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Putnam, D.H., E.A. Oelke, and L. McCann. 1993. Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products: Programs in information exchange and research. p. 114-119. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products: Programs in Information Exchange and Research

Daniel H. Putnam, Ervin A. Oelke, and Laura McCann

    1. Value of Diversity
    2. Importance of Markets
    3. An Open Forum
    4. Importance of Information
    5. Long-term Orientation
    1. Idea Evaluation
    2. Research Coordination
    3. Symposia
    4. Information Exchange
    5. Developing Linkages
  7. Table 1
  8. Table 2
  9. Table 3

The mid-1980s brought with it economic and environmental conditions which convinced many in the agricultural community that changes were necessary to maintain the viability of modern agriculture. The resounding successes in productivity of the American agricultural system since World War II seemed dampened by a severe depression in prices and lower farm incomes. The burden of farm debt and frequent farm auctions forced angry farmers to descend upon state and national capitals demanding change. Although the "farm crisis" was many-faceted, the 1990 Farm Bill, with its emphasis on "flexibility" in crop choice, was a recognition of the negative effect that overproduction of major crops had on the farm community, and a confirmation of the desirability of crop and livestock enterprise diversification.

This economic turmoil and dislocation of rural communities presented a challenge to University State Experiment Stations, Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Extension, and Educational institutions. Perceived as bureaucratic in nature, slow to change, and often difficult to access, these entities nevertheless had tremendous resources which could be brought to bear on these issues. Recognition of these possibilities led University of Minnesota Horticulture Professors Luther Waters and David Davis to form the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products in 1986. It was visualized not as a new department within the College of Agriculture, but as a means to focus energies from several departments on the area of crop diversification and utilization. It arose not by legislative mandate or from large grants, but from faculty discussions exploring ways to achieve cooperation between disciplines to increase crop diversity. Part of the impetus for the Center came from experience implementing integrated production-to-market horticultural projects in the early 1980s (Waters 1991).

New crop development is not new to Minnesota. Wild rice (Zizania aquatica L.) once a very minor gourmet specialty crop, is now widely marketed nationwide, and was born in the swamps, lakes, and streams of northern Minnesota. It was aided in its development by entrepreneurial farmers and University of Minnesota researchers. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.), an underutilized native-American crop (until the Russians proved its viability), developed rapidly in Minnesota in the 1970s, partly due to agronomic research at the University of Minnesota. Fieldbean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) was at first a failure in Minnesota and the Dakotas, but subsequently succeeded when a change in technology (herbicides) made it an economically viable crop (Robinson 1987).


Since alternative agricultural enterprises could include everything from developing bed and breakfast operations to roadside vegetable stands, the Center narrowed its focus to diversification of plant and animal production and marketing. An alternative crop or animal is simply one different from crops or animals currently being cultivated. Obviously, this concept yields a universe of possibilities, each with its own series of limitations (Vietmeyer 1986). Sources of alternative plants or animals include: (1) newly developed species (e.g. triticale); (2) new commodities developed from existing crops or animals (canola, dairy sheep); (3) domestication of wild plants or animals (crown vetch, wild rice, red deer); and (4) previously domesticated crops or animals newly introduced into a region (lupin, llama). For example, the introduction of cold-tolerant soybean into northern Minnesota, Oregon, or Canada (where farmers are largely unfamiliar with it), is an extension of the crop-introduction process. All the factors important to the introduction of a new crop impact this process, even if the crop is familiar elsewhere. Undoubtedly, this is the most common form of species introduction or new crop development.

Alternative crops could include (1) lower risk crops for which significant portions of the Production-Utilization-Marketing matrix are known (e.g., canola); or (2) higher risk options for which significant knowledge of production, utilization, and marketing does not widely exist (e.g., milkweed, quinoa). Alternative crops could include (1) commodity crops, the product of value of which is largely generic and enters into a broad market, such as protein or oil (examples are oilseed sunflower or lupin for protein), or (2) specialty crops or animals, where the uses and markets are limited (e.g., mustard or Belgian endive).


The Center was created as an entity to (1) generate, receive, and evaluate new crop or product ideas; (2) facilitate research on alternative plant or animal production or products; and (3) disseminate information to the public on alternative plant and animal products.

