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.

 

FSG_June2017-1

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.

An Oilseed Crop for Florida’s Lost Citrus Acreage

Diseased abandoned citrus acreage in Florida

Diseased abandoned citrus acreage in Florida

While the United States is the most efficient agricultural producer on the planet, it also is home to one of the greatest agricultural disasters on earth. Few people outside of the state of Florida realize that the 150 year old citrus industry could be on the brink of collapse in as little as two years, according to some industry observers. Citrus contributes $9 billion in revenues to the state and employs 76,000 people. A series of severe freezes back in the 1980’s drove the majority of the citrus industry from the northern half of Florida to the southern half of the state – generally from Orlando southward.

Ten years ago, in its heyday, the state produced about 240 million boxes of fruit. As of the most recent USDA crop report, that number has declined to as low as 104 million boxes. And that rate of decline is not linear, it is accelerating. Estimates are that as production declines to 80 million boxes, most of the remaining processing plants will begin to shut down. After that, citrus in Florida could remain only as a niche crop.The cause is a pinhead-sized insect that transmits a bacterial infection to citrus trees and slowly chokes off the flow of water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. Not only have scientists been unable to come up with a viable cure, they haven’t even been able to culture it in the lab.

Infected trees can take years before the first symptoms appear. By then the tree has already lost a great part of its root mass. The best strategy growers have is to just keep the progress of the disease at bay by feeding it repeated heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizers. It used to cost growers close to $500 per acre for these sprays. Today, those cost are exceeding $2000/acre! These high costs with declining yields are squeezing the life out of the growers’ profit margins. And it’s not doing much to help the long-term health of the soils, either. Imagine if an incurable disease wiped out corn and soybeans in Illinois and you’ll get an idea of the magnitude of the impact to the state.

To be sure, tens of millions of research dollars are being thrown at the greening problem at the state level, federal level, and even worldwide. One of the most promising solutions is inserting a spinach gene into the citrus which makes the tree quite resistant to the deadly bacteria. However, this veers into the genetically modified world and risks considerable consumer backlash over GMO food. There is a wasp that preys on these insects, but that is considered too little too late for Florida.

The Headwinds against Florida Citrus

Even if a cure is found, growers still face other headwinds. Annual consumer sales of orange juice (the main product from Florida citrus) in the US have declined from about 5 gallons per person in 2000 to about 3 gallons currently.   High prices, recession, alternative energy drinks, concerns about sugar and obesity have all contributed to eroding the demand side of the consumer equation. It could be difficult to reverse those trends.

Citrus groves that once sold for $18,000 per acre now sit barren, weed-infested, and end up looking like the above picture. They sell for close to $3000 per acre. Not only has millions of dollars of landowners’ wealth evaporated, but also have the state’s tax revenues.

The Problem With Alternative Crops

Some growers are replacing their lost citrus by planting peaches and blueberries. However, those crops are expensive, labor intensive, and can have intense price competition from other states when their harvest comes to market. Planting only a few thousand acres could swamp the marketplace with over-supply and crush prices. Stated differently, if there was a viable alternative crop to grow, there wouldn’t be over 125,000 acres of abandoned citrus land.

Arguably, the only agricultural industry with deep enough demand to accommodate the tens of thousands of acres of dead and dying citrus land is the oilseed industry where the worldwide demand for oil and protein is huge and growing. Currently, the oilseed demand is being met primarily by soy, and to a lesser degree by cottonseed, canola, and other minor (by comparison) row crops like flaxseed, safflower, etc.

So why haven’t some of these row crops filled in the void in these lost groves? There are two major problems in the soils in the southern half of the state. While the Florida is blessed with a long growing season and generous rainfall, the soils where citrus is grown are extremely sandy with a hard clay layer underneath.   This sand layer makes it difficult for them to hold nutrients. During the rainy season which runs from June to October, the almost daily rainfall flushes fertilizers and other nutrients out of the soil. The other problem is the field configurations. Citrus cannot tolerate its roots standing in water for long periods of time so the great majority of the groves were “bedded-up” when the groves were initially set up. Top soils were pushed into raised beds with a furrow in between to remove water in heavy rain events. Over the years, soil compaction occurred while in this configuration. Attempts to simply grade the raised beds flat for row crops still resulted in a wavy topography (once the soils settled) which created drainage issues. Some tried deep-disking this sand and the underlying clay layer in an attempt to blend the two into a sandy loam-like consistency, but the result was a mud bog that seemed to never drain properly.

