April Showers Bring May Flowers: But How About Pods?

Author: David Harry, Ph.D.

When we think about what it takes to domesticate and commercialize a new crop like pongamia, the number of unanswered questions we face can sometimes feel daunting. Answers to the most basic of questions, such as when does flowering occur, and when are seeds ready for harvest, need to carefully evaluated. Why? Even well-established crops need to be ground-truthed when grown in novel conditions, so you can imagine that with new crops, for which a robust baseline is almost always lacking, it can be pretty challenging to predict what will happen when. So it is for pongamia.

Figure 1.  Pongamia’s reproductive cycle:  from flowers to developing pods, mature seeds, and finally, to young seedlings.  Because these observations were made in the tropics, developmental timelines are likely condensed relative to subtropical environments.  (From Srimathi et al. 2013).

Figure 1. Pongamia’s reproductive cycle: from flowers to developing pods, mature seeds, and finally, to young seedlings. Because these observations were made in the tropics, developmental timelines are likely condensed relative to subtropical environments. (From Srimathi et al. 2013).

Last October, I reported that we were monitoring the development of flowers and immature pods on some 2-year-old trees in Texas. Now keep in mind that this is pretty basic stuff, and yet it’s important information that provides us with a stronger basis to help pongamia growers understand how their fruit crops (i.e. pods and seeds) are likely to mature.

So you might imagine how thrilled I was to run across a new publication describing flowering and fruit development on pongamia trees in India (Srimathi et al. African Journal of Plant Science, November 2013, pp. 513-520). What I particularly appreciated was a diagram illustrating the various stages of floral and fruit development, and their corresponding time intervals (Fig. 1). Young pods become visible within a week or so after flowers mature (see green structures on red background). They enlarge rapidly within a few weeks, first lengthwise to resemble the pod of a snow pea, then later growing in width (see green pods on blue background). And while the overall size of the pods then stays about the same, seeds within the pods continue to expand and mature for some time afterward (Fig. 2 ). In this case, the Stage III seeds (Fig. 2) roughly correspond to the 12-week pods (Fig. 1). In other words, most seed growth and maturation occurs well after the pods have largely completed their expansion. Eventually, pods turn brown as the seeds mature and dry, before falling onto the ground—or in our case, are shaken from trees and collected, as described in a previous Agriculture 2.0 blog post.

Figure 2.  Developmental stages of pongamia seeds, from weeks after pollination (Stage I) until full maturity (Stage VIII).  Most expansion of immature seeds takes place after pods reach their full size, at about Stage III.

Figure 2. Developmental stages of pongamia seeds, from weeks after pollination (Stage I) until full maturity (Stage VIII). Most expansion of immature seeds takes place after pods reach their full size, at about Stage III. (courtesy of Prof Peter Gresshoff, Unv. of Queensland)

So how do we take such information and put it into practice? For example, the observations in Fig. 1 suggest only 26 weeks are needed for pods to mature. So if Florida growers observe flowering in June, might they expect to harvest pods about 26 weeks later, perhaps sometime in December? Sorry, that’s unlikely—we need to “adjust” the timing for seasonal variation associated with different locations. Observations in Fig. 1 are from Coimbatore, in southern India (about 11° N latitude). This is considerably further south (more tropical), than our US plantings. Other researchers near Hisar, in northern India (about 29 N° latitude), observed that pod maturation required 44-49 weeks (Dhillon et al. Indian Forester, 2009). From our own observations in sub-tropical Florida and Australia, we expect pod maturation in mainland US will require 40+ weeks (perhaps more quickly in Hawaii). So in other words, while we are able to glean valuable insights from results in different locations, it still requires some skill to anticipate and predict likely outcomes. And in the end, both on-the-ground observations and experience will be needed to validate such predictions in the years ahead.

