rainforest.

Project Drawdown summarizes that when these tropical forests are restored, “trees, soil, leaf litter, and other vegetation absorb and hold carbon. As flora and fauna return and interactions between organisms and species revive, the forest regains its multidimensional roles: supporting the water cycle, conserving soil, protecting habitat and pollinators, providing food, medicine, and fiber, and giving people places to live, adventure, and worship.”

DW indigenous workers

Indigeneous workers – Photo courtesy of Guayaki

At the heart of Guayaki’s business model is the principle of internalizing all the true costs. This goes outside the norm of traditional business structures with a narrow minded focus on profit. As companies strive to maximize profits, negative externalities result and are pushed to the side or slid under the rug and out of view from the public eye. As a result, companies end up not paying the full cost of extraction of materials, production, distribution, and disposal. These costs are often felt negatively by 3rd parties in the form of land degradation, excess carbon emissions, toxic waste, and polluted waterways.

Karr summarizes that this ‘short term thinking’ paradigm shifts the true costs of conventional business to future generations. Guayaki’s market driven restoration model serves as an exemplary platform for other companies to strive for. Karr states “We’re passionate about people voting with their dollars. We believe business can drive environmental and social change.”

So, where do we go from here? I encourage you to think about your next purchase as a consumer. Try to incorporate a broader whole systems thinking approach to the product you are purchasing. Instead of just laser beaming your focus on what the product will do for you and the associated lowest price mentality, think about the external costs that may or may not be reflected in the price tag.

While the effects of global climate change are felt across the world, environmentally conscious consumers can help shape more eco-minded businesses, and together we have the potential to play a huge role in shaping a carbon neutral future.

More references:

https://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/dk/docs/global-sustainability-report-oct-2015.pdf

https://www.bcorporation.net/what-are-b-corps?gclid=EAIaIQobChMItqbwlaiO1wIVSGV-Ch1Dpwt2EAAYASAAEgL9afD_BwE

Hurricane Irma’s Devastation to Florida Agriculture

by Robbie Hall, TerViva Propagation & Agronomy Associate

Hurricane Irma swept across Florida on September 10-11, 2017, leaving a wake of destruction behind. A month later, Floridians are still dealing with the aftermath. Agriculture is Florida’s second largest industry, and contributed $4 billion to the state’s economy in 2015 [1]. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released its preliminary report on Irma’s damage to the industry on October 4, 2017, and estimates agricultural damages totaling over $2.5 billion! Here is the breakdown of losses outline in this report [2]:

  • Total Florida Agriculture: $2,558,598,303
  • Citrus: $760,816,600
  • Greenhouse, Nursery and Floriculture: $624,819,895
  • Sugar: $382,603,397
  • Forestry: $261,280,000
  • Beef Cattle: $237,476,562
  • Fruits and Vegetables (excluding citrus): $180,193,096
  • Field Crops: $62,747,058
  • Aquaculture: $36,850,000
  • Dairy: $11,811,695

The economic assessment above accounts for some crop losses, damaged infrastructure, debris cleanup, and animals’ long-term welfare that was affected by Irma. These costs will likely increase as more information is made available. The remainder of this blog post will discuss some of the impacts from Irma in greater detail and provide some insight into what could potentially happen in the near future.

Florida’s citrus industry has been reeling over the past decade from production losses, due to the citrus greening disease [3], and Hurricane Irma was the last thing growers needed to come along. Reports range from 40% of lost fruit in Central Florida, to as much as 100% in some areas of Southwest Florida [4]. These numbers are still climbing, as damaged fruit initially left on the trees continues to drop. In addition to fruit loss, some of the trees received significant structural damage, such as broken limbs and even trunks splitting down the middle. One of the hardest hit groves near LaBelle, FL, had 70% of its trees ripped from the ground, exposing the roots of the trees. The severely damaged trees will need to be cleared out with front-end loaders. Some of the smaller trees that were blown over can be pruned, stood back up, and braced, but that will require additional labor. Paul Meador, owner of the LaBelle-based Everglades Harvesting & Hauling, brought up another point. “The trees are extremely stressed. You get what’s left of this crop off, and then next year we’ll probably have half a crop again… It’s the ugly gift that keeps on giving” [3].

