As Citrus Season Comes to Early End, Pongamia Offers Florida Growers Chance to Branch Out.

The early end to Florida’s citrus season this year marks an especially challenging time for the region’s growers. Florida’s agriculture industry still struggles in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Irma– with $2.5 billion in losses, including more than $760 million from the citrus industry.

But even more problematic for the state is the combination of citrus greening and declining orange juice consumption. Just as citrus producers had to cope with the devastating microbial disease before the storm, they must confront it again season after season. Citrus greening is one of the most serious crop diseases in the world. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure and most die within a few years. In the meantime, between 2001–02 and 2016–17, the retail U.S. orange juice market has declined by 50 percent.

Due to all of these challenges, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Florida citrus crop forecast is 50,000 boxes down from the April estimate and 9 million down from the 54 million boxes predicted at the start of the season. That’s a decline of more than 80 percent since the peak of citrus production during 1997-98.
To help support distressed growers, Congress passed a spending bill earlier this year that included more than $2.3 billion for agricultural assistance in Florida. Still, the relief package does not solve the crisis of greening or lack of consumer interest. A solution that does address both greening and lack of O.J. consumption is for growers to diversify their agricultural output, but each new crop comes with its own set of unique challenges.

Speaking of pongamia’s potential to fill this economic void, our Chief Agriculture Officer and veteran citrus grower Peter McClure recently told the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, “[w]e had 800,000 acres of citrus when greening came in. You can’t grow 800,000 acres of blueberries, peaches or pomegranates because the market isn’t big enough. With pongamia’s biological fit in Florida and the existing huge markets available for oil and protein, you can scale up and grow 100,000 to 200,000 acres or more without breaking the market.”
“Being in citrus where we have fought hard for 10 years […], said Peter, “we’re fighting a losing battle where we’re having to lay off people, I see a crop that will provide jobs for those same people.”

Read the full interview between Peter and Florida’s Fruit and Vegetable Association: http://www.southeastfarmpress.com/fruit/grower-champions-sturdy-replacement-crop-embattled-florida-citrus

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.

 

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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.

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.

 

 

Wild relatives may not be so crazy after all

by Madison Brown

Recently, I came across an article pertaining to a study done on the use of ‘Crop Wild Relatives.’ This study analyzed the wild relatives of crops widely used across the globe to analyze qualities such as drought-tolerance and heat resistance, amongst other more desirable traits plant breeders seek out as our climactic patterns continue to become less and less predictable.

Climatologists and weather forecasters are already calling for another El Nino event to begin this fall. El Nino typically brings weather extremes such as abnormally rainy, warm winters and dry summers. In the world of food production, this means crops struggle to survive respective seasons. For consumers, this can lead to shortages of their favorite fruits and vegetables and in the worst-case grains and other staple crops. In turn, this leads to shortages of livestock feed. These threats result in plant breeders and researchers to investigate ‘wild’ relatives to these crops that in their current form may have lost the ability to adapt.

Staple crops such as rice, barley, chickpea and sunflowers were all analyzed throughout said study. The crops analyzed in this study are major sources of carbohydrates, plant-based protein (legumes) as well as oils and are cultivated consistently throughout the world. By providing information pertaining to commonly cultivated crops, their ‘cousins’ so to speak can be analyzed to provide further understanding of said crops genetics and how the variability can provide both good and bad references of its behavior and survival in the future, or potential improvements to current cultivars. It seems the overall goal here is to increase biodiversity. However, this study left-out major oil crops such as soybeans and corn, which are responsible for ethanol, bio-diesel and other petroleum alternatives that continue to increase in utilization every year.

This article and the information it presented is compelling because our team has been applying these same principles in a process to domesticate Pongamia Pinnata, a native to India and Australia and a wild, tropical relative to legumes we consume and utilize in industrial processes every day. Native to the tropics, Pongamia is naturally drought and tolerant to most temperature and weather extremes. Considering current predictions of our climate and weather patterns for the future, Pongamia seems to fit the bill as a “Wild Relative” for future oilseed crop production.

pods 1

However, Pongamia is vastly different in that it is a tree crop, thus providing other major environmental benefits to our planet. One benefit is carbon sequestration as all trees consume significantly larger amounts of CO2 to complete photosynthesis. In addition, Pongamia is a legume – meaning it “fixes” its own nitrogen through a symbiotic process involving tiny organisms living in the soil. These organisms are called Rhizobia and they participate in a symbiotic relationship with their host by feeding on photosynthates (carbohydrates and sugars provided by photosynthesis), whilst providing nitrogen to their host. Nitrogen also happens to be the most limiting nutrient to plant growth.  With these characteristics, Pongamia can provide us with a clean, forward-thinking alternative to soybeans and other oilseed crops.

Overall, it is both refreshing and exciting to learn other scientists and organizations are performing similar research to ours, on the same path to increasing sustainability and biodiversity on this beautiful planet we call home.

