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.

 

 

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