Shining a light on Guar

I read an amazing stat this weekend: Farmers in the Indian state of Rajasthan are growing 11 million acres (4.5M HA) of guar this year! That’s a pretty staggering figure considering that Texas grows just 6M acres of wheat—which is considered a large-scale commercial crop (and Texas is twice the size of Rajasthan). As it turns out, guar was India’s largest agricultural export to the U.S. in 2011, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

guar 1

Guar has been grown in Asia for centuries. Guar beans are eaten by people and animals (cattle primarily). In the US, refined guar gum is used for various food purposes including as a stiffener in soft ice cream, a stabilizer for cheeses and instant puddings. However, it remained a niche crop until the boom in natural gas drilling tripled demand for the crop. In hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) guar gum powder helps thicken the water that is pumped into the ground to shatter the rocks, releasing oil and natural gas deposits. Demand increased, prices went up and farmers followed by planting the crop in large numbers.

However, there are less obvious and more significant reasons for the guar explosion.

  1. It’s easy to grow: Guar is less labor-intensive and needs less fertilizer than other cash crops like cotton or lentils. Importantly, farmers in Rajasthan have been growing guar for a long time and knew best practices to generate good yield.
  2. It has multiple benefits: As a legume that fixes nitrogen, guar has the added benefit of being an excellent soil-improving rotation crop for cotton, sorghum and other vegetable crops.
  3. It’s easy to process: Splitting and dehulling guar beans is a relative inexpensive and straightforward process.  There isn’t an expensive biorefining process that takes money out of the farmer’s pocket.
  4. There are large and growing downstream markets: With natural gas and food markets needing guar, farmers feel comfortable that their hard work will result in a profitable venture.

In other words, it is not just demand and price that matter, but also a robust ecosystem that incentivizes farmers to grow the crop. In an earlier post I discussed how TerViva’s first commercial crop, pongamia pinnata, has similar dynamics. Read more about it here (it just might be the next 10 million acre crop!).

Sudhir Rani is TerViva’s CFO. 

ps. Check out the front cover of Time magazine which talks about the pressing bee problem which we discussed in a previous blog post

TerViva: Why We Do What We Do – Part II

Back in June, I wrote the first part of a blog post called:  “TerViva:  Why We Do What We Do”  (http://bit.ly/18WIC2j).  In that post, I identified three sub-topics: (1) why marginal land matters (2) why new crops are necessary for marginal land; (3) what is TerViva’s unique approach to new crops for marginal land.

I discussed topic 1 in the previous blog, and in this blog, I will tackle topics 2 and 3.

To recap on topic 1 – why marginal land matters…

Put simply, the amount of marginal agriculture land is growing every year.  According to a recent Oxford University study, future environmental hazards such as climate change, land degradation, and water scarcity could eliminate as much as $8 trillion in agriculture assets annually (http://bit.ly/11Z2NeQ).

Oxford has put some thought into the environmental risks for agriculture.

Oxford has put some thought into the environmental risks for agriculture.

We use agriculture to make food, feed, fiber, and fuel.  To meet future demand, we will need to farm lots of new acreage, increase production on existing acreage, and also find ways to use underproductive acreage.

On to topic 2 – so why new crops for marginal land…

New crops aren’t the only option for marginal land.  Indeed, companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer are using genetic modification techniques to improve the ability for existing crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat to grow better in harsher conditions.  Other companies, such as Drip Tech and New Leaf Symbiotics, are improving the viability of marginal land itself –through advancements in areas such as in soil fertility and irrigation.

We commend such efforts.  But there are places where, no matter the extent of GMO or land improvement, existing crops like corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat simply will not grow.  Where we work in Florida citrus country is a good example:  weeds, sandy soils, high water table, bedded rows, high humidity.  In other words, it’s land that’s excellent for citrus but not for most other crops.  And now, with citrus greening disease wiping our hundreds of thousands of acres, it’s increasing difficult for citrus, too

But this land can potentially be farmed with alternative, hardier crops that can still produce similar food, feed, fiber, and fuel.

On to topic 3 – TerViva’s approach…

A few years ago, we convinced ourselves of the need for new crops for marginal land.  We then began to evaluate many different “new” crops, from the well-known to the not-so-well-known:  sorghum, miscanthus, castor, jatropha, camelina, moringa, simaruba, yellowhorn, etc., etc.  At TerViva, we describe these crops as “semi-domesticated”  — they have had varying degrees of advancement by humans over generations, but not nearly to the extent of large-scale commercial crops like corn and soybeans.

Our search process led us to three conclusions, or better said, three pre-requisites for the success of new crops on marginal land:

(1) Hardiness:  the new crops have to be versatile, capable of withstanding the “new norms” of soil salinity, water availability, and pests.  Ideally, these crops will require fewer inputs than their predecessors in terms of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Hardiness in action:  pongamia in the desert.

Hardiness in action: pongamia in the desert.

(2) “Drop-in”:  the new crops have to utilize a region’s existing agriculture skills, labor force, equipment, field setups, and processing infrastructure.  New crops are risky, and if growers cannot leverage existing capabilities, the rate of new crop adoption is likely to be low.