Keep Edible Oils for People, and Non-edible Oils for Industry

By Tom Schenk

In 2012, actor Matt Damon starred in a movie “Promised Land”.  The story was about a rural community whose water was being contaminated from chemicals used in the injection fluids from a petroleum company’s nearby oil and natural gas fracking operation.  While the movie was a box office flop for Damon, it did raise the public’s awareness about the toxic cocktail of chemicals (benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, and methanol, to name a few) that are combined with the large quantities of water (up to 7 million gallons) and sand that are injected deep underground at high pressures to fracture and open up rock formations so oil and gas can flow to a well. These chemicals help to reduce corrosion of the well, lubricate the extraction process, and prevent clogs and bacterial growth.

fracking

Many studies have claimed that these chemicals were used in such small quantities that they posed little risk to aquifers and other groundwater sources. Nevertheless, the movie, numerous articles, and academic studies raised the public’s awareness about some of the potential dangers created by this new drilling technology.  And no doubt it also raised alarms in the oil and gas companies’ legal and risk management departments that contaminating the water supply of one or more cities would wipe the company off the map.

Guar gum has been used in the food industry for many decades.  It has also been one of the favorite products drillers used to hold that sand in suspension and deliver it to its destination.  The greatest source for guar gum historically has been India.  The boom in fracking has created monumental price spikes and shortages for drillers in obtaining this product and has created havoc on their P&L’s.

In recent years, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and a myriad of other oil-related companies have been developing suitable alternatives – often from plant-based oils – for developing greener, more environmentally-friendly lubricants for their drilling activities.  They would also like to see a more dependable domestic supply for the ingredients in their fracking recipes for biodegradable polymers.

However, in the fast developing world of biodegradable polymers, drilling fluids are almost a rounding error by comparison to all the other wonderful consumer and industrial products that technology that is developing from plant-based oils such as marine oils, auto and aviation lubricants (often with superior wear and heat properties), surfactants, detergents, shopping bags, food containers and countless other products where petroleum-based products and plastics have historically dominated. This technology is in a profound growth phase as almost anything we currently know as plastic can be reproduced in a more sustainable manner with plant-based oils rather than petroleum. And it sells because the consumer wants it.

Soy is the most dominant feedstock for many of these renewable products, as well as corn, canola, flax, palm, cottonseed, peanut, and others that are cultivated in large quantities worldwide.  Couple the growth in biofuels with the growth in this new technology for industrial applications, and all it will take is one or two bad years of crop production for there to be be a collision between food security for people and feedstock supply for factories and refineries.

Only the most arable lands – which are in diminishing supply – should logically be devoted exclusively to food.  Champions of these earth-friendly fuels and industrial products made from renewable feedstocks are missing the full picture.  They should be calling for the development of high-yielding non-edible oilseed crops that can thrive on the marginal land!

This is Terviva’s mission.  One of the most promising crops in this space is the wild tree called pongamia that our company is commercializing. These oilseed trees can produce up to 10x the amount of oil per acre that the best soybean land in Iowa can produce. Carbon is sequestered, and vast fallow acreage in Florida and Hawaii is on its way to becoming annually renewable – and profitable -“oilfields”.  Hardy, high-yielding crops on marginal lands are the optimum way to achieve peak biodiversity. Leave the good lands to make food for people.

When is a new crop not a fad and can farmers go it alone?

A recent report on American Public Radio’s Marketplace  entitled Superfood fads: Super distracting for global farmers?,(American Public Radio Marketplace May 22, 2014 ) got me thinking again about new crops, “one of the biggest debates in international agriculture”.  The debate centers around whether to improve the already domesticated major crops or domesticate new promising plant species and develop new crop varieties.

Brazil’s success with soybeans illustrates the power of new crop varieties introduced in the right place along with appropriate agronomic practices to enable scaling to such a large extent that it goes well beyond a fad. Today, Brazil is the only agricultural power in the tropics. Its share (8%) of global agriculture markets is second only to the United States (17%), and may well, according to some analysts, overtake the US in the coming decades.   Brazil’s projected growth in agricultural production is estimated to be 38 % from 2010 to 2019, a rate nearly twice the global average and considerably higher than the US, Canada, and the European Union, current world agriculture giants. (OECDI FAO, 2010).

Without question, one of Brazil’s major successful crop introductions has been soybeans.   Today, Brazil produces and exports 25% of the world’s soybeans and it does so on only 6% of its arable land, in its dry land tropics in an area called the Cerrado, Brazil’s savannah-type biome. (Economist, Aug 26, 2010)

How Brazil became a major global agricultural power house, the only tropical country to do so, and how it adapted a temperate climate crop to the tropics with advances in plant science, crop science, and appropriate agronomy provides valuable lessons for other countries that aim to develop new crops and introduce them on a large scale.

The Brazilian government took a major strategic leadership position in developing new crops for a previously nonproductive area on a huge scale.  Farmers did not “go it alone” nor take all the risks inherent in such agricultural innovation.

