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.

 

 

Well Managed Animal & Livestock Nutrition As Part Of A Low Carbon Future

by Eduardo Martinez

eddie blog picture

Of many discussions around Global Warming and the subject of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the majority are focused on causes like energy production or transportation emissions, and most of those emissions are carbon dioxide.  According to EPA’s 2016 Report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, electricity production and transportation produced over 56 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

In addition to those well known causes, agriculture and livestock production also contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.  The three main GHG emitted by the agriculture and livestock sector are nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as losses of nitrogen (N), energy and organic matter that undermine efficiency and productivity in agriculture.

The greatest opportunity for reduction of GHG emissions in the livestock sector lie with improving the efficiency with which producers use natural resources (think tractor fuel) engaged in producing plant protein for animal production, to manage the cost per unit of edible or non-edible output. These improvements are always being pursued in the interest of increasing yield, enhancing quality, or reducing production costs, all while providing a safe and affordable food supply to the public.

There is an obvious and direct correlation between GHG emission and carbon intensities and the efficiency with which producers use natural resources. But among possible opportunities for reducing GHG emissions, fascinating breakthroughs lie in improving livestock nutrition efficiency at the unit level—in this case—the cow level. The average cow emits around 250 liters of methane per day and ruminants overall (animals like cattle, goats and sheep) contribute about 25% of all anthropogenic or man-made methane emissions.

Today universities and industry are working closely together in many ways to improve cattle production and efficiency by eliminating waste, applying the latest enzyme research to improving ruminant digestion and protein conversion. They are also introducing alternative forms of plant protein that might also be more sustainable than traditional energy-intensive animal feedstocks like soy or corn.

For example, recent studies have identified how livestock diet can affect or minimize methanogenesis — methane production.  One common misunderstanding on playgrounds across America is that the back end of the cow is the prime offender in producing GHG in the form of methane. But the truth is the vast majority of methane comes from the cow’s burp—over 95%, in fact!  Thus the opportunity for improvement lies earlier in the animal’s digestive tract.

Rocky De Nys, Professor of aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, has been studying the effects that introducing seaweed to a cow’s diet can have on methane production.  Specifically, Professor De Nys and his team discovered adding a small amount of dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce the amount of methane a cow produces by up to 99 per cent.  The species of seaweed is called Asparagopsis taxiformis, and JCU researchers have been actively collecting it off the coast of Queensland.

“We had an inkling that we would get some success from this species, but the scale or the amount of success and reduction we saw was very surprising,” he said, adding “methane gas was the biggest component of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector.” The key aspect of Asparagopsis taxiformis is that it produces a compound – bromoform (CHBr3) – which prevents methane production by reacting with vitamin B12 at the final step, disrupting enzymes used by gut microbes that produce methane gas as waste during digestion.

Advances such as these are critical to increasing sustainability in the farm and livestock industry and reducing the carbon intensity of farming and producing our global food supply.  TerViva is providing forward thinking solutions in the form of our tree-based platform for producing plant protein and vegetable oil, Pongamia pinnata.

TerViva’s Pongamia tree produces 3 times the plant protein per acre than soy (3 tons vs 1 ton) and 10 times the vegetable oil per acre than soy (400 gal. vs 40 gal.) and all without the negative environmental impact and carbon intensity of annual row crops. Permanently installed orchard crops like Pongamia trees provide tremendous opportunities for carbon sequestration that offset anthropogenic GHG starting with the obvious visible form of the tree visible to the eye, and also from the deep and stabilizing root system below ground.  Pongamia is also a nitrogen fixing legume that takes atmospheric Nitrogen and returns badly needed (N) to the soil.

In the next 12 months, TerViva will be modeling the exact amount of carbon sequestered by our trees per acre, and therefore, the exact amount of carbon reduction that our protein meal offers as compared to soybean.  I’d bet that we’ll find our protein meal offers a compelling advantage over soybean meal in terms of greenhouse gas reduction overall.

Add these sustainable characteristics to the numerous high value products that Pongamia trees yield, and to top it off, a nice shady canopy to host a songbird’s nest or to provide some welcome shade to cattle or sheep on a hot, sunny day and you’ve got a winning addition to tomorrow’s sustainable farming portfolio.

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).  

It’s A Farm-Over: Walmart’s Admirable Ambitions in Sustainable Agriculture

Few corporations evoke envy or ire as much as Walmart.  In my opinion, one area where Walmart is making significant positive impact is in agriculture. In June 2010, Walmart announced a strong commitment to sustainable agriculture, in support of its broader leadership on a variety of environmental issues (http://bit.ly/18cQCtz).

