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Auld, D.L. 1993. Development of new crops in the western United States. p. 95-99: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

Development of New Crops in the Western United States

Dick L. Auld

  2. Table 1
  3. Table 2
  4. Table 3
  5. Table 4

Introducing new crops into the 11 western states of the continental United States holds unique challenges (Auld et al. 1986). Since less than 10% of the total land area is suitable for crop production, most agricultural commodities are grown on relatively small production areas that are geographically diverse (USDA 1989). The broad dispersal of agricultural lands in this region make it difficult to concentrate sufficient production of specific crops, such as oilseeds, to allow economic transportation and processing. The limited rainfall and semi-arid conditions of the western states limit crop productivity while irrigation greatly increases the cost of production (U.S. Environmental Data Service 1989). The extremely high altitudes and low relative humidities found in the West combine to produce very short growing seasons that limit the adaptation of crops originally introduced from tropical regions such as cotton and soybeans. Poorly developed transportation systems and long distances to both domestic and export markets for agricultural commodities also contribute to the difficulty of introducing economically competitive new crops. To be effective in introducing new crops into this region, research and commercialization programs must answer each of these challenges.

Of the 304.3 million ha of land mass found in these eleven western states, only 23.9 million (7.8%) are currently used for crop production (Table 1) (USDA 1989). The percentage of land dedicated to crop production ranges from only 0.9% in Nevada to a high of 17.8% in Washington. This region has over 100 million ha used for pasture and nearly one million ha (4% of total crop land) classified as conserved. Slightly over 56% (9.7 million ha) of the crop land is irrigated. Some states such as Washington have less than 20% irrigated crop land while other states such as Nevada have 133% irrigated crop land indicating that some improved pasture is also irrigated. There are 5.4 million ha of wheat grown in the western states each year, indicating that nearly one of four cultivated ha is dedicated to the production of an agricultural commodity that is in surplus and supported by federal programs.

The production climates found in the western states vary almost as much within a single state as between states (Table 2). Even the warmer states such as California and Arizona have crop production regions that have less than 60 frost free days while other regions in the same state can expect more than a 300 day growing season. Even the longest growing seasons in the colder states such as Montana and Wyoming are less than 170 days. Several crop production zones in the arid Southwest receive less than 250 mm of annual precipitation while some areas of Oregon and Washington receive in excess of 1,900 mm of annual rainfall.

Generally, most agricultural production regions where new crops would be most economically competitive have only 120 to 150 day growing seasons and receive less than 450 mm of annual precipitation (U.S. Environmental Data Service 1989). Often what limited moisture can be expected, is the result of intense thunderstorms or is reasonably distributed so the crops can still experience severe moisture stress in the middle and late summer months. In regions with Mediterranean climates, winter annuals and very short season summer annuals are often most competitive under dryland conditions. To compete on irrigated lands, a new crop must have a value equivalent to or greater than existing crops. These climatic and land allocation factors make successful commercialization of new crops in the western states very difficult.

A telephone survey was conducted in June and July of 1991 to profile 22 new crops research programs in the western states (Table 3). A series of questions were asked to determine which crops were being investigated; the area of research being addressed; sources of funding for the new crops research; what factors limited additional production of the new crops; and what total production area of new crops are currently being grown and will be grown by the year 2000 in their specific region.

The projects were working at average altitude of 866 m (but ranged from 15 to 1,800 m) and had been active for an average of 11 years (1 to 40 yrs). The researchers indicated that the crops on which they were now working were grown on an average of 3,320 ha (but ranged from 0 to 122,000 ha) and had the potential to be grown on an average of 92,000 ha the turn of the century. The survey indicated that the potential impact of specific new crops during this period ranged from no commercial production to as much as one million ha of an individual crop.