The major strategic innovation that the Brazilian government took was to create a remarkable research entity, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA) in 1973.  The Brazilians elected to create this new agricultural research entity as a state-owned company affiliated with but with independence from government agencies under the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.

EMBRAPA is headquartered in Brasilia with 15 units in Brasilia and 47 units scattered across other regions of Brazil.  It has labs in the US, Europe, China, and South Korea along with offices in other Latin American countries and Africa. (wikipedia). It employs more than 2200 scientists (mostly PhD’s) with an annual budget of ~$1B (farmfutures.com/blogs).  With a GDP ($2.5T in 2012) 1/6 that of the US ($16T in 2012), (whitehouse press-office, 2012) Brazil spends an equivalent amount on agricultural R&D.   (useconomy.about.com)

Figure 1: Decline in the annual funding for US Agriculture Research Service

Furthermore, while the EMBRAPA budget has remained strong since its creation, the US investment in agricultural research funded by the national government has been declining for the previous decade (American Society of agronomy and crop science).

EMBRAPA conducts agricultural research on many topics including animal agriculture and crops.  Soybeans in an area called the Cerrado has been a major EMBRAPA success.  (Economist Aug 26, 2010)  Image of the Brazilian Cerrado area

What did EMBRAPA scientists do that enabled the successful adoption of a new crop and the creation of a large scale soybean industry in the Brazilian savannah?  (Economist Aug 26, 2010).

First the Brazilians recognized the potential of their Cerrado.

Figure 2:  Brazil's Cerrado

Figure 2: Brazil’s Cerrado

Brazil has more than 300 million hectares of arable land with seasonal rains and most of this land is in the Cerrado. Brazil has almost as much farmland with more than 975 millimetres of rain each year as the whole of Africa.  Even today, only 50 million is being actively farmed.

Second EMBRAPA scientists and farmers improved the Cerrado’s pour soils that are acidic and poor in nutrients.  They applied industrial quantities of lime (pulverized limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce its acidity. By the early 2000’s 25 million tonnes of lime were applied to Cerrado soils annually.  EMBRAPA scientists also bred varieties of rhizobium, a bacterium that helps fix nitrogen in legumes and which works especially well in the soil of the Cerrado, reducing the need for fertilizers.

Third, by traditional breeding and selection, EMBRAPA worked out how to make soy also grow well in a tropical climate.  All other big soybean producers including the United States and Argentina have temperate climates.  EMBRAPA created varieties of soy that are more tolerant than usual of acid soils (even after the vast application of lime, the Cerrado is still somewhat acidic). And it sped up the plants’ growth cycle, reducing the usual cycle by 8 to 12 weeks.  These short growth cycle soy varieties have made it possible to grow two crops a year in Brazil.  Now farmers can harvest a first crop in February, leaving enough time for a full second crop before the September planting, accounting for a lot of the increases in yields.

 Fourth, EMBRAPA pioneered a method under which the soil is not plowed nor is the crop harvested at ground level.  Instead, the crop is cut high on the stalk and the rest of the plants are left to rot. Next year’s crop is then planted directly into the organic mat.  In this way, more nutrients remain in the soil.   Today more than 50% of Brazilian farmland is cultivated this “no-till way”.

 EMBRAPA continues to innovate, pioneering new agricultural practices such as integrating forest, agriculture and livestock.  Fields are used alternately for crops and livestock while rows of trees are also planted in between the fields, where cattle can forage. This integration has enabled farmers to rescue degraded pasture lands and increase the intensity of land use so as to produce more without cutting down the Amazon forest.  In this way, Brazil is making its agriculture more sustainable.

There’s no question that companies such as Monsanto and other “big Ag” will continue improving major commodities in particular corn and soybeans to increase yields, developing varieties that will grow in harsher climates, and outcompete weeds because they contain sets of genes that confer resistance to multiple herbicides.   In concert with improving plant varieties, ag biotech is betting on precision farming (see Ag2.0 May 28, 2014)

On the other hand, are there situations like the Brazilian Cerrado that cry out for new crops and are there other crops that have the potential to go beyond being a fad? After all, all crops were plant species of only potential value at one point in history.

We at TerViva argue that when a new crop meets the following criteria it is not a fad and it has the potential to have staying power:

  1. Big market for the harvest product
  2. Plant thrives in potential geography of introduction
  3. Cultivation of crop is readily adopted with existing farming infrastructure and methodologies, “drop-in”.

Clearly national priorities matter when innovation is at stake, and agriculture for Brazil continues to be a national and strategy.  No wonder that some analysts predict Brazil will overtake the US in its share of global agriculture markets!  The public good will be best served when there are public policies and support in place for new crops to be tested, developed, and validated along side of continued innovations around the major existing commodities.

