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VOL. 123 | NO. 224 | Friday, November 14, 2008

Conference Focuses on Alternative Crops

By Tom Wilemon

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About 150 people involved in agribusiness came to Memphis this week for an alternative crops conference, including a sizeable contingent of farmers.

The two-day “Planting Seeds for the Future” conference was a first-time event sponsored by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture at the University of Memphis.

Before the first session, a group of farmers had already met to share ideas.

“We believe without the farmer committed into this we will not grow as a region,” said Pete Nelson, director of Memphis Bioworks Agbio.

The group, which is called the 25Farmer Network, investigates and tries new crop ventures while partnering with companies that make biofuels and other bio-based products. The 25Farmer Network is one of several efforts launched by Agbio, an initiative of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation.

‘Risk and reward’

Speakers at the conference talked about unusual or exotic crops, such as amaranth (also known as pigweed), kenaf (related to hemp or jute), camelina (known as wild flax), pennycress (in the mustard family), pearl millet (can be a leafy plant or used in cereals), algae and switchgrass. They also discussed alternative uses for more traditional crops, such as using sorghum to make ethanol.

Alan Weber, the staff economist for the Columbia, Mo.-based Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, gave the keynote address. Trying out a new crop is “all about risk and reward,” he said.

Three primary factors have to be considered with alternative crops: farm policy, research and development and infrastructure issues, he said. Federal farm policies aren’t always friendly to alternative crops. Research and development issues sometimes have to be resolved. And some alternative crops require more labor or different mechanisms for harvesting.

In the past, alternative crops, such as Jerusalem artichoke, have failed because of a boom-bust cycle, unequal allocation of risk and reward, a lack of transparency and over-promotion from a “crop champion” without adequate follow through, Weber said.

Weber called for the establishment of some type of market exclusivity for farmers who take the risk of growing alternative crops.

Alternatives

One such crop that Weber said showed a lot of promise is amaranth. It is a crop that requires small acreage and is growing in popularity because of its high-protein content, anti-cholesterol benefits, gluten-free composition, high-fiber level and richness in tocotrienol.

Tocotrienol is in the Vitamin E family of antioxidants.

The United States currently imports more amaranth than it produces, although it is grown in Great Plains states such as Montana and Nebraska. He floated the idea of farmers using amaranth as a winter crop.

However, he did note that amaranth is susceptible to stem breakage, falling over and seed shattering. It is primary hand-harvested, he said.

Another alternative crop Weber suggested for more study in Tennessee is pearl millet, which could be grown alongside winter canola. There’s a demand for millet in flour used by ethnic markets, in birdseed, in poultry feed and in biofuels, he said.

After Weber concluded his remarks, one farmer asked about hemp during the question-and-answer session.

“Industrial hemp is not legal in the United States,” Weber answered. “It is legal in Canada.”

It is the policy of most agricultural organizations not to promote or research crops that are illegal, he said.

Besides his job as an economist, Weber still works on his father’s farm in Missouri. The Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute is a nonprofit corporation that works with farmers on crop diversification. Weber was among more than 30 speakers or moderators who addressed conference participants Wednesday and Thursday.

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