Ground Rules for any Successful Replacement Crop

Any time that a new crop is introduced into a local geography, it has to meet some fundamental tests if it is to have any hope for viability. For example:

  • Hardiness. Does this new crop fit the climate?
  • Does it fit within the growers’ existing infrastructure?
  • Is it easy to grow and harvest?
  • Can growers generally utilize their existing body of agronomic knowledge?
  • Does it minimize labor requirements/costs?
  • Is it profitable enough to make it compelling versus alternatives?
  • Can growers use their existing machinery or at least need minimal new machinery?
  • Does it require high CAPEX to process?
  • Are there readily available downstream markets?

However, there is one beam of hope in this sea of gloom that has shown great promise for current citrus landowners and extraordinary opportunities for agriculture investors – and checks off on all challenges listed above.

Pongamia

A young company called TerViva has been working for several years with an oilseed tree crop called pongamia. Pongamia is an oilseed tree that is native to Australia and India. It is adapted to tropical and subtropical climates.  In the US, we already know that the tree thrives in Florida.  It was introduced back in the 1920’s when it was planted as an ornamental.  Many mature pongamia trees can be observed in southern Florida on both coasts along freeways, in neighborhoods, and in state parks and shopping centers.

Conceptually, growing pongamia is like growing soybeans on trees. The tree yields a generous harvest of nuts (which is why it fell out of favor as an ornamental) whose seed properties are similar to soybeans.  It has a high tolerance to salt and cold tolerance is similar to citrus so it is geographically suited to the same sites where citrus grew.

What’s the advantage for pongamia over soybeans? Pongamia’s per acre yields of oil are 6x greater than that of soybeans on prime Iowa farmland, plus it can grow on a footprint where soybeans generally cannot!

One of the first things growers notice about this tree crop is that it drops right in to the existing citrus field architecture. Some growers have literally planted it between the old citrus stumps.

Pongamia is very much like any orchard tree crop. The tree must first get established. It will begin to flower around year 3-4, and it should be commercially harvestable around year 4-5. Then the tree can produce for over 50 years.

There is also a strong ecological theme with pongamia.   This tree is a legume so it fixes nitrogen in the soil and enriches it.  To date, no pesticides have been used- or needed – in any geography TerViva has planted – Florida, Texas, or Hawaii. Insects and deer really do not care the leaves that much.

 

Mature pongamia acreage in Florida (photo courtesy of Paul Family operation near LaBelle)

Mature pongamia acreage in Florida (photo courtesy of Paul Family operation near LaBelle)

Growing – Harvesting – Processing – End Markets        

  • Harvesting can be mechanically done with a nut tree shaker. This is how pecans, almonds, pistachios and other nuts are harvested. Mechanical shakers also minimize the cost and challenges of dealing with manual migrant labor that is necessary for most orchard crops.
  • Processing after the harvest is all low-tech and low CAPEX; the seeds are shelled with a peanut sheller, and the seeds (about the size of lima beans) are crushed with a soybean crusher.
  • The End Markets are a separate discussion, and that’s where this gets interesting. Like soy, there are two end markets for pongamia: the oil and the seedcake.

Several oilseed crops used in industrial applications are surrounded in controversy. Soybeans should be for feeding people, not trucks. Palm oil production is coming at the expense of the rain forests which have caused a huge backlash from environmental groups and consumers. Chemically, pongamia oil is practically a first cousin to soybean oil, but it has some bitter flavenoids, so it is not edible. Its utility is for broad industrial applications that currently utilize soybean oil and palm oil. Industry loves soy and palm oil because these seeds contain rich long-chain carbon compounds which are high in energy content and can be separated into compounds such as oleic acid, palmitic acid, linoleic acid and others. These plant-based compounds are used in soaps, detergents, lubricants, cosmetics (like Oil of Olay), surfactants, inks, paint binders, and even plastics. In fact, a whopping 60% of the pongamia oil is oleic acid, compared to soybean with 24%.  Oleic acid is so valued that Monsanto has created a new GM version of soybeans called Visitive, just to increase the oleic acid content.

Pure pongamia oil being used in crop spraying

Pure pongamia oil being used in crop spraying

The oil also has known biopesticide properties. There is a recent study on this where it was more effective than DDT.   There is a body of literature on the use of a 50/50 mix of neem oil and pongamia oil as an exceptionally effective biopesticide. Early evidence also has shown pongamia oil could be an effective substitute for “435 mineral oil” that growers mix with many of their crop sprays.

