The seeds of change

Steve Tarter

A veritable smorgasbord of crops is likely to replace the Corn Belt in the future.

The need for food, feed, fiber and fuel will see new players alongside mainline commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, researchers predict.

Research has been under way for years on alternative crops that boost productivity for American farmers. Look for a variety of new-crop candidates to find a place in the fields of the future, said Terry Isbell, research head of the new crops division at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill.

“Whoever finishes first with the highest yield will be the winner,” he said. But expect multiple winners since some crops perform better in different climates, while others will be able to share soil with other crops.

One of the plants that Isbell is testing in central Illinois is pennycress, a member of the mustard family that can provide up to 36 percent vegetable oil, double the amount found in soybeans. That oil has multiple purposes but could be valuable as an additive in biodiesel.

The added benefit to pennycress is that it can be planted in the fall, waits contentedly over winter, and then shoots up in the spring when it would be harvested, allowing for another crop such as soybeans to be planted in the same field. Such double cropping allows a farmer to maximize the land. It’s also especially important in light of the food-vs.-fuel issue raised as food crops like corn and soybeans are used increasingly as biofuels.

Other crops may soon be spreading across the American heartland. In Montana, marginal land never used for crop production may become known for camelina, another mustard-type plant with high oil content.

Because it grows without need of much water or chemical support, camelina oil is likely to be $1 a gallon cheaper than soybean oil, said Donald Panter, president of Sustainable Oils, the company that looks to grow camelina on thousands of acres in Montana.

Midwest prairies once hosted grasses of all kinds, but one grass might make a comeback. Miscanthus is a grass plant tabbed as a biofuel superstar, said researcher Emily Heaton of Iowa State University. Plenty of research is going into the possibility of a grassy future, she said.

The University of Illinois (where Heaton once worked) recently received a $100 million grant from the BP petroleum company to step up research on the potential of miscanthus, Heaton said. U of I estimates that miscanthus can produce two-and-a-half times the amount of ethanol as the same amount of corn, she said.

Miscanthus also proved to be twice as productive as switchgrass, Heaton said.

Research has also begun on something that could tend those fields of the future: ag robots. “The mass production of agriculture has pushed the development of huge farm machines with the assumption that you treat the whole field uniformly,” said U of I researcher Lei Tian. Small robots, instead of big machinery, could roll down a crop row, scouting for insects, wiping out weeds while taking readings of field conditions, he said.

U.S. farms of the future also will have to take climate change into account. Midwest temperatures are likely to increase by 5 to 10 degrees by the end of the 21st century, said Daria Karetnikova, a researcher at the University of Maryland. Other parts of the country also will experience dramatic change that could affect what crops will be able to grow, she said.

Intense heat is just one change that has to be anticipated in much of the nation. Researchers also have to account for different climate effects such as an increase in rainfall, she said.