(3) Disruptive economics:  by definition, marginal land is not generating a good return.  High, sustained returns require both high income per acre and scalability.   $50 net income per acre doesn’t excite a lot of growers (I’m looking at you, camelina).  Similarly, It doesn’t help to have a $5,000 net income per acre for a crop with a market of only 5,000 acres.  For these niche crops, supply eventually exceeds demand, driving down revenue and returns.

Pongamia trees "dropping in" to Florida, just like citrus.

Pongamia trees “dropping in” to Florida, just like citrus.

Not many crops can check all three of these boxes.  But we have found one: pongamia.  It’s the crop of fervent devotion on this blog:  a legume species of tree that produces oil and seed cake of similar quality to soybeans, which is used heavily for the biodiesel and animal feed markets.

Pongamia is extremely adaptable:  droughts, waterlogging, sand, clay.  Where tree crops are cultivated, it drops right in to the existing agriculture system.  It can serve the huge markets for biofuels, biochemicals, and animal feed, at a return per acre of over $1,000 per year.

For these reasons, pongamia is rapidly gaining traction with large, leading landowners in Florida, Texas, and Hawaii.

Naveen Sikka is TerViva’s CEO.

Latin America’s Nitrogen Challenge and Pongamia as One Solution

Rise of soybean cultivation in Latin America

Image

Figure 1: Relative production of soybeans by country, 2012

Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia in particular) account for 40% of global soybean production, and this region has experienced major growth in large-scale agriculture operations that take advantage of modern management methods (ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/008/af135e/af135e00.pdf)

Image

Figure 2: Soybean exports by country, 2010

While driving economic growth, the gain from this rise in production and export of soybeans has come at both environmental costs that include a significant impact on the Nitrogen Cycle and the social costs of further exasperating Latin America’s legacy of inequitable distribution of wealth & power inherited from its colonial history.

In a recent opinion piece in the Journal Science, a group of scientists from Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Mexico assert that ecosystem and human health in Latin America depends on managing the human impact on the N cycle (Austin, A. T., et al. “Latin America’s Nitrogen Challenge.” Science 340.6129 (2013): 149-149) and that new practices are needed to solve the problem.  In addition to calling for financial support from developed nations, the authors recommend the following agriculture practices and policies to promote sustainable economic growth for Latin America:

  • Enhanced nitrogen fixation
  • Agricultural techniques including no-till agriculture, cover crops, and crop rotation
  • Agricultural practices to increase functional diversity, mimicking natural ecosystems
  • Policies that include small farmers as well as large landowners

Focused on sustainable agriculture solutions including the cultivation of environmentally and economically sustainable crops, TerViva is partnering with Investancia to introduce pongamia to Paraguay’s Gran Chaco.

 The Nitrogen Cycle

Image

Figure 3: The Nitrogen Cycle

First a description of the Nitrogen Cycle.  All living cells need nitrogen (N) to grow.  Nitrogen is one of five key nutrient for all living cells as it is a component of both amino acids that are incorporated into proteins and of nucleic acids that are incorporated into RNA and DNA.  In plants, N is further needed to synthesize chlorophyll molecules that are key to photosynthesis and growth.  Thus the abundance or scarcity of N in the soil directly determines the quantity of food a given parcel of land can grow.

Although atmospheric N is the earth’s largest source of this element, 78% of the atmosphere is molecular (N2); most organisms cannot use the gaseous form of N.  Most living organisms depend on “reactive” nitrogen (Nr) that is “fixed” by biological or physical processes into inorganic forms of nitrogen like ammonia, ammonium, nitrogen oxide, nitric acid, nitrous oxide, and nitrate, and organic compounds like urea, amines, proteins, and nucleic acids (http://initrogen.org/index.php/about/).

The nitrogen cycle is the set of processes by which nitrogen is converted from gaseous nitrogen to fixed nitrogen in the soil and water bodies and back to gaseous molecular nitrogen in the atmosphere. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_cycle)

Human activities including fossil fuel combustion, use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers, and release of nitrogen in wastewater have negatively altered the global nitrogen cycle.  Latin America is suffering from similar forces found globally that are creating a nitrogen challenge.  Total global fixation of Nr in soil has doubled in recent history and excess fixed Nr has leaked into the environment impacting soils, waterways, and the atmosphere.  In addition to Nr excess from human activity, mining of natural soil Nr and over cultivation of crops creates Nr deficits in some areas.

In Latin America, high concentrations of untreated sewage in poor urban areas experiencing uncontrolled growth is causing rises in nitrogen in addition to phosphate in these areas.    Even though soybeans are a legume and could fix nitrogen in symbiosis with soil bacteria, this crop is being cultivated in Latin America under high yield management practices that are depleting natural levels of fixed nitrogen. In the Argentina Pampa region where soil is naturally fertile, nitrogen fixation has not been stimulated, and N has been exported in soybeans grown in this region.  In Brazil, converting pristine ecosystems high in natural N fixation rates to cultivated fields where fixation is not high is also causing reduction in N in soils.  Biomass burning to clear land for agriculture, including soybean production transfers a large amount of Nr from land to gaseous forms of N in the atmosphere (nitrogen and nitrogen/oxides), redistributing N from one area to another and from fixed to atmospheric.  Once removed from the soil and moved via the nitrogen cycle, this N is unavailable to plants in the region that was burned.  The scale of biomass burning in Latin America is still estimated at 150,000 km2/year.

