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From asparagus to mint - research makes it better.

From Asparagus to Mint--Research Makes It Better

Corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice--this description of American agriculture is not only monotonous, it's also very incomplete.

All across this country, tucked away among the amber waves of grain, are thousands of acres of crops that some Americans may not even realize begin as crops--for example, 101,800 acres of peppermint and 33,700 acres of spearmint harvested in 1990.

Down the road and over the hill from the asparagus and cucumbers and yes, even the broccoli, the nation's farmers are also busy planting and tending and harvesting kiwi and pomegranates and even persimmons.

How economically important are these specialty crops? As examples, apricot production in the United States was valued at more than $41 million in 1990; figs that year were a $15 million market. Dried prunes from California were worth $125 million.

The Agricultural Research Service's scientists work to solve the problems of these crops, just as they do for cattle or grain.

Cranberries (see story on p. 4) offer an example of research payoffs in specialty crops. A program peopled primarily with USDA staffers and dating to the 1930's has resulted in the release of several new cranberry varieties with qualities such as larger berries and higher yields. But these improved varieties bring other benefits, too. For example, Stevens cranberries are easily established and quick to fill in a bog--helping crowd out weeds and reducing the need for herbicides.

Another case in point: You'll probably never find yourself shopping at the local farmers' market for the choicest hops, unless you're planning to open a brewery. But the United States happens to be the second-largest hops-producer in the world, trailing only Germany. American farmers grow some 58 million pounds annually in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.

American breweries now import about 16 million pounds of hops every year, so there is a market for the farmers' hops. To satisfy breweries' needs, ARS researchers have developed and released improved varieties such as Liberty, out last spring, and Mount Hood, a 1989 release.

And it isn't just the American breweries that are clamoring for greater quality and quantity in hops. Two Canadian operations and one in the Far East are reportedly interested in using Mount Hood in their brews--widening export opportunities for U.S. farmers.

Sometimes the emphasis is not so much on expanding what we have to sell as it is on reducing what we have to buy. Guayule, a shrub that grows wild in Texas and Mexico, is one crop that could help accomplish the latter objective.

Native to America, this drought-tolerant plant produces natural rubber, offering a homegrown substitute for a vital import. Some studies have suggested an impending worldwide shortage of rubber--a shortage that could pinch the pocketbooks of American consumers as prices rise for rubber-reliant products such as radial tires.

ARS scientists have worked to breed guayule plants that yield more rubber per acre--about 1,000 pounds compared to the native plants' 500--and to fine-tune farming methods that help ensure a healthy crop.

The farm can be a contributor to a variety of industrial products, from plastics to printing ink. For example, U.S. industry currently uses about 40 million pounds of high-erucic-acid oil annually, importing the bulk of that total from Poland and Canada.

But U.S. farmers could grow a significant portion of the high-erucic oil needed, in the form of a crop called crambe. Crambe seed contains as much as 35 percent oil, nearly twice that of soybeans, and 55 to 60 percent of that oil is made up of erucic acid.

ARS scientists have taken a long, hard look at crambe. One result: At the agency's Peoria, Illinois, facility, recently renamed the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, researchers developed a product called Nylon 1313 from crambe-derived erucic oil.

Noted for its resistance to moisture, Nylon 1313 is ideal for the manufacture of truck airbrake lines, hydraulic and fuel lines, gears, tubing, and fasteners.

Researchers are pushing to meet farmers' needs as well as those of industry when it comes to crambe. ARS scientists have worked with specialists from Purdue University to develop a computer program to help farmers decide whether crambe is the crop for them.

Another intriguing newcomer is lesquerella, also an oilseed crop. Lesquerella is a truly American plant; every one of its known 69 species is native to North America.

Lesquerella seed contains about 25 percent oil, which can be extracted using standard oilseed processing. Lesquerella oil is very similar to castor oil, reportedly the most versatile vegetable oil now used in nonfood industrial products ranging from cosmetics to adhesive for artificial turf.

However, the U.S. castor oil supplies are entirely imported; lesquerella offers the opportunity to reduce that reliance on foreign suppliers. ARS researchers in Phoenix, Arizona, are part of a government/industry/university team seeking answers on how farmers can incorporate lesquerella into their operations.

A list of ARS research projects by commodity would probably include more than a few surprises for the average consumer who thinks of agriculture as all field crops and farm animals.

There are oranges that resist cold snaps, tastier catfish, muscadine grapes, thornless blackberries for painless picking, sweeter onions for more efficient pollination by honey bees, and strawberries that stay red even after freezing and thawing--all products of ARS research.

Sandy Miller Hays Information Staff Agricultural Research Service
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Title Annotation:Forum
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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