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Fallen fruit sits on the ground below orange trees in Frostproof, FL, U.S. Hurricane Irma destroyed almost half of the citrus crop in some areas.
PC: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hurricane Irma caused problems for cattle owners as well, especially in Okeechobee County. As everyone in the state frenzied to prepare for Irma’s landfall, many routine operations became interrupted. One of these instances happened with the “grain train”, a train bound for Okeechobee with 26 freight cars of ground corn, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, and other commodities used in making feed for the dairy cattle in the area. On the weekend of September 2nd, farmers anxiously awaited the overdue delivery. As the week wore on, the grain train still had not arrived. Fortunately, the State Agricultural Response Team (SART), a partnership made up of government agencies and non-profit groups, intervened and the train finally arrived Friday evening, September 8th.

Without SART’s assistance, many dairy cows could have gone without food for too long [5]. After the hurricane arrived, one beef cattle ranch in Okeechobee, the Alderman-Deloney Ranch, experienced major flooding after a surrounding dike broke loose. A group of 20 people had to move the herd of approximately 500 cattle five miles down the road to higher ground at the Triple S Ranch. The Aldermans believe that at least five of the animals drowned before they were able to be moved [6][7]. Statewide, ranchers estimate that 100 animals died during the storm. Some additional losses from this disturbance include an estimate of 7 percent of cows not breeding this year, and approximately 187,000 calves losing close to 50 lbs each while awaiting shipment to out-of-state feedlots ($75 loss per calf) [4]. Other losses to cattle owners include damage to grain bins and commodity barns, as well as rain-soaked commodities, feed, and silage [5].

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Antique windmill before hurricane Irma – PC: Robbie Hall

 

On a personal note, my family has a small cattle operation near Bushnell, FL, and we were not without our own problems from Hurricane Irma. Countless trees and large limbs fell around our property, and many came down on our barbed wire fences. We spent the rest of the week sawing up trees and rebuilding our fences around the perimeter of our property before some of our cattle decided to go out on the highway. Additionally, we were without power for six days, and by the fifth day, our cattle water troughs were empty. Thankfully, we were able to borrow a friend’s trailer that had a 500-gallon tank, and used a generator so we could pump and haul water to the empty troughs. At the moment, we still have trees and cross-fences down on the interior of our property that will need to be repaired when we have time, but our cattle at least cannot escape anymore. We were very fortunate that we did not have any structural damage to our house and barn, but our antique windmill was not lucky in surviving the storm!

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Robbie hauling water to the empty trough in front of the damaged windmill after hurricane Irma – PC: Matthew Hall

This blog post was not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of all those industries affected, because really all of Florida was affected; Hurricane Irma was roughly the size of Texas, so it was thorough in enveloping the whole entire state! Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam has stated that he will “present the needs of Florida’s agricultural sector to Congress and ask for short-term federal disaster relief” [8]. In the meantime farmers will continue their efforts in recovering from this natural disaster. In addition to the losses incurred by the agricultural sector, Hurricane Irma could impact Florida’s economy in a couple of other ways. Some of these domestic crops may be replaced in grocery stores with foreign competition from countries such as Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica [1]. Also, Puerto Rico was ravaged by both hurricanes Irma and Maria, and there will likely be an influx of people moving to Florida that will be looking for jobs in construction and agriculture-related fields [8]. One thing is certain: Florida agriculture will never forget Hurricane Irma!

 

References

  1. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/fl-reg-irma-agriculture-tour-20170918-story.html
  2. http://www.citrusindustry.net/2017/10/05/760-million-initial-estimate-of-irmas-florida-citrus-damage/
  3. https://www.thepacker.com/node/3091
  4. http://www.wptv.com/news/state/irma-s-agriculture-toll-tops-2-5-billion-in-florida
  5. http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/news/2017/09/27/uf-expert-helps-ensure-grain-train-gets-feed-dairy-cows/
  6. https://www.local10.com/weather/hurricane-irma/hundreds-of-cows-rescued-from-flooded-ranch-in-okeechobee-county
  7. http://www.wptv.com/news/region-okeechobee-county/cows-dead-many-more-at-risk-after-okeechobee-county-ranch-floods
  8. http://www.floridatrend.com/article/23179/perseverance-a-priority-for-florida-farmers-post-irma

What I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a Pongamia Farmer

by Elisabeth Beagle, TerViva Propagation & Agronomy Associate

My friends won’t know what I’m talking about.