David Harry is R&D Director for TerViva

 

Everybody Do Your Rain Dance

1930s dust bowl migrants

1930s dust bowl migrants

It’s almost impossible to imagine the devastation many families felt as they abandoned their mid-west farms and headed west to greener pastures in the wake of the dust bowl crisis of the 1930s. Most families did not receive a warm welcome when they made it to the border of California.  In 1935, Collier’s magazine relayed a potent description: “Very erect and primly severe, [a man] addressed the slumped driver of a rolling wreck that screamed from every hinge, bearing and coupling. ‘California’s relief rolls are overcrowded now. No use to come farther,’ he cried. The half-collapsed driver ignored him — merely turned his head to be sure his numerous family was still with him. They were so tightly wedged in, that escape was impossible. ‘There really is nothing for you here,’ the neat trooperish young man went on. ‘Nothing, really nothing.’ And the forlorn man on the moaning car looked at him, dull, emotionless, incredibly weary, and said: ‘So? Well, you ought to see what they got where I come from.”

In the decades since this great migration to California, the Golden State became an incredibly profitable agricultural hub- the most lucrative in the nation. Although our states’ agricultural industry has become much more developed and sophisticated, one thing remains eerily similar to the scene painted by Collier’s magazine above: destitute migrant farm workers (mostly from south of the border these days) still show up every year on California’s doorstep. In some cases they are just as desperate as the man portrayed above, and unfortately, this year (a very dry year), they will hear those same words: “there really is nothing for you here… nothing, really nothing.”

Granted, California’s soil isn’t quite blowing away, but its definetely thirsty. California’s thirst was only partially quenched over the past couple weeks when some dearly needed precipitation arrived thanks to a series storms. Despite the storms, the sad reality has set in that the Golden State is looking a little too golden, and she is going to need more than a few storms to bail her out. As California’s spring growing season approaches, water remains scarce, and farmers are preparing to cut back on the amount of acres they sew. This means less jobs for migrant farm workers.

Californian farmer assessing the dry soil

Californian farmer assessing the dry soil

Daniel A. Sumner, an agriculture economist and the director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California, Davis, predicts that as much as 600,000 acres could go unplanted this year. Aside from the obvious issues of food shortage (California produces up to half the nation’s produce), and drought-related losses in agricultural revenue (forecasted at 11 billion dollars this year for CA), the drought will most likely hit migrant farm laborers in the most immediate, tangible, and devastating way.

In the Central Valley, farming and food processing provide nearly 40% of all jobs. For the city of Mendota in Fresno County the rate of unemployment is currently at 34%. In 2009, the economic meltdown coincided with a dry year and unemployment rose above 40%. Mendota Mayor, Robert Silva, believes that this year could be even worse. Droughts in the past have seen unemployment rise in other Central Valley towns by as much as 45%, and this year is likely to be no exception. In a good year, migrant farm laborers find seasonal work with large farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley. They make minimum wage doing strenuous and often dangerous field work. As harsh as it sounds, this grueling work is the life blood of their families. Without it, many workers have to turn to food stamps.

migrant farm workers

migrant farm workers

Will new migrant laborers even bother coming to California this year? For the ones that are already here, the outlook is grim. In a good year, Chuck Herrin, owner of Sunrise Farm Labor, based in Huron, “puts between 1,000 to 3,500 people to work.” Unfortunately, this year he said he “will be lucky to hire 600 at the season’s peak” (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/california-farmers-brace-drought-unemployment). That will inevitably mean longer lines at the food banks in California’s Central Valley- a tragic site in heart of the nation’s food production epicenter.

Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate at TerViva BioEnergy

“The Tale of Two Unlikely Marriages”

I would like to relay the story of two unlikely marriages. The first is a marriage of people, and the second is a marriage of concepts. Both marriages have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about agriculture.Tomorrows table

Pamela C. Ronald is a geneticist who works on developing genetically engineered crops at UC Davis. She is married to an organic farmer, Raoul W. Adamchak, who is teaches UC Davis students about organic farming methods. If you think this marriage sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re not alone. However, Pamela and Raoul are happily married, and what’s more amazing is that they have been exploring unique and exciting ways in which their respective approaches to agriculture can be synergistic. Both Pamela and Raoul have exceptional pedigrees in their respective fields, and are members of one of the leading agricultural institutions in the world- UC Davis. One would be hard pressed to find two people coming together with better credentials to make positive changes in the way we think about agriculture for the betterment of health, farmer economics, and the environment. Their book, Tomorrow’s Table, outlines how organic farming and genetic engineering could be mutually beneficial. Personally, I get the impression that they are on to something big. However, for many people this combination sounds as unsavory as putting anchovies on their chocolate cake. Here is the problem… GMO angry face