Among biological processes that fix Nr, a key beneficial process occurs as the result of a symbiotic relationship between a group of soil bacteria and a group of plants, the legumes.  Legumes create root nodules in which these nitrogen-fixing bacteria live and convert gaseous nitrogen to Nr that other living organisms can utilize.  Increased efficiency of land already under cultivation without N fertilization would help Latin America, in particular, a great deal.  (Austin et al, 2013)

Sustainable Agriculture to Solve Nitrogen Challenge

TerViva is partnering with Investancia to bring cultivation of its new crop, pongamia, to the Gran Chaco, a vast un-developed area of northern and western Paraguay.  This area is currently home to fewer than 100,000 people who manage 25 million cattle in an area about the size of the state of Pennsylvania in the US.  As luck would have it, the Chaco also has a tropical climate with monsoonal rains where pongamia, is expected to thrive.

Figure 4:  Root nodules on  pongamia plants grown in nursery ready for field planting

Figure 4: Root nodules on pongamia grown in nursery ready for field planting

As a legume, pongamia will be planted in areas previously cleared for cattle and cultivated as a perennial crop with annual seed harvests.  Thus pongamia plantations will provide carbon sequestration in addition to nitrogen fixation.  Trees will be planted in strip-tilled rows, leaving ground cover intact between rows.  Once processing resources are in place, Investancia will develop programs that support farmers of small land holdings to cultivate pongamia.

Pongamia’s raw oil product will be similar to soybean, high in oleic acid (eighteen carbon chain with 1 double bond) that is amendable to production of renewable transportation fuel or chemicals.  However, pongamia harvests will be more economically beneficial at 400 gallons/acre compared to 60 gallons/acre for soybeans.

With high financial returns per acre, environmental benefits, particularly nitrogen fixation, pongamia can help Latin America solve its nitrogen challenge while providing for further economic development

Note:  For further information regarding the global nitrogen challenge and initiatives including those in Latin America to optimize nitrogen’s beneficial role in sustainable food production and minimize nitrogen’s negative effects on human health and the environment resulting from food and energy production, see the International Nitrogen Initiative web page  (http://initrogen.org/)

Island Independence

Island Independence

For some time now, islands have ben romanticized in human culture, placed at the apex of potential vacation destinations, often with good reason.

Maui

Islands present the opportunity to disconnect oneself from the familiar, culturally, geographically or otherwise. Those lucky enough to visit an island while on holiday will likely be impressed by any number of environmental, culinary or adventurous delights. But what of the machinery and infrastructure that maintain such idyllic locales, and the people who live there? With this blog post I will pull back the curtain, and provide a glimpse of what it takes to keep an island paradise running from an energy standpoint, using Hawai’i as a case study.

HIFirst, some quick, pertinent facts about Hawai’i. As of 2012, census data indicate there are a little less than 1.4 million people living in the state; with ~70% residing in the city of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu. All told, Hawai’i contains 6,422 square miles of land – the Island of Hawai’i makes up over half, at 4,028 mi2 – spread out over an archipelago of 130 islands that stretches over 1,500 miles. At ~2,400 miles from North America, the closest continent, Hawai’i is the most isolated population center on Earth.

Powering a population of this scale and geography is a serious undertaking, and requires substantial energy supplies and infrastructure. There is no appreciable production of fossil fuel energy in Hawai’i, thus 94% of all Hawai’i’s energy is imported. The Hawai’i Electric Company and its subsidiaries provide 95% of the electricity used by the state’s residents; a little over 73% of this electricity is generated from burning oil. This pie chart provides further information on energy consumption based upon the sector of the end-user:

HI Chart

Needless to say, if there was an interruption in this supply, the effects on the Hawai’ian economy could be devastating. In the interest of brevity, and not depressing readers of this post, I won’t use space here to catalog the potential for catastrophic environmental impacts associated with transporting oil.

In recognition of this dependence on imported energy and environmental hazard, Hawai’i has passed legislation mandating that 40% of all electricity and natural gas shall be generated from renewable sources that can be produced on the Islands (Hawai’i Revised Statutes §269-92 Renewable portfolio standards (a)(4)). This action sets the state on a path toward a future where the Islands of Hawai’i could become energy independent.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies is already underway. Hawai’i currently produces ~11% of its electricity from renewable sources, including biofuels, geothermal, solar, and wind among others. This percentage is primed to increase substantially, as entrepreneurs and established companies alike recognize the market opportunity. HAWAI’IGAS, which supplies synthetic natural gas and propane to varied customers throughout Hawai’i, operates a pilot plant that converts up to 1 million gallons of renewable feedstocks such as used cooking oil into natural gas; this pilot plant is slated for expansion. Pacific Biodiesel got started producing biodiesel so early that they were able to buy the domain name www.biodiesel.com. BdslPacific Biodiesel was conceived in 1995 with a single facility that converted used cooking oil into biodiesel. Since then they have successfully built 12 production facilities on the mainland US and Japan, and continue to grow: the company’s newest venture is Big Island Biodiesel, a plant able to produce 5.5 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

Significant progress has been made incorporating increasing quantities of renewable energy and fuels into the portfolio of Hawai’i, but there is more to be done: the State’s energy plan aims to have an agriculture industry that will be able to provide 350 million gallons of biofuels by 2025. TerViva, the company that I work for, is currently planning for the deployment of its first commercial pongamia orchard in Hawai’i. Pongamia trees produce a bountiful seed crop; when crushed, the seeds yield oil that is well suited for conversion to biodiesel and natural gas, among other products. By producing a robust biofuel feedstock, TerViva and other industry leaders like Pacific Biodiesel and HAWAI’IGAS will help Hawai’i make progress down the road to an independent future, free from the constraints of imported oil.