New pongamia farmers, have your elevator pitch ready – even most fellow farmers have never heard of the crop. Pongamia (pohn-gah-me-ah for most, pohn-gaym-ee-ah for Florida folks) is a semi-deciduous, nitrogen-fixing legume tree that can be grown in diverse tropical and subtropical marginal lands. Drought and salinity tolerant, it’s well-suited for land not arable for food crops. The trees grow to 15-20 meters, set flowers after 3-4 years, and take 9-11 months to form a mature pod after anthesis.

Pongamia farmers harvest pods – up to 100 kg of pods per mature tree, per year. Each pod contains a seed. The oil content of the seed is approximately 35% of the dry seed weight and 55% of it is oleic acid, the ideal fatty acid for good-quality biodiesel production. Uses for pongamia oil are extensive – from adjuvant to lubricant, biodiesel to jet fuel. Beyond the oil, the seedcake (pulp left over after the oil is pressed from the seed) is a valuable source of protein; the pod shells separated during processing is a viable baseload feedstock for power plants.

DO mistake the forest for the trees.

Each variety of pongamia tree grows differently – the trick to successful pongamia crop production is to grow the best varieties, consistently. Ideal traits include regular and timely flowering, growth rate, pod set and weight, and seed oil content. Here’s the catch: if you crack open a pod and plant the seed, the tree that grows is unlikely to share the characteristics of the tree the pod came from. TerViva has compiled an exclusive library of high yielding, patentable pongamia genetics from around the world, and developed propagation techniques for scalable, consistent results. The core of TerViva’s IP platform is elite pongamia genetics that are iteratively advanced.

TerViva is not a coconut water company, Mom.

TerViva helps growers convert distressed agriculture land into productive acreage by growing pongamia. The US has lost 40 million acres of arable land in the past 40 years to disease and changing environmental conditions – while demand for food and fuel soars. In Florida, disease has caused 50% of citrus acreage to be lost in 10 years. Hurricane Irma made the picture worse. In Hawaii, 85% of sugarcane production has been abandoned due to cost of production and competition.

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Pongamia orchard on the North Shore of Oahu in July 2017

TerViva provides cultivar development and supply by selling growers elite trees best suited to their situation. TerViva has established commercial size acreage in Florida and Hawaii, geographies where the need for a new crop and the proper climate for pongamia intersect. Pongamia easily “drops in” to existing farm operations, utilizing the same field setups and infrastructure. The grower plants and maintains the trees at their expense; the pods are harvested using existing mechanical nut-harvesting equipment and transported to a centralized processor; then TerViva acts as the marketer for oil, protein seed cake and shells.

Pongamia farmers in Hawaii take an average of 9,740 steps per day in the field.

Hope your boots are made for walkin’, pongamia farmers. It turns out putting hands and eyes on each of the 121 trees per acre adds up to quite a distance. Trees are planted at 18 feet intervals along rows spaced 20 feet apart to accommodate the catchment frame of the harvester. Each field row consists of trees of the same cultivar, so that the entire row flowers, sets pods, and is ready for harvest at the same time.

The walking distance triples during planting. Pray for cloud cover.

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf (Albert Schweitzer).

Sweaty, dusty pongamia farmers enjoy moments of respite while sitting beneath the shade of pongamia trees, reflecting hopefully on the gravitas of our work. Growing pongamia is for those farmers who are in it for the long game; growing pongamia is an investment for the future. Growing pongamia exhibits the belief that agriculture will continue to lead our population forward, towards renewable and environmentally sustainable energy sources. Had I known how rewarding growing pongamia would be, I would have started sooner! Wish someone had told me.

 

 

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part 2

By Tomas Endicott, Processing & Markets Manager

Last week I wrote about carbon intensity and how the GREET model, standardized by the U.S. Department of Energy, quantifies the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated when producing different transportation fuels—both fossil fuels and renewable fuels.

Today, let’s talk about factors that contribute to producing low-carbon transportation fuels.

Lifecycle carbon tracks CO2 emissions from feedstock production to combustion.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are tracked on a lifecycle basis. That is, CO2 is generated at many points in a fuel production pathway: feedstock acquisition, processing, refining, transport. The more carbon efficient each step in a particular fuel production pathway, the lower the carbon intensity of the final fuel. For processing fossil fuels or biofuels, reducing carbon emissions may include using renewable sources of heat and electricity that generate less CO2, such as biogas, wind power and solar power. Acquiring feedstock to produce transportation fuels presents many different pathways, each unique in the lifecycle CO2 emissions it generates.

All feedstocks are not created (carbon) equal.