Over 50% of the projects were working on legumes, cereals, or oilseed crops (Table 4). Less than a third of the projects were actively searching for new forage crops, condiments, or vegetables. These results have been biased since primarily projects supported by the Department of Agronomy at land grant institutions were surveyed. The specific crops listed by the researchers included five legume species, four species of oilseed and industrial chemical crops, four species of new cereals, four species of forage/fiber crops, three species of condiments, and five species of vegetable crops.

A large majority of the projects were interdisciplinary (86%) and vertically integrated to include growers, processors, and agricultural distribution firms (68%). Nearly all of the researchers indicated that introduction of new crops required application of nearly all disciplines of modern agricultural research as well as the direct cooperation of growers and processors to achieve final commercialization of any new crop.

Every researcher surveyed was working in some aspect of new crop production and 77% were screening one or more species of new crops for adaptation to the climate of their agricultural producing region (Table 4). There was less activity in the areas of the impact of new crops on crop rotations (18%), marketing (32%), crop processing and utilization (45%), and economics (41%). Most researchers felt that marketing and economics were important but did not agree when it was best to include these activities in programs to introduce new crops. Some researchers indicated that economic assessments should be delayed until the biological adaptation and agronomic potential of a crop species had been established.

All of the researchers indicated that lack of research funding has limited the efforts to develop new crops for the western states. Private and state funds provided financial support to over 70% of the projects while federal funds were available to only 55% of the projects (Table 4). Only 27% of the projects obtained their funding from a single sector while 71% obtained funds from private industry, state funds, and federal support. Most private funding came from fees charged for varietal adaptation trials.

When asked to define those factors which most directly limited the development of new crops in the western states, several were identified (Table 4). Lack of research funds was the most common factor (45%), followed by Farm and Government Policy (15%), and lack of developed markets (15%). Transportation costs, failure of grower to accept new crops, and the economic uncompetitiveness of new crops were also identified as factors which currently limit production. Although not included in the survey, some research indicated that lack of registered pesticides had also limited the production of new crops recently introduced into the United States.

Based on the results of this telephone survey it was apparent that the introduction of new crops will require a consistent source of research funding as well as the inclusion and encouragement of new crop production as a stated goal of American farm policy. It is unfortunate that one of the single largest deterrents to introducing new crops is the federal government's policies. The farm program has historically penalized a grower's production base when hectares were diverted from protected crops to production of new crops. Federal subsidies of selected crops create an artificial economic climate in which unsubsidized new crops often cannot compete.

Researchers developing crops for irrigated areas should concentrate on crops with high value to help defer the cost of irrigation and transportation to domestic and export markets. There is a desperate need to develop additional crops which can be grown on the arid and semi-arid regions typical of dryland production areas. Identification of species of new crops adapted to the 255 million ha of pasture, rangeland, and forests of the western states should also be initiated. Even a moderate increase in carrying capacity or timber yields across such a vast area would have tremendous economic impact. Finally, researchers working on new crops both in the United States and globally should more actively communicate and exchange scientific information. With limited financial support and only a few scientific personnel working in such a critical area it is important to encourage cooperation and avoid duplication.


Table 1. Land utilization of 11 states in the western United States which could support production of new crops (USDA 1989).

State Total area (M ha) Total farm (M ha) Crop land (M ha) Crop % of total Irrigated area (M ha) Cropland irrigated (%) Conserved area (M ha) Wheat area (M ha)
Arizona 29.4 14.6 0.5 1.7 0.4 52.9 0.06 0.04
California 40.5 12.7 3.9 9.6 3.1 79.2 0.08 0.20
Colorado 26.9 13.6 3.8 14.2 1.2 31.9 0.11 1.10
Idaho 21.3 5.5 2.3 10.6 1.2 57.1 0.09 0.49
Montana 37.7 24.5 6.2 16.3 0.8 13.2 0.16 1.90
Nevada 28.5 3.6 0.2 0.9 0.3 133.3 0.03 0.08
New Mexico 31.4 18.0 0.7 2.2 0.3 41.2 0.19 0.20
Oregon 24.9 7.2 1.7 7.0 0.7 37.2 0.06 0.32
Utah 21.3 4.8 0.6 2.7 0.5 85.7 0.07 0.08
Washington 17.3 6.5 3.1 17.8 0.6 19.7 0.06 0.85
Wyoming 25.2 14.1 0.9 3.7 0.6 65.2 0.04 0.12
Total 304.3 125.12 3.9 7.9 9.7 56.1 0.93 5.4