Looking for Value in Farmland Investing

By Tom Schenk, Director of Business Development for TerViva

Back in 2006, when people were trading the stock and the real estate markets like rock stars, few people cared about a quietly obscure asset class called farmland.  However, the economic collapse that began in 2008 changed all of that. At the same time, grain prices soared to a new plateau at 2x the prices seen in the 80’s and 90’s due to increased demand from middle class consumers in emerging markets and ethanol production, as well as supply shortages created by crop failures from violent extremes in weather patterns globally. On the demand side, the industrialization of emerging market countries has brought millions of people into the middle class in those countries who demanded – and could afford – better diets of meats, vegetables, and grains.

At the beginning of the farmland investment boom in the US, every $1 of farmland value only carried about 5¢ of debt.  Ownership was in strong hands. It was this obscure statistic relating to the low levels of farmland debt that was one of the greatest factors that contributed to the fact that this asset class being a wonderful placeholder for wealth during the financial hurricane that slashed stock and residential and commercial real estate in half in a period of months.  Asset classes that were highly-leveraged were the same ones that deflated the hardest.  When collateral for loans decline in value, lenders demand more collateral.  If that other collateral is falling, it creates fire sales in a rush for liquidity and thus a vicious feedback loop ensues.

Today, debt-to-asset ratios in some of the major farming states are back to 30% and higher.  These are levels not seen since 1979 which, along with sharply rising interest rates and falling commodity prices, led to the great farm crisis of the 1980’s.  Today, alarms are being sounded that we are in a similar setup and an imminent crash could be ahead.

However, few things in the financial world are that linear in reasoning.  There are many moving parts involved in calculating the future stability of this asset class if we enter a period of rough financial weather.  For example, while debt levels in dollar terms may have increased 2x, land values (on paper) have gone up 3x to 4x times in many instances.  Another major variable in this calculus is that production costs for farmers have come very close to doubling in this period also.  Additionally, farmland has historically had a very high inverse correlation to the 10-year US Treasury rate.  The enormous impact on farmland values from the Federal Reserve’s financial engineering of interest rates cannot be overstated.  Where investors could find 7% – 9% cap rates back in 2006, today those rates have dropped to a range of 2% – 4¾% depending on the quality, yields, and location in the US.

Nevertheless, traditional farmland investing is considerably more vulnerable to adverse shocks than it was in 2006.  Creighton University’s Farmland-Price Index is a monthly survey of 200 rural communities in major grain growing states.  The most recent survey show that the rate of farmland price appreciation is has been decelerating since late 2012.  Clearly land prices are flattening out.  Unfortunately, commodity prices and land values can drop by the speed of light compared to any declines in production costs , and this can put a farm’s balance sheet in a bind almost overnight.  A strong case can be made that interest rates may have hit a long-term (30+ years) cyclical low.  If rates begin to rise, there is little question that farmland prices can come under immediate pressure.  There has always been a historically strong inverse correlation between 10-year Treasuries and farmland prices.

US farmland prices were on the steady rise last year (above), but according to the recent Fed Reserve studies in KC and St. Louis, prices are plateauing (http://bit.ly/1b5Wzxe)

US farmland prices were on the steady rise last year (above), but according to the recent Fed Reserve studies in KC and St. Louis, prices are plateauing (http://bit.ly/1b5Wzxe)

The purpose of this article is not to sound alarms about the imminent demise of farmland asset values. In this past decade, we have seen “bluechip” stocks and “AAA-rated” bonds  go to zero, as well as commercial real estate like shopping centerss can become vacant or obsolete.  But what was unique about farmland is that it has an imbedded put option; if you lose a crop, you still have the land and you can try again.  In this crazy world of abstract derivatives with notional values priced at hundreds of trillions of dollars worldwide, there will always be a demand for an real asset like farmland; it cash flows and the demand for its output is relatively inelastic.  People have to eat.

However, it should give investors pause before they pay $12,000 for that next Illinois acre.

Large scale/institutional farmland investors have always diversified geographically and with different crops, but in cyclical commodity downturns, the income streams of these “diverse” yet traditional agricultural properties will have as much non-correlation as a squadron of Blue Angels at a summer air show.  In other words, that cotton property in Mississippi will go in the same direction as corn land in Iowa or the potato farm in Idaho.

So what’s a farmland investor to do in what appears to be a relatively deflationary economic climate?? One idea is to borrow a page out of what traditional money portfolio managers have done for decades which is to apply the principals of Modern Portfolio Management – namely, diversify into property types with diverse return profiles in order to reduce overall portfolio risk.  Over the years, I have seen small cap and micro cap managers rescue overall portfolio returns by exploiting those overlook and under-researched companies where fundamental analysis ran circles around index managers by finding those opportunities that returned comparatively out-sized returns from some overlooked niche. In the 80’s, Microsoft was one such company.  The underlying attraction in small cap stock investing is that few, if any, analysts are researching these companies.