Currently, there is a philosophical dichotomy in the way agriculture is approached in the United States. On the one hand there are people who are in favor of organic, small scale, local agricultural operations. On the other hand there are those who accept or actively promote large scale, traditional agriculture that incorporates GM crops as a viable means to produce food, fuel, and animal feed for an growing world population.  Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks, but unfortunately, discussions that compare these approaches often become emotional and overly politicized. In the public eye, these two approaches seem fundamentally at odds with each other, and delving into the agronomic details of why remains secondary to the philosophical overtones. But there is hope…

In Tomorrow’s Table Raoul and Pamela find common ground in the form of an unlikely new application for GM technology. Raoul outlines the benefits of organic farming practices, but even more importantly, he brings to light what the main agronomic pain points are to organic farmers. Pamela clarifies and separates the myths from the facts about GM technology, and shows how GM technology could help relieve organic farmers’ major pain points without compromising their key organic agronomic practices. By implementing aspects of GM technology, organic growers could still practice ecologically beneficial methods such as using compost, intercropping, and harboring insect predators for pest control, without compromising the production costs and marketability of their products.

Of course, for this theory to make any sense to an organic farmer, he or she must buy into the idea that GM technology is not an inherently evil thing. The purpose of this blog is not to persuade skeptics of GM otherwise – that is material for its own blog. However, it is important to analyze the technology itself rather than the people or entities that have historically been publically associated with GM. An aggressive corporate strategy is separate from the technology itself.

Now, assuming that you buy into the idea that GM itself is not evil… Raoul provides one particularly tantalizing example of where GM technology could help organic growers: the case of corn earworm on sweet corn.  Growers have not been able to find organic solution to mitigate corn earworm infestation on their sweet corn. Therefore, some growers have been forced to sell their product with “a little extra protein”- aka with corn earworms. In fact, some farmers’ market stands for organic sweet corn will have a knife ready for customers to cut off the ends of the ears where the earworm is. Of course, the sullied appearance of their product doesn’t get the grower full price. Without going into all the biological reasons why orgnanic methods have failed in this regard, the bottom line is that some problems are difficult to solve “the organic way”. Given that there are so many great things about organic agriculture (the reduction of fertilizers and pesticides, the emphasis on building soil quality over the long term, and the emphasis on crop biodiversity and agroecological robustness) it would be a shame to throw all that out the window, or continue to see it’s scalability inhibited by issues such as the corn earworm.

corn earwormNow, draw your attention to the picture on the left. One can see that GE sweet corn (right) is resistant to corn earworm grown under the same organic conditions as the non-resistant variety (left). This is the result of one known change in the corn’s DNA (compared to millions of unknown changes that occur with traditional breeding). This change allows the corn to perform well without the use of chemicals sprays.

Pamela and Raoul are a living example of people coming together from opposite ends of the agricultural spectrum and finding synergy instead of discord. Of course, there would need to be a cumbersome legal and philosophical overhaul of what society defines as “organic”, or perhaps the creation of a whole new category of certification before organic growers will be able to add GM technology to their extensive tool box of an integrated pest management strategy. I believe that with continued efforts to educate consumers, the incorporation of new and old agricultural methods will be good for the environment, feasible for farmers, and more readily scalable than current organic techniques.

Plants breeders know that a wide cross of genotypes often results in hybrid vigor. Perhaps a wide cross of technological approaches will result in a new vigorous type of agriculture.

Still skeptical? Pick up a copy of Tomorrow’s Table and hear it from the experts.

Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate at Terviva Inc.

Flower Power in Texas

Author: David Harry, Ph.D.