As a jet fuel, the Department of Defense and the airline industry have a strong interest in fuel refined from plant oils called biojet fuel. It is 7% lighter than conventional jet fuel so a plane can fly farther or carry larger payloads. But most importantly, it burns considerably cooler than fossil-based jet fuel which means longer engine life and lower maintenance costs.

The deepest market, however, is to simply refine the oil into diesel. When that long-chain carbon compound in the oil is combusted, it releases a lot of energy. (Ethanol is only a C 6:1 compound that releases much less energy when combusted. This is why it is such a poor fuel for performance and mileage.) Currently, about 80% of biodiesel is produced from soy oil. Refiners are hungry for feedstocks for their refineries. No matter what you think about renewable fuels, they are going to be around for a long time. Both political parties are even in favor of them. Additionally, most countries around the planet have aggressive mandates for renewable fuels. It is important to emphasize that the biodiesel market is the base case scenario and con turn a fine profit at that.

The remaining seedcake can be used as a high protein animal feed. It has about a 27% protein content which is quite high. Tests are currently being conducted with Texas A&M as an animal feed. So far Phase 1 livestock feed tests have been quite positive, and Phase 2 testing is now being done. The next step is submitting the results for regulatory approval. Livestock and poultry feeders are always in the hunt for protein to blend in their feeds. Animal feed is quite the growth market in China, by the way.

Separately, the seedcake can also be used as a high-nitrogen (4%N) organic fertilizer. Nitrogen has become a very expensive crop input in recent years. Additionally, as a fertilizer, it is also reported to have great nematocidal and nitrification properties in the soil.

Processing

Once mechanically harvested, all that remains is to shell the pods and (just like soybeans) crush the seeds into oil and seedcake. A facility for shelling and crushing is not a large capital expense; perhaps $1MM-$2MM would suffice for a crushing facility that could service about a 75-mile radius. Several municipalities have indicated that the state has generous economic development funds for these small rural communities for economic development for these facilities.

Expected Returns                                                                                                                                                      

The other downstream markets (mentioned above) are fun to talk about and are very high-value markets, but the point is that simply selling this oil to refiners to make into fuel can be deliriously profitable. …Certainly more profitable than most traditional agricultural row crop commodities. We can produce oil for about $1.60/gallon. There is broad demand for good virgin oils for biodiesel refining that generally are in the vicinity of about $3.50/gal. There are a couple of small refineries in south Florida, and major biofuel refineries nearby in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

In any new endeavor, risk must be commensurate with returns. TerViva conservatively believes a grower can make >20% 8-year IRR growing pongamia assuming the base case of just selling the oil to the biodiesel refiners. Stated differently, net income to growers who already own land is estimated to be about $800-$1200/acre with some fairly conservative yield assumptions – about 400 gallons of oil per acre and about 2.25 tons of seedcake.

Pongamia seeds are available on the internet, but the problem with propagating from seed if that you don’t know what you are going to end up with because the tree is an out-crosser (you don’t know who the other parent is.)   No serious grower is going to make the capital investment to start a grove and find out five years later that his genetics are no good. Growers want uniformity at harvest time as well consistency on other traits like oil content in the seed, gross yield, as well as other desirable traits. TerViva propagates their young trees clonally from a licensed library of highly selected mother stock from science groups in Australia and India who have documented their research over meaningful time periods. In other words, TerViva’s science team wants as close as possible to 100% probability that these trees are replicas of the mother.

Establishment costs per acre are close to citrus – about $2000-$3000/acre. However, annual input costs are a fraction of citrus amounting to primarily weed maintenance.  

Indeed pongamia is a new crop. There is always uncertainty in agriculture. However, based on how the trial sites that TerViva has established throughout southern Florida have performed over the past few years make it feel like a pretty high-probability bet. The trees have grown astonishing well. The oilseed industry is big, globally, and it is not going to go away. There’s a great chance that this $3000 land will be productive $13,000 land again. It is quite rare to observe a massive agricultural transition of this scope in our lifetimes. And for it to happen in a US geography may be unprecedented. For farmland investors facing low returns on conventional row crop farmland, or sovereign risk in South America, or infrastructure and transportation risk in Eastern Europe or Africa, investing in this oilseed crop in Florida looks like a slow pitch over the plate.

Tom Schenk is Director of Business Development at TerViva. For more information:   : 509 251 2565