Banana: cautionary tale of the risk inherent in crop monoculture

Over the past half a century, agriculture systems have become truly global with great benefits in yields and economies of scale.  These benefits, however, have come at the cost of reduced biodiversity resulting in an increased risk from biological and environmental catastrophes.  A relatively small number of key crop species like wheat, corn and soybean, have been established as major staples for diets across the globe along with meat and dairy products.   For those crops that are cultivated, a small number of elite varieties have been deployed on ever-increasing geographic areas.  As more people rely on a small number of crop species and a small number of varieties within these crop species, genetic variation has been limited and agriculture is becoming more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases.  Such threats are likely to become even worse in many parts of the world as a result of climate change. (BBC news, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26382067).

source: (wikipedia)

Original native ranges of the ancestors of modern edible bananas. Musa acuminatais shown in green and Musa balbisiana in orange. (source wikipedia)

The global banana crop illustrates this tension inherent in modern agriculture.  Most edible bananas come from primarily two wild progenitors Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana).  Banana consumption divides into two distinct groups:  those that “want” and those that “need”.  (Dan Koeppel, 2007, Banana the Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World).  For those in poorer developing areas of the world that “need”, hard starchy bananas provide more than 20% of daily calories for 400 million people. Total global annual production of bananas exceeds 145 million tonnes with 2/3 of the worlds bananas produced for domestic consumption by smaller farmers.  The major banana producers are: India, Uganda, China, the Philippines, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Columbia, Cameroon, and Tanzania. For more than 99% of those in richer importing countries who “want”, a single seedless, sexless (sterile), sweet banana variety,

Cavendish is the banana people eat. Four Latin American countries (Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Columbia) and the Philippines are the major banana exporters of Cavendish bananas from plantations owned by one of several large companies. The US is a major importer of these bananas. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana).  Europe gets most of its bananas from its former colonies in the Caribbean and Africa. Although wild species of bananas have seeds, crop varieties like the Cavendish do not and are propagated as clones from vegetative plant material.   Thus, the 100 bananas eaten per person per year by consumers in the US are all genetically identical (Dan Koeppel, 2007).  The very uniformity and consistency that drives economies of scale and profitability from deploying plantations of the same genetic material enables the rapid spread of diseases.

Multiple banana varieties. (source wikipedia)

Multiple banana varieties. Cavendish on the right. (source wikipedia)

Although the majority of the bananas consumed globally are not of the Cavendish type, Cavendish bananas have in recent years been introduced as the in more and more countries for export income, even where local bananas serve local markets. Beginning in 1985 the Cavendish crops in Asia began to be destroyed by a wilting disease.  The symptoms observed at that time were reminiscent of Panama disease a fungal disease.  Panama disease caused the extinction of the previous banana industry clone, Gros Michel.  Gros Michel began to be planted in Latin America as a profitable export to the US following the American Civil War, first as a luxury good and quickly developed as a cheap treat for the mass consumer market.

Banana exports grew to large scale during the first half of the 20th century.  Panama disease (first reported in Java) arrived in Central American plantations in the early 1900s, first in Panama (hence the disease name).   It took about 50 years until 1950’s for disease to drive Gros Michel to virtual extinction. During those 50 years, the large banana companies responded to the threat with in an environmentally and socially destructive cycle of abandoning plantations, acquiring land at cheap prices, and clearing more tropical forests to establish new plantations, repeating the cycle over and over for millions of acres in Central America and Columbia.   In addition, companies adopted aggressive pesticide application as a disease management strategy, a strategy that lead to major health consequences for their banana workers.  Companies made profits and were able to provide an inexpensive fruit to the US mass consumer market.  However, company profits were a direct result from land acquisition at cheap prices and low wage.  Both of these business successes were achieved low using questionable corporate practices by today’s standards.

The causative agent for the Panama disease that showed up on Cavendish in the 1980’s has been confirmed to be a new strain of the soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc) like the fungus responsible for the previous epidemic that wiped out Gros Michel.  However,  this new fungal strain, Tropical Race 4 (Foc-TR4)  poses a greater threat to the global banana crop because it is more virulent.  Cavendish was developed as the industry savior in the 1950’s and 1960’s because it was found to resist the first Foc race (race 1) that wiped out Gros Michel.   Unlike race 1, Foc-Tr4 not only infects and kills Cavendish on which it was first observed, it also causes disease on most other banana crops deployed around the world. If Foc-TR4 has not already arrived in Central America, it is only matter of time before it does arrive according to the pathologist who identified the causative agent of both the previous Foc and of Foc-TR4, Tony Poetz (as quoted by Gwynn Guildford, http://qz.com/164029/tropical-race-4-global-banana-industry-is-killing-the-worlds-favorite-fruit/).  Since first observed, Foc-TR4 has spread into Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and northern Australia.  As of 2013 the disease had spread to Mozambique and Jordan  (http://www.nature.com/news/fungus-threatens-top-banana-1.14336).