My last blog posting discussed how and why flowering and yield are closely related in many agricultural crops, including pongamia (posted August 12, 2013).  That’s just one of the reasons why we’re so pleased to see flowering on trees planted only two years ago in Texas.

Figure 1.  TerViva staff members Claire and Keith with a flowering tree in Texas

Figure 1. TerViva staff members Claire and Keith with a flowering tree in Texas

  Another important reason is that we can now monitor flower and fruit development on trees “in our own backyard,” rather than from a distance.  Of course we’ve observed reproductive structures on trees in Florida and Hawaii, as well as in various parts of Australia and India, but our backyard trees in Texas provide an opportunity to gather frequent observations on individual trees and marked clusters of flowers and fruits.  Very convenient!  Given the direct connection between reproductive development and yield, it behooves us to thoroughly understand pongamia’s fruit and seed development.

Our previous understanding of reproductive development in pongamia has been drawn from reading scientific publications, visiting colleagues, and from our own observations while visiting pongamia trees in far-flung locations.  Consequently, we can draw a few generalizations:

  • Pongamia trees will often lose their leaves as days becomes longer in late winter and spring.  Senescing leaves typically lose their deep green color before they drop, and trees appear to enter a quiescent state for a time
  • Flowers typically emerge on elongating shoots after such a quiescent period
  • Individual flowers, or florets, are clustered together on a stalk, which collectively is called an inflorescence
Figure 2.  Inflorescence (flower cluster) on a young pongamia tree in Texas (left).  At least 15 florets (individual flowers) are visible.  Two weeks later, the same inflorescence has set two immature pods, each less than a half-inch long (right).  Photo credit:  Jennifer Den

Figure 2. Inflorescence (flower cluster) on a young pongamia tree in Texas (left). At least 15 florets (individual flowers) are visible. Two weeks later, the same inflorescence has set two immature pods, each less than a half-inch long (right). Photo credit: Jennifer Den

  • Although an inflorescence may include 10-70 florets (or more), many flowers fail to set fruit (Fig. 2 left)
  • Fruits typically occur in clusters of 3-5 pods.  (Numbers of pods per cluster varies substantially among trees)
  • Pods grow rapidly in length and width, reaching their near-mature size in a matter of weeks (Fig. 3 below)
  • Seeds within pods (usually only one per pod) expand over a period of many months
  • Pods grow thicker as the enclosed seed grows.  Nearly mature pods that are thin or flat are unlikely to contain viable seeds
  • Developing seeds remain soft and light green until shortly before they mature, when the seed loses moisture and the seed coat turns reddish brown
Figure 3.  The young pod on the left was observed on 8/7/2013, having developed from a flower observed 6 weeks earlier.  On the right is the same pod observed one week later, on 8/14/2013.  Note how the pod has grown in both length and width. Photo credit:  Jennifer Den

Figure 3. The young pod on the left was observed on 8/7/2013, having developed from a flower observed 6 weeks earlier. On the right is the same pod observed one week later, on 8/14/2013. Note how the pod has grown in both length and width. Photo credit: Jennifer Den

  • Seed oil content increases throughout seed development, and reaches a plateau before the seeds are completely mature
  • Putting all these observations together, the practical application is that optimizing oil yields and harvesting efficiency may mean adjusting harvesting times to match individual varieties and local conditions.  Furthermore, the optimal timing of harvesting for oil may well differ from that of optimal harvesting for other traits (e.g. seed germination).

These are all important considerations as we continue to learn by observing trees in Texas (and soon elsewhere).  And while the Texas trees have yet to complete a full flower-to-fruit cycle, we can cautiously begin to “ground truth” our observations relative to what we already know.  (Disclaimer—while observations of flower and fruit development on young trees can be used as early indicators, reliable patterns will emerge only after observing older trees as well.)  And generally speaking, I can say “so far, so good.”  That said, one of nature’s most reliable messages is to be prepared for exceptions, and I’m sure we’ll see our fair share of those in the months and years ahead.  Stay tuned—we’ll share them as they come to our attention.