TerViva pongamia trees thriving in Texas

TerViva pongamia trees thriving in Texas

To that end, there is a quiet little company out of Oakland, CA called TerViva that has been establishing plantations of a hardy tree crop called pongamia. Pongamia trees are native to Australia and India.  They produce a nut crop that is virtually a first cousin of soybeans – but grows on a footprint where soybeans generally cannot.  An annual harvest of the nuts can produce over 400 gallons of oil and a couple of tons of residual “seedcake” that can be used as a high-protein animal feed or as a high-nitrogen fertilizer.  In a given year, a producer has the ability to direct that oil to biodiesel, bio-jet-fuel, bio-chemical (it is high in oleic acid and other valuable long-chain carbon compounds), or even biopesticides markets, depending on what is determined to be the highest best use downstream markets. Pretty cool.  The oil has been tested by Dynamic Fuels, REG, and Shell as a great feedstock worth about $3.50/gal.  I recently spoke to an organic grower who has successfully used pongamia oil as an adjuvant in his pesticide sprays for the last 7 years.  His supply comes from India.  He proudly informed me that he had recently got the price of his oil “down” to $17/gallon!

However, the most compelling aspect of this tree crop is that these trees can thrive in marginal soils such as south Texas or the challenging sandy fallow soils southern Florida where citrus trees used to grow before HLB disease marched through the state.  Instead of passively collecting x in revenue like typical farmland investors, you can proactively generate 5x-10x on these lower grade properties. And as a result, you will obviously get a sharp appreciation in the underlying land value in addition to the improved income stream that is arguably on par with the richest Iowa or Illinois farms.

Is this too far-fetched of an idea?  Not for three major citrus growers in Florida (plus a fourth grower planting this month) who conducted extensive research on the tree and this concept before planting on their own properties.  So far, they are more than pleased with what they are observing. The trees are growing almost twice as fast as citrus and require a fraction of the inputs.  Moreover, for investors who want to grow this tree crop, these citrus companies will act as the operators for planting, maintenance and harvesting.

Sometimes is you cannot find any gems in the rough, you just have to make your own.

Tom is TerViva’s Director of US Business Development, and works every day with agriculture growers to explore opportunities with new crops.

Why Pongamia will triumph

Fair warning, this blog post is going to sound like a business school strategy class (thanks Wharton!).

In 1990, Michael Porter released a landmark study called “Why Nations Triumph,” in which he identified four key drivers of competitive advantage that explain why certain industries in certain countries thrive while the same industry somewhere else fizzles.

Image

These four drivers, collectively known as “Porter’s Diamond,” are a good starting point from which to understand why pongamia pinnata has the potential to be the most cost-effective, sustainable energy crop in America.

Demand Conditions: In the U.S., very strong demand for sustainable, domestic sources of energy are driving innovation and capital formation in wind, solar, biofuels, etc. At the same time, certain large agriculture communities are facing “generational” problems with existing crops, which is stimulating demand for new crops like pongamia. Florida citrus growers, TerViva’s largest customers, are confronting falling demand for orange juice and higher production costs caused by a citrus greening blight that has no cure.

Image

According to an estimate by the Florida Department of Citrus, more than 450,000 acres of citrus have come out of production in the last 10 years. The New York Times highlighted the issue on its front page in May. Domestic demand for sustainable energy sources and energy self-sufficiency, coupled with a changing citrus landscape make conditions in the U.S. ripe for pongamia.

Factor Conditions: Pongamia “drops in” to the existing agriculture infrastructure, meaning that it leverages existing distribution networks, equipment and labor. This is far and away the most important driver of pongamia’s success in the U.S. As a result, pongamia benefits from advancements in agronomy practices and the existence of a highly skilled agricultural labor force. TerViva works with citrus growers who have the know-how to grow large-scale tree crops and who have access to the labor, land and resources needed for the cultivation of pongamia. In addition, there are millions of acres of marginal and/or underproductive land in the U.S. including diseased citrus land, mined land and pasture land.  With the infrastructure to grow pongamia already in place and ample land suitable for pongamia harvesting, the U.S. is an ideal setting for scaled plantations of pongamia.

Additionally, processing and refining suppliers for pongamia already exist. Pongamia can be cultivated using existing fruit/nut tree equipment and oilseed processing infrastructure, which materially limits the amount of capital expenditure required.  In contrast, new biomass crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus cannot be processed into valuable outputs using conventional equipment. They require new and expensive bio-refining infrastructure. There are billions of gallons of existing refining capacity throughout the U.S. that can convert pongamia’s vegetable oil in to fuel without additional capital expenditure.  We work with Renewable Energy Group and Dynamic Fuels to make biodiesel and renewable diesel, leveraging the latters’ capital investment and expertise.