Once in Latin American, with no genetic diversity to resist it, the disease is expected to spread rapidly through the large monoculture plantations of susceptible Cavendish destroying them all in the same way Gros Michel was destroyed by Foc race 1.  In addition, Foc-TR4 is expected to continue destroying banana plantings across Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, the Philippines, the Malaysian peninsula, Australia, and all the smaller islands where bananas grow.  In fact it is estimated that 85% of the world’s banana crop may succumb to Foc-TR4 (Gwynn Guildford quoted in an interview for NPR’s Marketplace on Mar 6, 2014).

The banana consumers in developed countries eat.  source (wikipedia)

The banana consumers in developed countries eat. (source wikipedia)

Americans and Europeans want bananas and will miss their sweet treat, but of much graver consequence, is the threat to the people who need bananas for their sustenance around the world.  Without a new resistant banana crop, these people face hunger or even starvation, in particular during the “hunger season”, those months after last year’s harvest of the locally grown grain or legumes is depleted and this year’s harvest is not yet mature and ready to harvest. (Guildford, 2014).

Technology if adopted could provide a solution for the future of bananas in Africa and elsewhere. An illustration comes from a response to a different catastrophe, the ethnic bloodshed that spread across Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990’s.  As a result of the violence, millions were left homeless and fled into refugee camps where there was a dire need for food.  Although international aid flowed in for short-term food, a banana research group at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium lead by Rony Swennen believed that a longer solution was to introduce new and improved banana plants that they had already developed to combat another devastating disease, Black Sigatoka.   Under Swennen’s leadership, in communication with local farmers, and with the final approval of government officials a collection of  21 “naturally” bred and improved varieties of bananas were planted in trials in Tanzania.  Based on the success of these trials some 2 million of these improved banana plants are in the hands of local farmers.

A combination of traditional breeding and genetic engineering (GMO technology) could produce bananas resistant to FOC-TR4 (Dan Koeppel, 2007).  For the Cavendish variety that has no seeds, and thus cannot be crossed via conventional breeding to create a new resistant variety, genetic engineering offers the only known way to introduce resistance from wild bananas into Cavendish.   Even for bananas that have some seeds, genetic engineering would be a considerably faster method to save these crop varieties.  Genetic engineering could potentially even revive Gros Michel (Butler, Nature 2012).   Groups in various labs including Belgium and Australia have made progress at introducing resistance genes into multiple banana varieties and testing candidate varieties for resistance in field plantings with promising results.  However, it remains unclear whether consumers and governments that have a strong predisposition to oppose genetic engineering are ready to accept such GMO bananas.

What is clear from the history of the banana is the risks inherent in growing a monoculture crop, a single genetic clone of a single crop, over a wide area and over a large number of consecutive years.  Monocultures will be vulnerable to new threats that develop whether these come from biological agents such as diseases or  environmental changes from climate change. At TerViva we take that lesson seriously.  We are developing a suite of elite varieties of a high oil seed tree legume, pongamia.  We intend to deploy such a suite in concert rather than establishing a monoculture of a single high value pongamia variety.  Further, we are working with citrus growers in Florida to introduce pongamia into areas hit hard by citrus greening disease (Huanglongbing).  We view new high value crops such as pongamia as an opportunity for species diversification in agricultural ecosystems and therefore an opportunity to re-introduce genetic diversity.

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For more on the history of the banana and further details of the current banana disease threat see the following sources:

  1. Dan Koeppel (2007):  Banana The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. (book)
  2. Gwynn Guillford (2014) “How the global banana industry is killing the world’s favorite fruit”, http://qz.com/164029/tropical-race-4-global-banana-industry-is-killing-the-worlds-favorite-fruit/.

BANANA TIMELINE (modified from Dan Koeppel, 2007)