Table 2. Average climatic factors of 11 states in the western United States which could influence adaptation of new crops. (U.S. Environmental Data Service 1989).

Range in frost free days, 1989
State No. climatic zones Minimum Maximum Range in avg. temp (°C) Range in avg. rainfall (mm)
Arizona 7 6-286 308-339 16-22 107-325
California 7 1-172 145-322 7-18 185-1047
Colorado 5 1-129 136-208 4-10 297-409
Idaho 10 2-111 110-239 6-11 252-706
Montana 7 3-101 132-168 6-7 333-508
Nevada 4 1-184 131-305 7-17 135-277
New Mexico 8 60-156 170-225 8-16 224-384
Oregon 9 1-137 127-290 6-11 254-1996
Utah 7 5-184 163-237 6-15 203-480
Washington 10 3-181 177-282 6-11 244-2479
Wyoming 10 1-88 81-170 3-8 239-546

Table 3. Results of a telephone survey on introducing new crops into the western United States.

Name Location Firm Selected crops
Hal Purcell Tucson, AZ Private Farm Jojoba
Gene Aksland Fresno, CA Goldsmith Seeds Lupine, triticale
Ali Estilal Riverside, CA UC-Riverside Guayule
Steve Schaffer Sacramento, CA Calif. Dept. Agr Kenaf, lupine
Duane Johnson Fort Collins, CO Colorado State Univ. Amaranth, quiona
Stephen Guy Moscow, ID Univ. of Idaho Canola, mustard
Joe McCaffrey Moscow, ID Univ. of Idaho Canola, rapeseed
Grant Jackson Conrad, MT Montana State Univ. Canola
Gil Stallknecht Huntley, MT Montana State Univ. Teffy amaranth
Leon Welty Kalispell, MT Montana State Univ. Canola, legumes
Mel Westcott Corvallis, MT Montana State Univ. Mints, vegetables
Dave Whichman Mocasin, MT Montana State Univ. Canola, forages
Charlie Glover Las Cruces, NM New Mexico State Univ. Vegetables, chiles
Koert Lessman Las Cruces, NM New Mexico State Univ. Crambe
Clyde Florenson Reno, NV Univ. of Nevada Alfalfa
Gary Jolliff Corvallis, OR Oklahoma State Univ. Meadowfoam
R.S. Albrechtsen Logan, UT Utah State Univ. Wheat, barley
An Hang Prosser, WA Washington State Univ. Canola, rapeseed
Tom Lumpkin Pullman, WA Washington State Univ. Legumes, condiments
Baird Miller Pullman, WA Washington State Univ. Canola
Joe Lauer Powell, WY Univ. of Wyoming Canola, crambe
Jim Krall Torrington, WY Univ. of Wyoming Legumes, canola

Table 4. Responses of 22 researchers conducting new crops research in the western United States in 1991.

Examples Response distribution (%)
Classes of crops in research program
Oilseeds 82
Cereals 50
Legumes 50
Forages 27
Condiments 18
Vegetable 14
Area of research
Production 100
Adaptation 77
Processing and utilization 45
Economics 41
Marketing 32
Crop rotation 18
Source of research support
Private companies 77
State funds 72
Federal funds 55
Number of sources of research support
One 27
Two 41
Three 32
Factors limiting introducing new crops
Research funds 45
Market development 15
U.S. farm policy 15
Transport to market 9
Grower acceptance 6
Economic competitiveness 6

Last update April 7, 1997 aw