Walmart’s sustainable agriculture initiative has three focal components:

(1) Support farmers and their communities

(2) Produce more food with fewer resources and less waste

(3) Sustainably source key agriculture products

Walmart can rightly claim some success from its sustainable agriculture program.  A few highlights:  monitoring of the beef supply chain in Brazil to avoid deforestation for grazing or soybean cultivation; achieving third-party sustainability certification of 75% of in-store seafood.

“Wait, wait, you expected the Fresh-Over to help farmers?”

“Wait, wait, you expected the Fresh-Over to help farmers?”

But not all initiatives have gone perfectly. For example, an effort to double the amount of locally grown produce in Walmart stores (from 4% to 9%) was recently achieved, a few years ahead of schedule.  However, the benefits to small- and medium-size farmers have been questioned (http://n.pr/Y5xfxT); some farmers claim that Walmart is squeezing them on prices (shocking).

Recently, Walmart announced what I think is its most ambitious and important agriculture initiative to date:  fertilizer optimization for commodity agriculture grains (corn, soy, wheat) used in third party products on Walmart shelves (e.g., Kellogg cereal).  From the Walmart website:

Corn Flakes“Walmart depends on the American farmer to efficiently produce the key ingredients in many of our products and we want to do our part to help ensure this productivity continues.  You cannot grow food without fertilizer and it is a crucial component of our food supply.  However, over or improper use can negatively impact the environment and the grower’s pocketbook, making it a potentially costly element in food production.  The supply chain needs food companies (our direct suppliers) to signal unified interest, support, and demand for programs, tools, and information that can help producers continuously improve and optimize their fertilizer use, yield, and profitability.  That’s why we have directly engaged a dozen food categories and even more suppliers in a consistent, coordinated fashion to connect our suppliers to their farmer-partners and improve cost effectiveness, as well as helping them meet their own sustainability goals in ways they cannot do alone.”

This initiative reaches as deep as it sounds: Walmart is asking its suppliers to go to its suppliers to go to its suppliers to go back to the field and initiative fertilizer optimization protocols.  Walmart has created a framework to achieve the desired results (http://bit.ly/1bDXmVR), using the very cool “Fieldprint Calculator” tools developed by the non-profit, Field to Market (http://bit.ly/1ahQyxs).

I’m guessing the Lake Erie algal blooms don’t help Walmart’s sustainable seafood initiative.

I’m guessing the Lake Erie algal blooms don’t help Walmart’s sustainable seafood initiative.

Why target fertilizers?  That’s a topic for another post, but in short:  fertilizers represent a significant portion of total agriculture production costs and fertilizer run-off has long been responsible for water quality issues.  In just the past few years, we have seen fertilizer run-off contribute to epic algal blooms that in turn wreck havoc on marine ecosystems.  For some startling imagery and links to more info, check out this National Geographic article:  http://bit.ly/14c6ZKQ .

This Walmart fertilizer initiative is not the first time that it has pushed down on the agricultural supply chain to drive change.  In 2011 Walmart announced that by 2015 it would use only RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil in its private label products (http://bit.ly/1bg4LJu).  This may sound straightforward, but it’s quite complicated.  Palm oil is present in 50% of Walmart’s products. And yet, Walmart only uses 84,000 tonnes of palm oil (25M gallons), or only half a percent of global palm oil consumption — not exactly a massive amount – thereby limiting Walmart’s ability to influence in palm oil industry. On top of all of this, it’s not like consumers are clamoring for sustainable palm oil in their Great Value detergent.

Great ValueI view the nitrogen initiative as even bolder, given that Walmart is asking its suppliers (e.g., Kellogg) to increase nitrogen use efficiency for their respective products (as opposed to just for Walmart’s own products, like in the palm oil initiative). Walmart estimates that its suppliers can positively impact 10M acres of corn soy and wheat by 2020 (today in the US there are about 240M acres combined for all three).

Walmart should be commended for its efforts in agriculture sustainability.  They are bringing about real, difficult change.  They are not just looking to buy credits for sustainable palm oil (http://bit.ly/ZCeqR), they are actual buying segregated “clean” palm oil.  They are not just buying organic produce, they are demanding reductions in fertilizer use for regular food products.

One area where I would like to see more Walmart engagement:  biofuels, which is the intersection of agriculture and energy.  Walmart has already made an ambitious commitment to power its buildings with 100% renewable energy by 2020 (http://bit.ly/10xpj04).  Walmart operates one of the largest trucking fleets in the world and is consequently a large consumer of diesel fuel.   If Walmart combines its expertise in in sustainable agriculture with its commitment to clean energy, the impact could be huge. I can think of a company that would like to have a role in that initiative.

Naveen is the CEO of TerViva.  He can be found frequenting the snack food aisle of his local Walmart.

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.

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.

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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.

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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. 

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.