>5000 BC:  Early banana cultivation in Papua New Guinea (archeological evidence)
 500 BC:  Written record of banana cultivation in India, seedless varieties and vegetative propagation
  650:  Bananas arrive eastern side of Africa, via middle eastern armies and traders . Bananas spreads west to Guinea.
1402:  Portuguese soldiers bring Guinea banana to Canary Islands colony.  Canary Islands export bananas to Europeans today
1826:  Charles Telfair, British naturalist, administrator in Mauritius, collects Cavendish banana and sends back to England
1870:  American Sea captain Lorenzo Baker purchases 160 Bros Michel bananas in Jamaica takes back to US and sells,  sets off “banana craze”
1871-80: Minor Keith, Brooklyn entrepreneur secures Costa Rica contract to build railroads, plants bananas alongside tracks to create business for the trains.
1885:  Captain Baker starts first banana importing company, Boston Fruit grows into United Fruit, current day Chiquita
1894:  US military action in Nicaragua to quell land and labor reforms.  First US military action in Central America on behalf of banana companies.  30 instances of US military actions
1900:  Standard Fruit founded in New Orleans, current day Dole
1903:  First reported case of disease in Panama, named “Panama Disease”
1905:  Honduras becomes largest banana exporter, lasts almost 100 years
1910:  Early banana research lab opened in Costa Rica, some efforts to breed disease resistant bananas
1922:  Panama disease documented in Australia, New Zealand, China, India, and Canary Islands
1935:  Black Sigatoka disease identified in Central America
Panama disease reached devastating levels in Honduras.  Entire towns abandoned.
1946:  United Fruit reaches ownership ~ 1 million acres of land in Cuba, Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Columbia
1953:  First Cavendish bananas grown by Standard Fruit
1959:  Chiquita sends scientists to Asia on collecting trip to find bananas resistant to Panama disease
1960:  Chiquita opens research program in banana genetics and improvement at La Lima, Honduras.
1961:  Wide-scale adoption of Cavendish banana begins.
1964:  Standard Fruit name change to Dole
1965:  Ecuador surpasses Honduras becomes largest banana exporter, remains largest exporter today
1968: World banana consumption tops 4 billion pounds
1970:  Gros Michel completely replaced by Cavendish
1972:  Black Sigatoka disease (leaf rot fungus) first observed
1978:  Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium founds Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement that houses biodiversity International Transit Center, the world’s largest collection of banana with >90,000 samples from 103 countries and 359 locations
1980:  African banana harvest declines, pathogens including Black Sigatoka show resistance to chemical sprays
1981:  Black Sigatoka first observed South America.  Growers expand chemical spraying
1983:  Chiquita closes research facility at La Lima
1985:  Honduras government takes over La Lima and converts it to Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation.
1985-90:  New race of Panama disease causing fungus, Foc-TR4 appears in Asia, destroys Cavendish crops in multiple countries.
1998:  Hurricane Mitch wipes out 80% of Honduran banana industry
1998:  Costa Rica opens world’s largest banana processing plant
           Tony Poetz identifies causative agent to Pananma disease, soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense
1999:  US annual consumption reaches 100 bananas/person
2001:  Xanthomonas wilt begins spreading in Africa, incurable, faster moving than Panama disease
2003:  Belgium scientist Rony Swennen leads work to introduce “natural” (not GMO) improved banana (Black Sigatoka disease resistant) to Tanzania, 2 million these improved plants grown today
2006:  Banana research lab opened in Uganda to develop conventional hybrids and bioengineered varieties
2012:  Banana genome sequence determined by international collaboration

The Agriculture — Energy Connection

On the TerViva website, it says that I have familiarity with  “the nexus of agriculture and energy”.  Just what is that nexus?  There are two ways of thinking about it:  agriculture as energy supplier and agriculture as energy user.

Ag as Energy Supplier

This topic has gotten much mainstream discussion over the last several years.  There are numerous public companies and start-ups working on “bioenergy”, loosely defined as electricity and transportation fuels created from “biomass”, itself defined as a collection of organic non-fossil materials (e.g., commodity crops, forest residue, organic waste, dedicated energy crops).

One type of bioenergy, biofuels, is already a big business in the US.  Our largest crop by acreage is corn, and about 40% of it is used to make ethanol.  Our second largest crop by acreage, soybean, is popular with biodiesel producers because of its high quality vegetable oil.  The use of these two crops for bioenergy has triggered a debate over “food vs. fuel”.  That’s a topic for its own post.  But briefly, what’s our philosophy about the use of crops for bioenergy?  We think it’s an excellent idea in theory that has to been implemented well in practice.  In other words, for each bioenergy technology, the positives have to significantly outweigh the negatives.

Positives of ag bioenergy vs. negatives

Positives of ag bioenergy vs. negatives

For better or for worse, the current US legislation for biofuels, RFS2, takes into account only some of the factors. We like pongamia for bioenergy because we believe it’s “best-in-class:  it more than checks the box on cost, land, and carbon.  A gallon of US pongamia fuel will cost $3.00 or less to produce.  We are growing pongamia on land that’s no longer suited for prime ag.  And because pongamia is a tree, our orchards permanently sink an estimated 10 tons of carbon per year — potentially making pongamia a source of carbon-negative energy.

 Ag as Energy User

Far less discussed is agriculture’s consumption of energy.  Ag is not a huge consumer of energy – it represents 3-4% of energy use in developed countries and 4-6% of energy use in developing countries.  That energy is consumed in two forms:  directly via agriculture crop cultivation and processing, and indirectly via the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

But energy use in agriculture is becoming more important.  The world is looking for more arable land, and we’re turning toward Africa and Asia to find it.  On those continents, ag land has had lower productivity, in part because of a lack of direct and indirect energy.  To put it another way, the more energy we put into land, the more we get out of it.   And if we want to improve farmland productivity in developing countries — where ag is already a whopping 30% of GDP on average — we’ll need to produce more energy.

Recently, developing countries have made significant improvements in electrification (e.g., power plants, transmission infrastructure) and household energy systems (e.g., cookstoves, solar water heaters).  But comparatively fewer initiatives have targeted energy supply for agriculture.

Enter bioenergy: we can use agriculture to produce energy for agriculture.   There’s lots of potential.  Let’s examine our favorite crop, pongamia, in this vein.