Company Strategy, Structure & Rivalry: The U.S. government’s strategy to reduce its reliance on foreign oil has spurred a number of innovations and collaborations among previous rivals (e.g. big oil vs. everyone else). Porter writes “industries thrive when they are forced to overcome high labor costs or lack of natural resources, when their customers won’t accept inferior or outmoded products…” This is true of the agriculture communities in Florida and Texas and all around the country. The citrus community has not given up and will continue to innovate and adjust. Our business model is to partner with these growers to deploy pongamia using jointly developed agronomy best practices.

Related and Supporting Industries: Pongamia cultivation is buttressed by a number of related and supporting industries in academia, agriculture and finance. For example, pongamia has attracted the attention of several U.S.-based academic institutions, which have been the source of many of this country’s greatest innovations. TerViva has pongamia development programs in partnership with UC Davis and Texas A&M for genomics and co-product development. It also has partnerships with existing commercial greenhouses and plant propagators, with whom the company has developed techniques to optimize the clonal propagation of pongamia. These partnerships avert the need to build expensive large scale nurseries.

All four of the elements identified in Porter’s Diamond point to pongamia being a major source of domestically produced clean energy in the U.S. Next time, I’ll discuss how these factors lead to crude pongamia oil production cost at less than $70 per barrel.

Sudhir Rani is TerViva’s CFO. 

Terviva: Why We Do What We Do — Part I

Whenever I introduce Terviva as a company at conferences or events, I always start off by saying, “Terviva develops new crops for marginal land”.

Very few people ask me why that’s important, or why anyone should care about new crops for marginal land.

And yet, for the people who work at Terviva, that “why” factor is at the heart of what we do.  It’s what motivates us and drives us to work intensively toward our goals.

So I’d like to share “why” we develop new crops for marginal land.  I’ll break our logic down into three parts, to be covered across two blog posts.

(1)  Why marginal land matters

(2)  Why new crops are necessary for marginal land

(3)  What is Terviva’s unique approach to this opportunity

First – why marginal land matters….

In agriculture, the big picture goal is to increase food production.  The often-cited UN statistic is that, over the next 40 years, global population will increase by 2 billion people, and the world will require 70% more food production.

To meet this challenge, we need to farm more acres, farm more per acre, and – even more basically – maintain the viability of existing land.

It is estimated that 1 to 2% of all agriculture land becomes indefinitely fallowed every year due to soil salinity issues.  Now, add in other factors, such as desertification, declining water availability, extreme weather conditions, new crop diseases, and volatile macroeconomics.  The result:  a significant amount of land that was once valuable for farming is now longer so.

Marginal agriculture land in Florida, with TerViva pongamia trees now planted on it

Marginal agriculture land in Florida, with Terviva pongamia trees now planted on it

There are numerous examples of this marginalization of agriculture land.  We specifically work in three affected areas:

Florida:  citrus greening disease has wiped out nearly 50% of citrus tree acres in the last decade (almost 500,000 acres).

Texas:  extended droughts have triggered irrigation water cutbacks and declining productivity in rice, corn, and cotton farming

Hawaii:  sugar and pineapple farming, once mainstays of Hawaiian agriculture, have almost completely ended, due to competition from lower cost geographies in Asia.

It’s unlikely that any of these three areas will recover to the point where their land will once again be farmed for their traditional high value crops.  But there may be alternative crops for these areas – ones that can meet the demand for food, feed, fiber, and fuel more efficiently than traditional crops such as corn, soy, and sugarcane.

Abandoned citrus field in Florida -- another victim of citrus greening disease

Abandoned citrus field in Florida — another victim of citrus greening disease

No matter what, the amount of marginal land in the world is going to continue to grow.  Solutions are needed to improve the usability of marginal land, and at Terviva, we think we have some great answers.

Next week, I will write Part II of my post, discussing the need for new crops on marginal land and Terviva’s approach to developing these crops.

Naveen Sikka is Terviva’s CEO.

History Repeating – Old Habits Die Hard.

The early 1990’s saw Cuba enter a severe crisis due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its associated economies in Eastern Europe. These countries supported around 80% of Cuba’s economy, which was based on intensive single-crop agriculture and was highly dependent on imports of agricultural sub-products, such as fertilisers and pesticides. Up until the collapse, the Soviet Union had been paying much higher prices for sugar than the true price in the international markets, providing much needed income for Cuba.  In a very short period Cuba’s agricultural system collapsed, posing a serious threat to something that had been taken for granted, its supply of food.  This heralded what is known as the “special period” where many Cubans were starved of basic food supplies while their whole countries approach to Agriculture went through some radical changes.

However, during the 1980’s Cuba’s government and agriculture-related professionals, had been developing alternative technologies and processes for agriculture, anticipating the vulnerability of their economy being so dependant on a few agricultural products.  When the crisis arrived they were relatively prepared, even so the crisis was tougher than anyone expected. The response from the government was to attempt to instil nothing short of basic survival strategies into urban communities. Agriculture, in a few years, moved from the large export-oriented, chemical dependant monoculture, that is the norm for most of the world, to a small size, local urban-based, organic food production model. Small scale farms and orchards at home or in disused plots, became the standard.  The government supported this new approach of urban agriculture and it soon became part of national policy.

urban farm

Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture are truly remarkable, there are now over 380,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of otherwise unused or marginal land, producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables with top urban farms reaching yields of 20 kg/m2 per year of edible plant material using no synthetic chemicals or the equivalent to a hundred tons per hectare. Urban farms now supply 70% or more of all the fresh vegetables consumed in Cuba’s main cities.  However, this change has come at a price with Cuba’s agriculture sector contributing an estimated 4% of GDP in 2010, but comprising of 20% of Cuba’s 5.1 million labour force.