 

David Harry is Director of R+D at Terviva

$hake it till you make it

Author: Adam Hanbury-Brown

It’s the busiest time of year in California’s central valley where nut tree growers are working hard to harvest millions of pounds of nuts from their orchards. Given Terviva’s current interest in mechanical harvesting for pongamia, we have been paying close attention to the growers’ activities on our doorstep.

California produces approximately 2 billion pounds of almonds per year, and at $2 per pound that represents 4 billion in revenue. Given how much money is at stake, it is no wonder that growers take their harvest very seriously. Paramount Farms alone is forecasting 550 million pounds of pistachios this year, and when they’re selling at $2.20 per pound even a small percentage of yield left behind could result in millions of lost revenue.

As a nut tree farmer like Paramount Farms, your revenue is not simply contingent upon what your trees produce; rather, you get paid for what makes it out of your orchard in a marketable state. Therefore, one of the most critical elements of a profitable season is a successful harvest. An orchard overflowing with nuts is useless unless there is a cost effective and efficient way to get your nuts off the trees and safely on their way to the processing facility. Each tree crop has its own biological idiosyncrasies that the grower must contend with when developing the optimal harvest strategy. For the most well developed tree crops such as almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, these strategies have become remarkably sophisticated. Left is an example of a tree shaker. green-pistachio

9_26_2013 142 - resize

A successful tree crop harvesting strategy requires the harmonious marriage of machinery and biology. For example, as anyone who has ever eaten a pistachio knows, every pistachio has a slit in its side. The slit slowly starts to open as the nut matures on the tree. Although a properly split pistachio can make things easier for the consumer when trying to take the shell off, it causes a conundrum for the grower. If a pistachio with an open slit hits the orchard floor, it has potentially become irreversibly contaminated. Removing dirt and the chance of harmful bacteria from inside the slit of a pistachio is not an economically viable option so every nut that hits the ground is lost revenue. Therefore, pistachio growers use an ingenious machine that shakes the trees, catches the falling pods, conveys them into crates (or a bulk carrying device), and separates out leaves- all in the same machine! Above (left) is a picture of one such machine in operation.

Similar machines are also used by stone fruit growers. But what about nuts that fell to the floor before your harvester got there? What about nuts that might still be immature and on the tree? In pistachios they can help alleviate those problems by doing an earlier pass and then a later pass a few weeks later in the harvest season.  For other species, there are issues that make shaking onto catchframes totally non viable.9_26_2013 159Coe_Tree_Shaker

For example, walnuts growers can’t use catch frames for two reasons 1) a walnut tree is much bigger and 2) walnuts have the unfortunately phenological attribute of dropping a not insignificant portion of their nuts before the bulk of them are ready. This is what growers refer to as windfall, and you can bet that they want to sell it. Therefore, when it comes time to shake the trees (using machinery such as that shown on the left), they let the nuts remaining in the crown to fall onto the ground to join their early falling counterparts. Due to the fact that the edible parts of a walnut are completely enclosed in shell, it is not a health hazard to let the nuts fall to the ground. Once the nuts are on the ground, they are swept and blown into windrows (shown on the right), and then picked up by a large harvesting machine. Clearly there are more steps, and more pieces of equipment involved in this harvesting strategy, but the idiosyncrasies of the tree’s biology dictates that this is the most economically effective means of getting the product to market.

At Terviva we are paying close attention to the how growers are matching their nut crops to specific harvesting strategies. This will help us find the best possible solution for our own tree- pongamia. Even though it is early days for the large scale commercialization of pongamia, it is clear that we will need an efficient mechanical harvesting process in order to maximize profits to the grower. Preliminary conversations with harvesting experts indicate that equipment that is already available should work well with pongamia. Making fine tune adjustments will come as the pongamia industry grows. For now, we are looking to our doorstep in California’s central valley to learn from some of the most sophisticated nut growers in the world. This invaluable information is shaping the way we think about genetic selections, plantation layout, and orchard management.

Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate at Terviva

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

Reproductive Biology and Cash Flow: What’s the Connection?