Easily extracted via basic crushing equipment, pongamia oil is not a perfect substitute for diesel, because raw pongamia oil (like other raw vegetable oils) contains water and gums.  But it can be used on a limited basis in tractors and generators, and improvements in this regard are being made. Cummins, the large engine manufacturer, built a special generator that runs on raw pongamia oil to power a rice mill in a remote Indian village.  For great video on this project, check out this link:  http://bit.ly/1aYVXKO.

In the future, we’d like to see pongamia used in developing countries not just as a large-scale commercial crop, but on a smaller scale too – where in a polyculture setting, pongamia provides the energy for food crop cultivation and also provides animal feed for livestock.

Spraying pongamia oil on citrus

Spraying pongamia oil on citrus

Back here in the US, pongamia oil could also be used in agriculture contexts.  One of our Florida landowner partners currently uses 20% biodiesel in its irrigation pumps.  Another one is working with us to see if pongamia oil could be used as a substitute for expensive, petroleum-based mineral oil for crop spraying.  Citrus growers have been spraying more and more mineral oil as a part of their efforts to combat citrus greening disease.

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Agriculture often gets discussed as a producer of energy (e.g. biofuels), but agriculture itself requires increasing amounts of energy, and with some investment and planning could provide itself with that energy.

Naveen is TerViva’s CEO.  For this blog post, he borrowed liberally from some great thoughts put together by the FAO (see http://bit.ly/1fiCjuP).  

Once in a 100 years?

I’m British so I love talking about the weather, it’s the ultimate conversation gap filler, benign, comforting and always there for you to fall back on.  Often there is no need for a preamble, a simple “cold today” will illicit 3 to 5 minutes of inane chat whilst waiting for a bus or a pint.  Everyone in the UK is born with this ability as part of their birth right, people who move here gain the skill in a matter of seconds and visitors to our fair isle access this skill shortly after clearing passport control.  However, I also travel a lot, both for work and personally and I have noticed a dark and foreboding trend, this quintessentially Britishism has spread to the four corners of the globe.

Bushfires at Grampians National Park, Victoria, Australia - 18 Feb 2013

Australian bush fires 2013

Given what has occurred just in 2013, this is unsurprising, the point about the British weather and what used to make it such a constant topic of conversation, was the fact that it was unpredictable but also essentially unremarkable, even boring.  We had some rain but not as much as really wet areas, we have some snow, granted enough to bring little local airports like Heathrow and Gatwick to a complete standstill and to render the public transport system inoperable, but still only a few inches in reality, winds were unremarkable (we had a hurricane in 1984 but it was a small one), floods were rare, fires even rarer… you get the picture.  Granted, the further you travel from London the greater the chance was of encountering more severe weather, but still cataclysmic extreme weather events were rare, so rare in fact that they have a name… “a one in one hundred year event”.  Insurance companies used to use this term and derivatives of it, to help classify risk for insuring businesses.  However, these events are now occurring at an increasingly frequent rate.

The UK has had some bizarre weather over the past 12 months with severe flooding, heatwaves, snow and month vs month temperature differentials, between 2012 and 2013, which are almost unheard of however, globally it was far from quiet…

Some talking points of 2013:

–        Monsoon rains cause severe flooding in Malaysia, 23,000 people evacuated, Jan ‘13

–        Flooding in Mozambique, 250,000 people have to abandon their homes. Jan ‘13

–        Flooding in Indonesia, 100,000 people left homeless, Jan ‘13

–        Hottest month ever experienced in Australia, Jan ‘13

–        Largest snowfall from a single storm ever recorded, NE USA, Feb ‘13

–        Tropical storm Haruna hits Mozambique & Madagascar, Feb ‘13

–        Sever winter storms hit central USA, highest snowfall ever recorded in Kansas, Feb ‘13

–        Flash floods and crops destroyed in Uganda, Mar ‘13

–        New Zealand, worst drought in 30 years, crops fail, livestock slaughtered, Mar ‘13

–        Second warmest March on record in China (warmest was 2008), Mar ‘13

–        Wettest March on record, Spain, ‘13

–        Brazils worst drought for 50 years, Apr ‘13

–        Driest year to date on record, California, Apr ‘13

–        Shortest period between last ice day and summer ever, Austria, Apr ‘13

–        Record flooding in Central US, Apr ‘13

–        China, wettest May in 40 years, ‘13

–        Smallest snow covering in Eurasia since records began, May ‘13

–        1m+ evacuated in Bangladesh due to Cyclone Mahasen, May ‘13

–        Widest observed tornado ever hit Oklahoma, May ‘13

–        Over a 1000 people killed by flash floods, India, Jun ‘13

–        Hottest June temperature ever, Death Valley, Jun ‘13

–        Massive flooding in Europe, $18 Billion in damages, Jun ‘13

–        California Yosemite forest fires, took 2 months to contain, Aug ‘13

–        Colarado’s one in a thousand years flood, Sept ‘13

–        Cyclone Phailin, potentially strongest storm ever observed, Oct ‘13

–        Typhoon Haiyan, 195mph winds ravage the Philippines, Nov, ‘13

Strangely, 2013 was actually a quiet year when compared with 2012 which was really an  extreme year, in fact the last decade has seen some of the hottest, driest, wettest and coldest years since records began.  A recent report by the World Bank estimates losses to extreme weather to be more than $200 billion a year.

