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Let's hear it for Lesquerella!

Lesquerella has the potential to become the nation's newest commercial crop, with U.S. farmers growing this oil-bearing plant as early as 1997.

It's not impossible for such a shift to be so swiftly made. American farmers have proven to be very adaptable through the years. As economic conditions have changed, many have sought new or alternative crops or methods.

For example, earlier in this century as tractors became available, farmers sold their draft animals. This made land that previously grew oats and hay for horses and mules available for other uses, so many farmers opted for soybeans. From practically no production in 1900, soybeans now rank second only to corn with U.S. farmers, who produce half of the world's soybean supply.

"Key to a viable, flexible U.S. agricultural industry is support for ongoing research programs for potential new crops," says Anson E. Thompson, plant geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service. That way farmers won't be left in the lurch as markets for agricultural goods fluctuate or as foreign competition intensifies in various product areas?'

Says David A. Dierig, also a geneticist at ARS' U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory, Phoenix, Arizona, "Just 7 years ago, lesquerella was growing wild in Texas and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Since then, we have evaluated 23 of 70 known species and selected and bred plants that can produce more than 1,800 pounds of seed per acre--up from about 1,000 pounds." The most promising species is Lesquerella fendleri, a native of southeast Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Private industry is interested in lesquerella. Two firms joined with ARS and the University of Arizona to grow 26 acres during the 1990-91 growing season and more than 70 acres in 1991-92. Already, a cosmetics firm has expressed interest in purchasing commercial quantities of oil in 1993. And a commercial oilseed processor has cooperated with ARS researchers to develop oil-extracting techniques.

The oils can be used in resins, waxes, nylons, plastics, high-performance lubricants, corrosion inhibitors, and coatings, as well as in cosmetics such as lipstick and hand soap.

"We don't need to develop special seeding or harvesting equipment for growing lesquerella. Commercially available alfalfa seeders and grain combines--with minor adjustments--work fine," says ARS agricultural engineer Douglas J. Hunsaker. Processing equipment used for other oilseed crops also works for lesquerella.

After the oil has been pressed out, the residual meal contains 30 to 35 percent protein with an amino acid balance that's suitable for animal nutrition. It c6uld be used as a protein supplement for livestock rations, primarily for beef cattle. Cattle feeding trials are currently in progress at the University of Arizona, and chicken and rat feeding experiments are under way at Kansas State University.

Oil from lesquerella contains hydroxy fatty acids--special fatty acids that have a hydroxyl group (an oxygen and hydrogen atom) attached to the carbon chain. Castor oil and its derivatives are now the only commercial source of these industrial fatty acids. Two castor oil derivatives, ricinoleic and sebacic acids, are listed as strategic and critical materials by the U.S. Department of Defense. As such, they are important to the dayto-day operations of the nation.

"All castor oil used in this country is currently imported--some 30,000 to 64,000 metric tons annually," says ARS chemist Francis S. Nakayama. It is one of the oldest industrial products produced from an agricultural crop. Ancient Egyptians used castor oil in lamps and for skin and hair treatment. Since then, many modern uses have evolved from the oil and its derivatives.

Lesquerella is seen as a potential new crop that is complementary to castor in products from hydroxy acids.

But slight, important differences in the chemical structure and composition of lesquerella oil could extend its use to new industrial applications. Of special interest are two hydroxy acids--densipolic and auricolic--with unique chemical structures that suggest many new uses.

In the late 1950' s, ARS researchers at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, Illinois, began a 20year search for promising new crops that led to the evaluation of about 8,000 plant species. They analyzed some 25 lesquerella species for oil and hydroxy fatty acid content and discovered ranges from 11 to 39 percent and 50 to 75 percent, respectively.

ARS chemists in NCAUR's New Crops Group have explored several ways to commercially remove the oil from lesquerella seed and to refine the extracted oil. Methods have been devised to concentrate the hydroxy fatty acids to the levels found in castor oil. These methods use both state-of-the art industrial equipment and enzyme technology.

The group is making greases and unique esters from lesquerella fatty acids for use as possible industrial lubricants. And value-added products are being developed from the meal portion to enhance economic return from the crop. This NCAUR group has also sponsored the animal feeding studies under way at the University of Arizona (with USDA's Cooperative State Research Service) and at Kansas State University.

It wasn't until the mid- 1980's that ARS researchers in Phoenix sought to improve the plant through extensive breeding programs, as well as to develop cultural and management practices for growers. This research has been supported by ARS and championed by CSRS' Office of Agricultural Materials, Washington, D.C.

A task force composed of employees from ARS, CSRS, and USDA's Economic Research Service, along with personnel from the University of Missouri, recently completed a study of lesquerella's potential as an industrial oilseed crop. Published in October 1991, their report found no insurmountable barriers to its commercialization. The group evaluated the technical, economic, and institutional aspects of crop production, product consumption, and marketing.

Research on lesquerella at Phoenix during the past 6 years shows that:

* Planting can be done with commercially available alfalfa drills seeding at a rate of 6 to 8 pounds per acre.

* While lesquerella is considered a winter crop, it may possibly be grown as an early spring crop in some climate zones.

* Although native stands grow in arid conditions, commercial production in Arizona will need irrigation. Good yields are possible from 25 inches of water applied during the October-May growing season. That's about the same as the water requirements of small grains raised as winter crops in Arizona but a good bit less than the 42 inches needed for cotton, a summer crop.

* Fertilizer requirements are modest. Lesquerella yields can probably be increased by applying minimal quantities of nitrogen during flowering and seed set. Research on nutrient requirements is in progress in cooperation with the University of Arizona.

* Weed control can be a problem, especially before flowering and seed set, since no herbicides are cleared for use on lesquerella. Researchers in Texas and Arizona are now looking for environmentally compatible and economically feasible methods of weed control.

* Insects and diseases do not appear to plague lesquerella. However, researchers caution that--as with most crops--large-scale production usually generates insect and disease problems.

* Harvesting is accomplished with standard combines equipped with sieve screens to collect the small seeds.

Says Thompson, "Our biggest challenge now is finding ways to increase seed size (1 million seeds weigh less than 20 ounces) and to increase the number of seeds per plant. This might be accomplished by our breeding program, or we might discover a better way to use honey bees or other pollinating insects to move more pollen from male to female flower parts--the limiting factor in seed set."

Entomologist Eric H. Erickson and staff at the ARS Carl Hayden Bee Research Laboratory, Tucson, Arizona, are cooperating with the Phoenix researchers on a 20-acre field near Maricopa, Arizona, in determining lesquerella's pollination requirements.

And scientists are beginning to collect new germplasm from other areas of the country, including species native to Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps some of these species will provide valuable genetic material or even new chemical products ibr industry and export.--By Dennis Senft, ARS.

Artson E. Thompson, David A. Dierig, Douglas J. Hunsaker, and Francis S. Nakavama are at the USDAARS U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory. 4331 East Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040. Phone (602) 379-4356, fax number (602) 379-4355. Eric H. Erickson is at the USDA-ARS Car[ Hayden Bee Research Center, 2000 E. Allen Rd., Tucson, AZ 85719. Phone (602) 670-6380, fax number (602) 6706493.
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Author:Senft, Dennis
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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