Under this new scenario the importance of the contributions being made by peasant farms, in reducing food imports, should not be underestimated.  However, despite these notable advances of sustainable agriculture, and evidence of the effectiveness as an alternative to the monoculture model, Cuban Government interest persists in promoting high external input systems based models. Under the pretext of increasing food security and reducing reliance on food imports, these specific programs pursue the old paradigm of large scale crop and livestock production and insist on going back to the previous monoculture methods, in turn increasing dependence on synthetic chemical inputs, large scale machinery, and irrigation, despite proven energy inefficiency and technological fragility, in short leading Cuba right back to where they started.

Chemical useMany of the resources that are being provided by international partners, such as Venezuela and Brazil, are dedicated to protecting or boosting agricultural areas where a more traditional, intensive, agriculture is practiced for crops like potatoes, rice, soybean, and vegetables. Currently these areas used for large-scale, industrial-style agricultural production still represent less than 10% of the cultivated land, however, millions of dollars are being invested in pivot irrigation systems, machinery, and other industrial agricultural technologies, a “quick fix” model which increases short-term production but generates high long-term environmental and socioeconomic costs, while replicating a model that was failing even before 1990.  This cyclical mindset would seem to strongly undermine the advances achieved by Cuba’s agricultural organic farming since the economic collapse in 1990.

However, since 2008 Cuba’s agricultural sector, in general, has started to underperform, and the authorities have acknowledged the heavy cost of importing food to fill the gap. Interestingly the worst affected sectors are the traditional, large-scale production crops, Plantains dropped by 44.2 percent, potatoes by 36 percent and citrus by 33.9 percent. The category of “other tubers” plunged by 58.4 percent. Corn production fell by 22.5 percent, beans by 7 percent and fruit by 13.9 percent, according to the report by the National Statistics Office (ONE).  Increases in production were reported in garden vegetables, up 8.4%, and rice, up by 2.5%.

Cubans are only too aware of the implications, which translate into high retail prices for foodstuffs.  As President Raúl Castro told a recent cabinet meeting, every time the production quota is missed, the cost to the state runs into millions of US dollars.  Official figures show that Cuba spent 1.7 billion dollars on food imports in 2012, up from 1.5 billion in 2010. The projection for 2013 is another 200-million-dollar increase, to 1.9 billion dollars.  In early December, state television reported that annual production of beans, a Cuban staple, was running at 20,000 tons a year, when consumption was 100,000 tons.  Despite President Castro’s focus on raising farm output since 2008, the sector has consistently failed to fulfil the Communist Party’s stated plan of growing enough rice, beans, maize, soya and other crops to allow a “gradual reduction of imports”.

the normCuban agriculture currently experiences two extreme food-production models: an intensive model with high inputs, and another, beginning at the onset of the special period, oriented towards local small scale farms based on low inputs. The experience accumulated from these initiatives in thousands of small-and-medium scale farms constitutes a valuable starting point in the definition of national policies to support sustainable agriculture, thus potentially displacing a monoculture model that has reigned supreme for almost four hundred years.  However, is the drive for short terms gains combined with the external pressures being put on Cuba, by “partner countries” ensuring that that their sustainable agriculture model was nothing more than an interesting experiment developed out of necessity and if so, what chance is there for a wider, world, adoption of such techniques as we try to loosen our dependency on fossil fuels?

Matt Willis is TerViva’s Director of International Markets.

From Wild Plant to Crop, a Journey

Compared to the vast numbers of terrestrial plant species in nature, domesticated crops number few.  Yet, humans will need new crops that will grow productively in abandoned or underutilized lands to meet the growing need for food, fuel, fiber, and chemicals.

Domestication is the process by which humans select for inheritance of desirable traits.  During “traditional” domestication, crop species underwent intense selective pressures over centuries that altered their underlying genetic makeup, or genomes.  Now that DNA differences between wild ancestors and a number of crop species have been determined, modern genomic science can be applied to accelerate domestication by directly selecting for gene sequences and genomic configurations in undomesticated plants of promise.  (more on this topic in a future blog)

At TerViva we are domesticating one such promising plant, a legume tree with high oil seed content, pongamia.  Pongamia seeds are a promising source of renewable oil for fuel and agricultural and industrial chemicals. For this blog posting, I would like to give a historical context for how humans domesticated two important food crops: corn an annual grain and almonds, a perennial orchard tree.

ImageAround the world today, more corn is grown and harvested each year than any other grain. The 2012 corn harvest exceeded 800 million tons.  US farmers alone produce 40% of the world’s corn harvest on 95 million acres. (Crop Production 2012 Annual Summary, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service).  Other top corn producing countries include China, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, India, France and Argentina. (http://www.indexmundi.com/agriculture/?commodity=corn)

Harvested primarily for its seeds, corn is consumed directly by humans and livestock, processed for packaged foods, pressed to expel cooking oil, and further processed for industrial purposes including ethanol for biofuel. Sugar-rich varieties called sweet corn are usually grown for human consumption, while field corn varieties are used for animal feed and as chemical feedstocks.