Author: Dr. David Harry, Phd Forest Genetics

TerViva’s aim is to increase the value of under-utilized agricultural land by growing the leguminous tree pongamia (Pongamia pinnata) for its valuable oilseed crop. Pongamia was introduced into the US decades ago, and subsequently planted primarily as a landscape tree. In urban landscapes, pongamia is valued for its deep shade and ability to tolerate the tough urban environments. One of pongamia’s drawbacks in such environments is that it is considered a “messy” tree, brought about by shedding of its profuse flower petals and pods. Ironically, these same traits considered undesirable in an urban setting are exactly what are considered valuable in an agricultural setting. In order to better understand pongamia’s reproductive biology (timing of floral and fruit development, pollinators, fruit drop, etc.), we approached a few urban organizations about examining the reproductive biology of mature pongamia trees in their care. Unfortunately, our overtures were not well received (“Let me get this straight, you want to do what?”). Needless to say, we were thrilled to observe flowering on some of our 2-year-old trees in Texas. Finally we had an opportunity to make some first-hand observations.

The connection between flowers, fruit, and income is likely obvious to many agriculturists, but this significance may be less obvious to others. Simply put, pongamia’s oilseed yield is linked directly to its yield of pods (fruit), which are in turn linked to all of the factors influencing pongamia’s reproductive biology, including: overall amount and timing of flower production, pollinators (mostly bees and insects), pollination efficiency, fruit set, fruit retention, pod and seed development, fruit maturation, fruit drop, and finally, harvest efficiency. In order to optimize yield, we must understand the basics behind each of these important factors, and moreover, how they interact. Detailed observations in field conditions play a key role.

So far our observations of young Texas trees have demonstrated several key points, some of which confirm opportunistic observations of mature landscape trees from elsewhere.
1. The timing of flowering and flower development varies considerably among seedling offspring. Pongamia trees do not all flower at the same time—this is something we have observed repeatedly on trees growing around the world. This is significant because several key studies suggest that pongamia’s ability to set fruit and produce seeds is greatly enhanced when pollinated with pollen from neighbor trees. Effective pollen exchange can only take place among trees with overlapping windows of flower production. Hence pongamia orchards (aka groves) established using clonal varieties must be planned to optimize the individual flowering windows in the varietal mix. We recognize that the timing of flowering among young trees may change as they mature, so we plan to continue monitoring flowering in the years ahead.

flowers

Figure 1. Flowers on 2 yr old pongamia seedlings at Terviva site in Texas

2. Local pollinators in Texas visit pongamia’s flowers. We were pleased to observe numerous bees visiting flowers (which bodes well for future crop years. Continued growth and development of some pods suggests that at least some flowers were pollinated.

pods vert

Figure 2. Young raceme with lots of floret scars (Photo Credit Jennifer Den)

3. Of the many individual flowers within each of pongamia’s floral clusters, relatively few develop into mature pods. Based on observations of many other trees in Australia, India, Florida, and Hawaii, we know this developmental pattern is simply pongamia’s normal MO. Nevertheless, we had been unable to deduce when this lost reproductive potential happens. We are now fairly convinced that the majority of this loss is due to poor fruit set, but we still don’t know how or why this happens (Figure 2).
4. Very young pods suffer attrition, but as yet our sampling scheme is too sparse to offer meaningful generalizations.
5. Remaining pods rapidly increase in both length and width within about 6 weeks after fruit set. During this same time, immature seeds within

Figure 3. Young pongamia pod developing.

Figure 3. Young pongamia pod developing. (Photo Credit Jennifer Den)

pods appear to increase in size at a much slower relative rate.

What have we learned?

A key to improving yield (and cash flow) for pongamia will be to better understand how to optimize fruit set and pod retention. Unless these critical steps take place, overall oilseed yields can be much reduced. Much of what we’ve recently observed coincides with our earlier observations of mature trees. But now we have a better sense of what to expect in Texas. Futher observations, certain to come in the years ahead, will continue to guide our evaluation and selection of elite pongamia varieties. Increasingly, we will integrate reproductive biology to help us develop specific varietal combinations to maximize oilseed yield and minimize lost reproductive potential.

Dr. David Harry is chief of R+D at Terviva Inc.