Value of Diversity

A central point of agreement among Center participants is that agricultural and natural resource diversification is desirable. It is recognized that diversification of plant or animal enterprises may be important sources of economic development, contribute to the utilization of marginal lands, help in fighting erosion, enhance nutrition, provide new industries, or spread out economic risk for farmers (CAST 1984). Crop diversity has the potential to contribute sustainability or stability from either an environmental or economic perspective. It is recognized that not all new or alternative plants or animals will do all of these things (indeed some are less desirable from several perspectives than our traditional crops and livestock), but simply that biodiversity is an untapped resource that deserves attention. The end result of our efforts should be the creation of an agricultural or natural resource option where none previously existed.

Importance of Markets

New plant or animal enterprises must be market-driven to be successful. Although there are many ideas for alternative plant and animal product development, the Center has recognized that a plausible scenario should be developed which would tie each idea to an economically viable outcome. Each new crop or animal should be considered from a whole-system, "production-utilization-marketing" perspective, recognizing the opportunities and limitations of each component. This approach has been widely recognized nationwide as being critical to the success of new crop efforts (Knox and Theisen 1981; Thompson 1988).

An Open Forum

New ideas (even outlandish ones) deserve a reasonable hearing. Too often, new crop ideas are rejected (in a knee-jerk fashion), or embraced (in a knee-jerk fashion) due to lack of an in-depth hearing or careful analysis. Some new crop or product ideas just might be "crazy" enough to work (e.g., kiwi fruit or alfalfa sprouts), and an environment should be provided where creativity is enhanced.

Importance of Information

This is the "Information Age," and we believe that agriculture provides no exception to the value of information to the modern economy. It is first necessary to develop in-depth knowledge of the biology of unconventional crops as well as potential markets and utilization patterns for that crop option. However, knowledge by itself may not benefit a new crop option. Information often exists in various forms but is poorly distributed and largely unavailable. When farmers, researchers, food processors and entrepreneurs have access to information, the value of that information is multiplied manyfold. It is probably in the area of information exchange that the Center has proved to be most valuable.

Long-term Orientation

A final point is that new crops and products require sustained long-term efforts. All new crop, animal, and product options have problems or limitations. Minor crops are minor, largely because there is something wrong with them! Humanity has selected the crops we grow over millennia of trial and error, a force which we shouldn't ignore (Robinson 1987). What were the reasons that the plants we now call new or minor crops are not more widely grown? Many of the plants under consideration today previously were rejected by older civilizations. Are there significant changes or potential changes in technology or markets to justify their viability today? The answers to these questions are not easily provided (as the history of any new crop will attest) and require sustained efforts to elucidate (CAST 1984).


The Center staff consists of a director (half-time faculty), a full-time coordinator, a part-time accountant, a steering committee and advisory board, and students and others hired on a part-time basis. Luther Waters served as co-founder and director until 1990, and Laura McCann has been program coordinator with the Center since its inception. The steering committee sets direction and policy in cooperation with the director and consists of individuals from the departments of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Agricultural Engineering, Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Animal Science, Entomology, Food Science and Nutrition, Horticultural Science, Forest Resources, Plant Biology, Plant Pathology, and Soil Science.

The Center has an administrative board (department heads, deans and directors) and an advisory board. The latter has proven to be especially valuable to the Center, helping to set direction and policy. The advisory board currently consists of state senators and representatives, individuals from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, agricultural and product-based corporations and cooperatives, as well as legislators, farmers, county extension agents, and people from commodity groups and the banking industry.


Idea Evaluation

One role of the Center is to provide a forum for fielding and evaluating new crop ideas. At the outset, a legitimate focus for debate was realized as a need. The Center has served as a central point of access for outside groups and individuals interested in alternative crops and animals. Within the University, the Center provides an important incentive and a catalyst for interdisciplinary work. The Center has held several structured "brainstorming" sessions to address specific research needs. Outside groups have requested better access to the resources of the University to answer specific questions or develop specific ideas. Extension and research faculty have received many inquiries asking essentially, "What else can I grow?" Although individual faculty still get many questions like this, the Center has functioned as a central point of access to more efficiently field questions on alternative plant and animal enterprises. This is especially important given the wide range of expertise required. The Center has developed a "Registry of Expertise" within the University to help channel ideas and questions to the right resource personnel.