Fossil fuel feedstocks—crude oil or natural gas—are fairly carbon-consistent no matter what their origin. They all are extracted in enormous volumes from underground. Biofuel feedstocks are incredibly diverse. There are many more variables that contribute to carbon intensity throughout every step of any particular biofuel feedstock production process.

All plants are self-sufficient. Some more than others.

Most plants are photosynthetic. They create hydrocarbons in the form of carbohydrates (i.e starch, sugar, wood) and/or fats (oils) using carbon dioxide (CO2), nutrients, sunlight and water. The plants use these carbohydrates and fats for their own energy, and they “invest” them into their seeds for the next generation. These carbohydrates and fats also are the source of the energy we harvest and convert into biofuels.

All plants also need some amount of nitrogen to grow and thrive. Legumes, like soybeans, alfalfa seed and pongamia seed, are special in that they harness their own nitrogen—the backbone for proteins—through symbiosis with bacteria that live on their roots. These rhizobium bacteria fix elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and supply it to the plant in a form the plant can use.

Less inputs equals lower carbon intensity.

Non-leguminous plants must derive nitrogen from compounds in the soil. In a natural environment, that source of nitrogen may be composted organic matter or nitrogen compounds deposited in the soil through earthworm activity. Because modern, improved agricultural crops produce such high yields, they require large quantities of commercial fertilizer. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized from natural gas, and its production requires significant energy input. As a result, producing commercial nitrogen fertilizer generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and those emissions are attributed to the lifecycle carbon of the crops that use the nitrogen fertilizer.

Nitrogen is expensive, both in the energy consumed to manufacture and transport it and in the dollars farmers must expend to apply it to their fields. Because nitrogen fertilizers must be applied to non-leguminous crops like corn and canola, producing biofuels from these non-nitrogen-fixing crops is more carbon intensive than producing biofuels from legumes.

By-products provide additional value.

Oilseed crops, like soybeans, canola and pongamia, can provide oil as feedstock for renewable fuels. They also provide another by-product: high-protein meal, which has significant value as livestock feed and as organic fertilizer.

Pongamia seeds are removed from their shells before being processed. These shells are half the weight of the harvested pongamia pods, and they can provide significant biomass to supply renewable, low-carbon heat and power to the pongamia biofuel processing pathway.

Greater yield per acre equals lower carbon intensity.

Because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated while producing crops are spread across the total yield of a particular crop, crops that produce higher yields per acre can be more carbon-efficient. Every trip across a field to till, seed, fertilize, spray or harvest increases CO2 emissions and increases the carbon intensity for a particular crop. Crops with higher yields spread their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over larger production.

Growing conditions also affect yield. Logically, crops grown in tropical and sub-tropical environments experience more sunshine and heat, and they have longer growing seasons, so they produce larger yields per acre.

Annual or perennial makes a difference.

Annual crops—those that must be planted every year—require some amount of tillage or application of broad spectrum herbicides (i.e Round-Up) to prepare the seedbed and to minimize weed competition with the cultivated crop. Tillage alone can increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields simply by exposing organic matter in the soil to oxygen, thereby, allowing it to be decomposed aerobically, which generates CO2.
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Simply tilling the ground increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields. Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Perennial crops are established once and produce for many years. They do not require annual tillage. For large trees like pongamia, annual maintenance is low when the tree canopy prevents sunlight from penetrating to the ground, so nothing can grow there.

Although they require a few years to produce their first crop, yields for perennial crops tend to be much higher per acre than yields for annual crops. Whereas the average yield for soybeans in the U.S. is about 2,700 pounds per acre, perennial pongamia trees can produce more than 10,000 pounds of seeds per acre per year at eight years of age and beyond. The average lifespan of a pongamia tree is at least 25 to 30 years.

How many gallons of oils per acre?

For the purpose of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel production, seeds of different crops have different concentrations of oil—their percentage of oil by weight. Whereas soybeans contain only 16%-18% oil by weight, canola seeds contains more than 40% oil by weight and pongamia seeds contain 30% to 40% oil by weight. Considering the combination of per acre yields and the oil concentration in the seeds of a particular crop determines the amount of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel that can be produced by a given cultivated area. Here is a chart demonstrating the amount of oil per acre produced by different oilseed crops.

More yield per acre equals greater carbon efficiency.

Whereas soybeans produce only 55 to 60 gallons of oil per acre annually and canola produces about 120 gallons of oil per acre annually, mature pongamia trees can produce more than 450 gallons of oil per acre every year.