South America’s Best Kept Agricultural Secret

guerra-del-chaco

map of the Chaco region

If you walk into the lobby of the Ibis hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay you will likely see eager faces pouring over large maps of a vast region of northwestern Paraguay called “El Chaco”. Wealthy land prospectors from all over the world (mostly Brazil, Uruguay, and Western Europe) consult men in panama hats as they consider buying their own tranche of South America. With land prices as low as a few hundred dollars per hectare in some places, the Chaco is considered by many to be one of the last agricultural frontiers. With Brazilian rain forest on its northeast, Bolivian high country to its west, and more developed agricultural land in Argentina and Paraguay to the south, the Chaco lies in the heart of South America. Amazingly, few people in the United States have ever heard about it.

The Chaco has a hot, harsh climate that produces temperatures as high as 120 ⁰F with little to no rain for six months out of the year. Only a third of the land in the Chaco has ground water with salinity levels low enough to irrigate or provide to cattle. With vegetation exhibiting four inch long thorns, and the omnipresent threat of yellow fever and malaria (during the wet season), it is no wonder that many of the land owners in this area have never even stepped foot on their properties. A simple fly over in a small plane is all that’s required for many people who buy in the Chaco. They see the area’s potential and know that land prices will continue to rise.

For people looking to add value to their land, currently, the main industry is cattle. They breed Brahman cattle from India because they are better suited to the climate. In areas with no ground water they build large water catchment areas called tajamares to capture rainfall in the wet season. Land owners in the Chaco with good ground water and sandy loam are looking beyond cattle to a more lucrative future. Aside from lacking infrastructure, their land is comparable to the major soy producing areas of southeastern Paraguay where land prices are an order of magnitude higher. Many believe that roads and other infrastructure in the Chaco will improve enough in the next 10 or 15 years to open up these budding agricultural areas. There have already been trials of soy and eucalyptus to test performance of these lucrative crops.

ParaguayChaco_Cattleranch3_PdeHayes

Cattle Grazing in the Chaco

Some landowners, without adequate ground water and favorable soil, are looking to see if they too have options beyond cattle. Terviva’s tree, Pongamia pinnata, is native to hot, tropical and subtropical areas of the globe that share many characteristics with the Chaco including monsoonal rainfall and extended dry seasons. Terviva is currently working with a Paraguay-based customer, Investancia, to establish a test plantation of pongamia this November. Pongamia plantations in the Chaco will fulfill Paraguayan domestic biodiesel needs, and the excess will be sold to nearby lucrative markets in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Unlike palm, pongamia can be sustainably grown on marginal land because it requires few fertilizers and little water. Given that it is a drought tolerant tree, it will be hardy in this hot and unforgiving environment. As a perennial tree crop, it requires much less infrastructure- which is severely lacking in the Chaco. Terviva is excited to be a part of the development of this exciting new agricultural region.

Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate for Terviva

The 99%

Look around you right now and you will see plant based products: the coffee in your mug, the cotton in your shirt, and the mustard stain on your pant leg. Plants are out there silently manufacturing a myriad of compounds and polymers that weave their way into every aspect of our lives.

The shear variety of food, medicine, personal care items, and industrial products made possible by harnessing and commercializing plants is mind boggling. Even more amazing is that this plethora of plant products is largely derived from only 250 domesticated plant species. To put that number in perspective, that is only 0.06% of the possible 390,000 estimated species of land plants that grow on earth. What about the other 99.94%? Is there an untapped reservoir of agronomic possibility lurking out there in the forest? Think what we could do by effectively harnessing just another 0.06% of it. 

The fact that such a small percentage of the earth’s plant species have been domesticated tells me two things 1) domesticating new plant species has been difficult for most of human history 2) somewhere in that 99.94 % there must be at least a few leafy gems waiting to be mined by someone with the right equipment.

wheatBut, why bother with new species anyway? In the past, people have rarely found it necessary or economically beneficial to domesticate a totally new species, even when business as usual wasn’t working. Settlers moving to the American Midwest found that their European varieties of wheat didn’t grow too well in the new environment. Did they drop everything and domesticate local prickly pears? No, they developed new varieties of European wheat. I’ll take a wild guess and say that a big factor in that decision was that the demand for wheat was probably higher than for prickly pear.