Extreme weather is having a massive detrimental effect on farmers worldwide, the high rainfall in China in May turned the world’s biggest corn producer into a net importer in one swift blow.  Droughts in the US will cut USA beef production to below 1994 levels.  Wheat production in the UK has been severely effected by some of the wettest years on record.

2mar26

Farmers can adapt slowly to changes in climate but dealing with extreme events leaves most farmers at a loss.  It’s unclear if extreme weather will stop being classed as extreme as these events start to occur more and more frequently, will they simply become “weather”.  Farming practices are changing to try to adapt to these events, but also the choice of crops will also have to change.

Although these extreme weather events can be devastating the most difficult to deal with, as a farmer, is drought.  A drought is one of the worst natural disasters because it is able to cover wide areas and continue for extended periods of time. Droughts not only affect the direct area, but also the nearby cities that rely on that food and service income. 14% of the United States is affected, on average, by severe to extreme drought annually and this figure is rising steadily each decade.  Food crops are being adapted by a combination of breeding and years of experience however, some crops are already adapted to these environments.  As land becomes degraded through over farming, mismanagement and continually changing environmental factors, making the wrong choice of crop could have devastating effects on some farmers.Map of extreme weathers event that hit Australia during Summer 2012/2013

 TerViva’s goal is to help farmers do more, with less, by addressing the fundamental issues around the changing environment and enabling farmers to continue to farm land that would otherwise be unproductive.

Matt Willis is TerViva’s Director of international markets.

TerViva rolls up its sleeves with Hardee Senior High School Students to Celebrate National Teach Ag Day

September 26, 2013 (national teach ag day ) was the fourth annual National Teach Ag Day in the US, and TerViva visited

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Will Kusch of the TerViva team with Hardee High School students on National Teach Ag Day

Hardee Senior High School in Wauchula, Florida to share in the celebration and plant pongamia with students and teachers.  Our visit with the students and teachers provide us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of agricultural education, why agricultural literacy is an important national goal, and what contributions a small innovative agriculture company like TerViva can make toward achieving our national agricultural literacy goals.

Young pongamia trees in their new home on the Hardee High School campus.

Agriculture is broadly defined as the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms for food, fiber, biofuel, drugs, and other products (for example bio-based chemicals) used to sustain, and enhance human life.  (wikipedia).  The cultivation of these life forms for human benefit is based upon scientific principles and requires the significant manipulation of the natural world.  In addition to science and technology, agriculture has a financial dimension.  Furthermore, because agriculture is a major economic activity with environmental and social impact, agriculture operates within the confines of public policy.

Agriculture and education were related and intertwined disciplines for much of the history of the US because two hundred years ago nineteen of every twenty Americans lived in rural farm-based communities.   However, by 1920 this number had dropped to one in two and by the 2000’s that number had fallen further to one in five. (urbanization of the US).    Parallel to urbanization, the evolution if technology has continued to drive the sophistication and complexity of agriculture on many fronts including: the selection and breeding of crop varieties for higher yields, the further improvement of crop varieties through genetic engineering and whole genome association technologies, the increasing sophistication of farming mechanization, application of pest management and soil nutrient chemicals, and more recently the advent of large historical data sets of environmental factors within small zones of fields and algorithms to correlate this environmental data with inputs and yields to aid farmers in maximizing yields and profits.

In the US today, fewer that 2% or our more than 300 M population are actively engaged in farming.  These farmers not only feeds the US population, (feeding on average 140-150 people per farmer) they also produce in aggregate $179B of outputs or ~1% of our GDP.  This US agricultural production/capita (at $49.5 B USD) is second only to that of Australia ((at $66 B USD).

Students dig in to plant pongamia trees

Students dig in to plant pongamia trees

For ~70% of Americans, high school, is the end of formal education, while 100% will need to eat; clothe, house and transport themselves; and consume a vast array of  items produced from chemicals coming from agricultural sources.  In addition to their personal consumption, Americans will be impacted by the tension between the need for agricultural labor and immigration policies.   Citizens with greater agricultural literacy will be better able to influence the political process in ways that result in positive impacts on the agricultural system that produces the wealth of products that sustain American life.  Therefore, high schools need to provide their students sufficient agricultural education so that students leave high school with a basic level of agricultural literacy.

Want to improve your own agricultural literacy?   Check out the learning resources online at http://www.agclassroom.org/.

For our part, at TerViva we look forward to supporting the students and teachers of Hardee Senior High School, in particular supporting student science projects to address questions about pongamia biology and cultivation.