The CO2 generated to harvest an acre of soybeans or to harvest an acre of pongamia seeds are similar. Mature pongamia trees, however, yield almost four times more seed per acre than soybeans, and they yield about eight times the oil for every acre harvested. Now that’s efficiency!

Maximizing transportation efficiency minimizes CO2 emissions.

To achieve maximum carbon efficiency, transportation fuels need to be produced and moved in large volumes. It is most carbon-efficient to move fuels by pipeline, although pipelines are expensive to build and they have other environmental considerations. Moving a million gallons of fuel on a single ocean-going barge is ten times more efficient than hauling the same volume of fuel the same distance in hundreds of tanker truck loads. The efficiency of moving fuel in 25,000-gallon rail cars lies somewhere between the efficiency achieved by barges and the efficiency attributed to tanker trucks. Renewable fuels, like fossil-based fuels, must be produced on a large scale to achieve transportation efficiency.

Going further on a gallon of fuel reduces CO2 emissions too.

The most efficient gallon of fuel is the one that you never use. Producing low-carbon fuels at scale is only half the battle. Reducing consumption of all transportation fuels is the best carbon-reduction strategy for the transportation sector. Electric cars, hybrids and clean diesel technology are all available today, and all are improving with each new model year. In 2012, President Obama established new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards which will raise the average fuel efficiency for all new cars and trucks in the U.S. to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Impressive! Currently, the CAFE standard is 35.5 miles per gallon.

Carbon-efficient, sustainable biofuel feedstock, high-protein livestock feed and organic fertilizer from the perennial pongamia tree.

The pongamia tree can provide a unique and substantial contribution to the United States’ sustainable, low-carbon biofuel future. It is a nitrogen-fixing, subtropical tree that is native to India, Indonesia and Australia, and it grows well in Florida and in Hawaii. It is both drought resistant and accustomed to Monsoonal rains (TerViva’s pongamia orchards in Florida held their own against the wind, rain and flooding from Hurricane Irma last week). Pongamia can grow on sandy soils, and it is resistant to moderate salinity. It is a perennial tree that is highly productive for both non-edible oil as a feedstock for biofuels and for protein-rich meal for livestock feed and fertilizer.

Imagine our low-carbon transportation future!

TerViva is rolling out pongamia orchards on abandoned citrus land in Florida and on land that formerly grew sugarcane in Hawaii. Imagine a future where 100,000 acres of pongamia trees produce 50 million gallons of biofuel and 340,000 tons of high-protein meal each year. Imagine biomass heat and power produced from a half-million tons of pongamia shells harvested annually. Imagine bio-char from gasified pongamia shells sequestering carbon in the soil for thousands of years—steadily reversing the CO2 increase in the earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine millions of acres of pongamia orchards spread across the sub-tropical areas of Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America providing billions of gallons of biofuel every year. Imagine fuel efficient vehicles that go twice as far on a gallon of fuel so that we consume half the transportation fuel that we do today. With biofuels, electric vehicles and other technologies in the mix, renewable fuels could make up 50% of the total transportation fuel consumption in the U.S. within twenty years.

This is not a pipedream. It is absolutely possible. It is a matter of aspiration, effort and will.

Let’s do it!

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part I

by Tomas Endicott, TerViva Processing & Markets Manager

 

It’s the 21st century. We have amazing technology! Certainly we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector in the U.S., but how? We’re doing it! Did you know that already we have good systems for tracking and measuring our progress?

Fossil fuels are the mainstay for transportation energy in the U.S., and there is no question that they power our economy, but renewable fuels like ethanol, biodiesel and renewable natural gas are also making significant contributions. In the U.S., biofuels are derived from primarily corn and soybeans, as their production systems are well-established and their production volumes are extremely large. But just wait! In time, perennial crops like seeds from pongamia trees will contribute even lower-carbon fuels to the transportation mix.

Carbon efficiency is cool. Carbon intensity is not.

Carbon efficiency is cool because it reduces greenhouse gases and mitigates climate change. Hydrocarbon-based fuels have carbon embedded in their molecular structures, but they also generate carbon emissions in the form of the heat, power and transportation that are consumed to produce them and to get them to market. The less carbon emissions generated to produce a particular fuel, the more carbon efficient it is. In comparison, fuels that generate larger carbon emissions have a higher carbon intensity (CI). Not surprisingly, fuels that are more carbon efficient are generally more energy efficient as well. The less energy we consume as a society, the less greenhouse gases we generate.

