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UPDATE: New crops discussed during 2009 Field Day

ARS Soils Lab scientists Russ Gesch (obscured, left) and Frank Forcella discussed the properties and potential of oilseed crops during the annual Summer Field Day on Thursday at the Swan Lake Research Farm.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Interest and research into crop, food and production alternatives for this region are gaining strength, but developing the markets for them will take time.

Experts discussed new oilseed crops, biofuel crops and food crops during the North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab's 2009 Summer Field Day in Morris on Thursday.

The tour, "New Crops for New Markets," was at the Barnes-Aastad Association's Swan Lake Research Farm.

Soils Lab scientists Russ Gesch and Frank Forcella, and Eric Odens of Technology Crops International, discussed the potential for oilseed crops such as calendula, camelina and cuphea.

Soils Lab scientist Jane Johnson and Joel Tallaksen of the West Central Research and Outreach Center, updated the tours on the implications of biomass removal for biofuel production, and the production side of biofuel.

Soils Lab Director Abdullah Jaradat and Sandy Olson-Loy of the University of Minnesota, Morris, discussed new crops and the growing local foods movement.

Johnson's research continues to show the need for - and difficulty of - producing enough organic matter to make biofuels marketable while not depleting soils. Controlling the loss of organic matter and controlling erosion are vital concerns.

"How do I manage this in terms of taking this off?" Johnson said. "How much do I return to the land?"

Ongoing research on crops in Morris, Lincoln, Neb., and Ames, Iowa, indicates that 2.3 tons of organic matter per acre must be returned to the soil for adequate carbon retention. That causes problems in Minnesota, she said.

If corn stover is harvested just below the level of ears, only about 1.4 tons of stover can be returned to the soil. In Ames, the tonnage is 2.9 per acre and in Lincoln about 2.3 tons per acre is returned.

"We start running into problems in Minnesota," Johnson said of stover removal for biofuel use. Her suggestion?

"Harvest the cobs and leave the stover," she said.

Tallaksen concurred.

Prairie grasses, such as cropped grasses, and specialty crops, can't be produced, transported or used as efficiently as using cobs, he said.

In addition, the market currently is small and there's no way of telling how fast it will grow since a preferred feed stock hasn't been determined, Tallaksen said.

"It doesn't look like the economics will work yet," Tallaksen said, adding that cobs are the "biomass workhorse" and that with assistance programs for cob harvesting make it "the way to go."

Jaradat and Olson-Loy spoke about food alternatives and local foods movements, especially those being employed at UMM.

Jaradat said the world's agricultural land is decreasing at a steady rate and producers will be forced to increase yields on smaller acreages. Chickpea - which Jaradat called "the steak" of alternative crops because of its high protein content - safflower and sweet sorghum, have great potential as food and energy crops that require lower inputs.

Olson-Loy discussed the Pride of the Prairie Local Foods Initiative and UMM's efforts to become a carbon-neutral institution by next year. She also stated that the campus has a goal of providing 50 percent local foods by 2013.

Oilseed crops produced locally are a key component to research since most oil for foods and industrial uses now must be imported.

Calendula is a promising crop because it is hardy and, at least in tests, doesn't appear to come with unmanageable weed or pest problems, said Forcella.

Gesch said Camelina hold similar promise, with an oil content of between 35 percent and 40 percent with minimal inputs required.

But Gesch touched on the dilemma facing all producers contemplating new crops that can be utilized in multiple ways.

"How do we produce energy from crops without jeopardizing food, feed and fiber worldwide?" Gesch said.