The Accidental Sustainable Farm

Author: Tom Schenk

Much has been written in the Ag 2.0 blogs about the financial attractiveness of establishing a pongamia tree crop for oilseed production. The early growers who have been working with TerViva were primarily interested in the virtues of this crop from a higher revenue per acre standpoint as well as a diversification. Early plantings of this tree were primarily motivated by the economics. The tree had to make economic sense: can we grow it, how much will it cost, and who will buy it? Frankly, not a lot of analysis has gone beyond that, nor should it necessarily for a new crop. What time is showing, however, is that pongamia could yield a number of secondary dividends that could serve as the icing on the cake.

The concept of “sustainable farming” has been growing in momentum in recent years. The simplest definition of sustainable farming is, “doing more with less.” At a deeper level, sustainable farming is about integrating the concepts of environmental health, economic profitability, and a longer term view that this land must produce for generations into the future.

Growing pongamia in the US has the likely potential to be a pleasantly surprising fit into the sustainable farming theme. There will be a day in the near future when growers discover the following dividends that pongamia trees can provide.

Fuel: The high quality, long-chain carbon characteristics of pongamia’s oil make it a wonderful candidate for biodiesel. While the growers themselves are obviously not refining the oil into fuel, it is nevertheless a wonderful offset for the energy footprint and energy costs of their entire farming operation.

Pesticides: Practically every farmer is concerned about the long term effects of synthetic pesticides on their soils and in the crop itself. Other than some light pesticide application on young trees, it appears pongamia trees require negligible amounts of pesticides throughout their growth cycle. Moreover, compounds in the plant’s oil and leaves contain natural biopesticidal properties. Studies out of India show that these compounds are more effective than DDT. Many organic gardeners have been having wonderful results for many years mixing 50/50 neem oil and pongamia oil for a natural biopesticide for their gardens.

Soils and Fertilizers: The tree requires little in the way of the heavy fertilizers used in conventional farming and horticulture. This saves money. Especially in the citrus groves where growers input costs for pesticide and fertilizer have quadrupled in an effort to fight the deadly citrus greening disease. Pongamia is a legume so it creates nitrogen in the soils. Moreover, after the seedcake is crushed and the oil is extracted, the remaining seedcake could be used as a fine organic fertilizer that can be used in the farming operation. The rich seedcake contains 4% nitrogen content plus 0.5% P and 0.5% K and is reported to have good nematocidal properties, as well. Where it is grown in Florida, there has been great concern over the phosphate and other nutrient runoff from crops into the delicate Everglades’ ecosystem. Pongamia a crop that has a markedly lighter impact on water quality as well as the budget.

Before

Before

After

After

Above is a before and after photo (taken about 4 months apart) of a clay reclamation area at a central Florida mining area. The stubborn clay soils are almost void of nitrogen and decades of alternative test crops have not favored to well. Not only will this be a great erosion containment solution for this corporate landowner, but will eventually be a great fuel offset for the mining operation. Moreover, no irrigation is being used on this site. In Australia, pongamia is also used at some mining reclamation areas. Carbon sequestration is also another benefit of this tree that may be monetized in the future.

Water: Pongamia trees are native to monsoonal climates where it does not rain for 8 months then the tree sits in water for 4 month from the heavy seasonal rains. Almost everywhere in the country, modern agricultural practices have depleted massive underground aquifers.

Elsewhere, droughts in many states have caused irrigation cutbacks. Pongamia trees require a fraction of the water as other crops such as sugar, citrus, or nuts. This can give a farmer leeway in his irrigation allotment to use his water on his other crops in a dry year. There is little chance that a dry year will kill a pongamia tree.

Intercropping: Below is a photo of a two year old pongamia grove in Texas where no irrigation was used. Until this canopy fills in, hay could be cut and baled in the aisles between the rows.

intercroppsing

Potential for intercropping

None of the growers that TerViva has worked with entered into planting arrangements with the intention of incorporating this tree crop into a sustainable agricultural operation. What’s cool about pongamia however, is that the very nature of the tree’s properties and the number of end-uses that lend it to address the critical issues facing worldwide agriculture. If a dedicated sustainable farming operation was ever created around pongamia, there’s no telling how far this concept could be extended!

Tom Schenk his head of sales and customer outreach at Terviva

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