We consume a lot of transportation fuel in the U.S. and that generates a lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In the U.S., the transportation sector generates about 27% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually—second only to electricity generation, which accounts for 29% of GHG emissions. GHG emissions from transportation are the result of burning liquid fuels—primarily gasoline and diesel fuel.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2016 U.S. drivers consumed about 143 billion gallons of finished motor gasoline (that’s a BILLION with a “B”), a daily average of about 392 million gallons. U.S. drivers consumed about 44 billion gallons of diesel fuel in 2016, a daily average of about 122 million gallons.

TE part 1

Plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce biofuels for transportation

Did you know that renewable fuels are required by law?

In the U.S., the federal government requires fuel companies to blend a minimum volume of renewable fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, into the total fuel volume consumed every year. This program, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), began in 2005 with the passage of the Energy Policy Act. Congress expanded the law in 2007 with the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). How much renewable fuel does the RFS require? More than 19 billion gallons of renewable fuel, primarily ethanol and biodiesel, in 2017! Of the 188 billion gallons of total transportation fuel Americans will consume this year, renewable fuel will make up a little more than 10%. In other words, renewable fuels could supply the U.S. transportation fuel markets for almost 38 days. Not bad really, but we can do even better!

All fuels are not created (carbon) equal.

All liquid fuels -whether bio-based or fossil-based- are composed of hydrocarbons: long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms bonded together in a variety of ways. All of these molecular bonds contain energy that is released when the bonds are broken -when the fuel is burned. The result: the fuels are converted into energy and their molecules are converted into primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20).

This is where biofuels and fossil fuels are different. Fossil fuels mine ancient hydrocarbons from beneath the earth’s surface and add new carbon to the atmosphere, but biofuels recycle the same contemporary carbon in the atmosphere on an annual basis. The CO2 released by burning biofuels today is re-captured by living plants to create more biofuel during the next harvest cycle—a net zero effect for the carbon embedded in the biofuel.

Carbon attributed to different fuels includes more than just embedded carbon, though. To create fossil fuels requires exploration, extraction, refining and transport -all of which generate carbon emissions. To create biofuels from recycled materials (i.e. food waste, used cooking oil) requires collection, refining and transport. To create biofuels from agricultural crops requires cultivation, fertilization, harvesting, processing, refining and transport.

Accounting for carbon is the first step.

As scientists and policymakers acknowledge the effects of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the need to reduce them, they create systems for measuring the GHG emissions generated by different activities. Carbon accounting tracks the amount of carbon emissions required to produce a particular fuel.

The federal RFS tracks the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Carbon intensity is the measure of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions attributed to all activities required to produce a transportation fuel, expressed in grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per megajoule of energy or gCO2e/MJ. Wow! That’s a mouthful, but what it means, simply, is that making different transportation fuels generates different amounts of carbon emissions. The lower the carbon emissions generated to produce any particular transportation fuel, the lower the carbon intensity.

Who accounts for GHG emissions in transportation fuels?  How do they make sure that comparing all fuels is comparing apples to apples?

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed the GREET model.  The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model is a “well to wheel” or “farm to wheel” life-cycle model that is used to establish a specific carbon intensity (CI) value for every type of fossil fuel and renewable fuel that is consumed in the U.S. transportation sector. A fuel pathway describes the feedstock and the process for how each fuel is made, so each fuel pathway has a unique CI value.

This chart shows the carbon intensity (CI) values for different renewable fuels compared with gasoline and diesel fuel. Gasoline has a CI value of 95.86, whereas the CI for ethanol ranges from 77.44 to 120.99 -depending on where the ethanol is made and what type of energy is used for the heat and power required in the production process. Ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane has a CI value of 73.4. Petroleum diesel has a CI value of 94.71, whereas the CI for soy-based biodiesel is 83.85. Biodiesel from recycled cooking oil has a CI value of 11.76 or 15.84. Wow! That’s a reduction. Almost 90%!

What specific factors contribute to higher or lower carbon intensity (CI) values of transportation fuels?

Different feedstocks -both bio-based and fossil-based- and different fuel production pathways generate different amount of CO2 emissions.  What are the factors that affect the carbon intensities for different feedstocks and for different fuel production pathways?

Stay tuned.  We will pick it up there next week.