So, why is today any different? What is the incentive to domesticate new crops, and will there be a market?

Since the agricultural expansion of the Midwest, some things have changed, and other things have stayed pretty much the same. Americans still ask themselves “How can I make the best use of my land?” and “Who am I going to sell my crop to?” The main difference is that the answers aren’t so simple anymore.  Markets for agricultural products are larger and more complicated. To name just a few new demanding customers with specific needs: biodiesel refineries want cheap triglycerides, chemical manufacturers want feedstocks for specialty chemicals, the health foods industry wants better nutrition grown with lower environmental impact, and manufacturers of personal care items want oleochemicals in high volumes. Farmers want all this to happen using less inputs, and environmentalists want it to happen on less land with less environmental impact. It’s a big ask from our 250 domesticated plants, especially if it’s going to happen in a sustainable and profitable way for the farmer.factory

I believe that many of these new demands will require new crops to satisfy them.  It is likely that some solutions will come from tweaking plants that we are already familiar with, but perhaps we will also need to look toward the 99.94%. Just as advancements in mining equipment has allowed miners to reach untapped ore, advances in agriculture and genetics will allow scientists and growers to explore the potential of a broader range of species for cultivation. For the past few years Terviva has been matching suitable growers with a new tree crop, pongamia, to help them add value to land where conventional crops, such as citrus, have failed. In just three years, pongamia went from being unheard of to relatively well known in a few key geographies.

Creating channels for the acceptance and utilization of new crops is not an easy task, but progress is being made. Once the domestication channels are in place, new crops will likely be easier to bring online. The rewards will include the preservation of an entrepreneurial agrarian lifestyle that America has come to know and love, as well as the production of higher value agricultural products using fewer inputs.

How to “Make” Land

Author: William Kusch

Mark Twain once suggested: “buy land – they’re not making it anymore”.  My response to that suggestion would be, “well, sort of”, but I’ll back that up in a little bit. The number of acres available for conventional agricultural crop production is indeed finite, and in fact there is downward pressure on that number in some parts of the country due to water shortages.

L Mead (3)As a case study, let’s consider Lake Mead, the artificial lake created by the construction of the Hoover Dam in Nevada, which harnessed the energy of the Colorado River. Ordinarily, the elevation of Lake Mead is 1,219 feet; as of March 23, 2013 the lake level is 1,120 feet. Due in part to increasing water demand from a growing population in Las Vegas, evaporation from the 250 square mile surface area with temperatures regularly exceeding 100 degrees F, and frequent droughts, the lake level is dropping precipitously: there is a 50% chance Lake Mead will run dry by 2021. Were this to happen, the situation would not only be devastating to the inhabitants of Las Vegas, but also to prime agricultural operations in areas such as the Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Mesa in California, which rely on the Colorado River.

But wait, it gets worse. Around the country, increasing numbers of agricultural areas are being affected by soil salinization, which is a condition that can be lethal to plants. Salinization often results from crop irrigation. Almost all of the water used for agriculture has some dissolved salt content; plants selectively take up the water while they are growing, leaving the salt behind in the soil, or the water evaporates before the plants can use it, again leaving the salt in the soil. This process has metastasized to the point that the long-term productivity of the Western San Joaquin Valley in California, one of the most highly productive agricultural regions in the USA, is threatened by salinity levels. Many other parts of the country are also affected by this process.Salty (2)

Which brings me back to Mr. Twain. Our company, TerViva, is in the business of establishing orchards of oilseed-bearing pongamia trees. Pongamia trees address both of the issues raised above in that they have lower water requirements than many conventional orchard crops, and have shown strong indications of tolerance for saline soils and irrigation water. These traits mean that acres of land that are unavailable to other crops due to insufficient water availability, or salinity issues, can be put to productive use for pongamia cultivation, in essence, making new cropland. While you still may want to buy land, at least you can know that in some sense, they are indeed making more of it.