(http://agron-www.agron.iastate.edu/Courses/agron212/readings/corn_history.htm)

The domestication of maize began some 9000 years ago and continues today.Image (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn).  Indigenous people in Mesoamerica first cultivated wild grasses in the genus of teosinte slowly selecting individuals in their cultivated fields that had more favorable properties.    About 2500 BCE, maize began spreading through much of the Americas.  Europeans brought this new world crop back to Europe after Columbus’ voyage of New World discovery in 1492.  Because of its ability to grow in diverse climates maize spread to many areas throughout the world where it is grown today.

During its slow domestication journey, humans bred a new species (Zea maize) that produces larger ears with a greater number of seeds than its wild ancestor.  In addition, corn seeds are free of the stony casings produced by teosinte and they remain attached to the cob in contrast to teosinte seeds whose ears shatter for seed dispersal upon maturation.  Humans also selected for taller plants without branches but with multiple leaves.

Wild teosintes and maize, although considered distinct species, are still closely related, have similar chromosomes and are able to be crossed one to another to produce fertile hybrids.  (New York Times, May 24, 2010).  Early Americans were able to transform a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop by painstaking trial and error because physical differences between wild teosintes and corn, result from only 4-5 genes.

Sophisticated modern corn breeding that has further transformed this crop into a high yielding commodity began in the 1860s in the United States where farmers selected plants with high yields in their fields and produced seed to sell to other farmers.  University supported breeding programs played a pivotal role in further developing commercial varieties and introducing modern corn hybrids. (Hybrid Maize Breeding and Seed Production pub. 1958).  By the 1930s, corn-breeding companies such as Pioneer had begun to influence long-term corn varieties.

The latest technological innovations being applied to corn and other major crops include genetic engineering to create transgenic or genetically modified (GMO) varieties of corn with specific traits such as glyphosate resistance (coupled with the herbicide glyphosate) to aid in weed management and genomics to mine and harness inherent genetic variation for further yield advances.

ImageNext, let’s examine the history of almond trees. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almond; Almond Production Manual, UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources publication 3364)

Today almonds are the world’s most widely cultivated nuts. In 2011, global production exceeded 900,000 million metric tons.  The US (California) produces 80% of the world’s almonds followed by Spain, Australia, and Turkey.  In California almonds are cultivated on more than 800,000 acres, most of which are actively managed and include irrigation. (Business Week citing The Associated Press, January 21, 2011)

One of the first domesticated nut trees, almonds show up in archeological sites of the Mediterranean dating to the Bronze Age, 3000-2000 BCE.  Seedlings were planted on hillsides in regular arrays or orchards to escape frost.  Wild almond species were already adapted to marginal soils and cultivated orchards were not irrigated.wild almond Israel

Early colonists brought almonds to the US including the earliest successful orchard in California in the foothills of the Sacramento valley in 1843, again without irrigation.

Wild almonds plants are difficult to propagate from suckers or from cuttings, but early

growers were able to produce healthy orchards by planting seedlings from seeds.  Thus, almonds were domesticated even before the introduction of grafting.  In use before 2000 BCE. in China and spreading throughout Asia and Europe, grafting is an ancient horticultural technique still widely used today, whereby tissues from one plant are inserted into those of another and vascular tissues from the two different plants join together and the roots of one genetic type support the growth of branches, flowering and seed production of another genetic type.

Using grafted trees, genetic selection proceeded along two independent tracks for roots vs. above ground plant traits.  Almond rootstocks have been selected for beneficial root properties (resistance to nematodes, salinity tolerance, etc.) while above ground plant material or scion donors have been selected for nut yield and consumer preferences of texture and taste.

Wild almonds taste bitter.  Wild almond kernels produce cyanide when handled as during harvesting.   Eating even a few dozen wild almond seeds at one sitting can be fatal. Selection of the sweet type, from the many bitter types in the wild, marked the beginning of almond domestication.

Early growers in California failed to understand the need for cross-pollination via bees.  An early California grower (AT Hatch) selected 4 varieties for grafting in 1879 and deployed all 4 in orchards to enable cross pollination).  Other early California growers experimented further with new varieties and by 1925, the USDA listed more than 150 varieties in production in a technical bulletin (Technical Bulletin 1282).  As with corn, academic research has played and continues to play a key role in almond variety development.  The University of California provided much of the early research and evaluation of almond varieties.  In recent years, USDA ARS scientists have developed a self pollenating variety of almonds (http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/apr10/ almonds0410.pdf) that may alleviate the biological necessity (and associated costs) for bees to cross pollenate almond orchards.  Domesticated varieties of almonds like domesticated corn are still very close genetically to wild varieties.

Genomic science is being applied to all major existing crops to improve growth and yield characteristics of already domesticated plants.  These new technologies should help us shorten the domestication of pongamia from centuries to decades.

Claire Kinlaw, PhD, MBA leads product development for TerViva, bridging plant science to what customers need for crop products.  She has over 20 years experience leading plant genomics research projects and before joining TerViva she consulted in the fields of economic development  and organizational development.

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.