Research Coordination

A second function is to provide structure and incentives for conducting interdisciplinary research on new plant and animal products. Several projects of the Center have been completed recently and others are currently underway (Table 1). Ideas for research have come from the steering committee, advisory board, other faculty, producers, farm groups, or even funding agencies, who perceive a need. The major contribution of the Center to this process was to write grants, assemble teams, administer grant funds, help write reports, communicate results to the public, and negotiate between various participants in a research project. This role provides a significant incentive for faculty to tackle sometimes difficult and time-consuming interdisciplinary projects. The very existence of the Center has helped to develop linkages between researchers from different disciplines and with private sector groups who otherwise would not have been in contact.


The Center has sponsored in-depth symposia on many different alternative agricultural enterprises, ranging from dairy sheep to amaranth (Table 2). These have provided in-depth educational and networking opportunities for researchers, extension agents, farmers, entrepreneurs, and agribusinesses, and have several benefits: (1) they create public awareness of the existence of an opportunity; (2) they assemble expertise from a wide geographic area; (3) they result in a publication which has value into the future; and (4) they may lead to further research or termination of an idea (Waters 1991). These symposia have been largely self-supporting or supported with small grants. The research and educational value of such symposia should not be underestimated. In some cases, more could be learned in several days by bringing together "experts" in a field than by years of dogged individual efforts.

Information Exchange

The fourth role that the Center has played is in the area of information exchange, publications, and database assembly. Symposia are a form of information exchange and a source of publications, but other publications have also been developed (Table 3). The Center has helped in creating, under the leadership of Ed Oplinger, University of Wisconsin and Erv Oelke, University of Minnesota, a comprehensive Alternative Field Crops Manual. This consists of chapters on a wide range of about 50 alternative field crops, from adzuki bean to vernonia. Little may be known of many of these crops, but in other cases, information was available, but poorly assembled and distributed. The goal was to make information on minor crops more widely available. This project began in 1989 and is now virtually complete. The Alternative Field Crops Manual has been distributed to over 30 states and 7 provinces, and to all county agents in 4 states. This project is an excellent example of successful inter-state cooperation towards a defined goal.

The Center helped to produce a video teleconference "Flex-Crop Acreage Opportunities in the 1990 Farm Bill" (February, 1991), which was downlinked to many communities nationwide. This teleconference featured Center Steering Committee members, economists, national farm bill experts, USDA personnel, and the opportunity for call-in questions on minor crop options available under the bill.

Several research reports and production guides have been developed on specific crops or products (Table 3). A "white paper" on canola, which analyzed the prospects for this crop in Minnesota was published early in 1991.

The Center personnel have made presentations at University of Minnesota Branch Station Field Days, agricultural fairs, field plot demonstrations, and public meetings to inform the public about minor crops. One effort was the production of a "Biodiversity Dinner" which was conducted at the St. Paul campus of the College of Agriculture. This was designed to spark the imagination of faculty, students, and staff as to the potential culinary offerings from minor species. Dishes included buffalo meat, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth crackers, adzuki bean pastries, apios vegetables, lupin pasta, multi-grain breads, soybean dishes, and wild rice soup.

One information-exchange effort is the development of minor crop databases. The Center has made some progress in this area, but there is much room for expansion in the future. The Center has created an "Alternative Agricultural Opportunities Database," an assemblage of over 1,500 fact sheets, experiment station and extension publications from all over the United States and Canada on many different alternative crops and enterprises. Many of these publications are out of print or difficult to locate. This database has been made available to the National Agricultural Library (Beltsville, MD) and has recently been published.

A database on lupin was developed in cooperation with researchers in Russia and Ukraine, where considerable work on lupin has been conducted. Nearly finished, this database has over 4,500 entries of titles and/or abstracts on all aspects of lupin from both Slavic-language and English-language sources. This database contains many articles not previously available in the west and is one early fruit of glasnost. We have had excellent cooperation with our (formerly Soviet) cooperators, in spite of many logistical difficulties in working between the two cultures and over great distances.

Developing Linkages

The Center has been quite successful at attracting many individuals with diverse interests to contribute to a combined effort. In addition, linkages with other states, federal, and industrial sectors are critical to the success of new crop efforts (Thompson 1988) and the Center has begun to make these connections. All of these projects have been highly interdisciplinary in nature, with excellent cooperation from many quarters. More recently linkages with "Sustainable Agriculture" efforts within the University are underway.

It is our view that one of the most valuable and powerful tools we have in agriculture and natural resources today is the free flow of information. One need only visit a (previously) closed society to realize the value of information as a stimulus for progress in agricultural research as well as economic development, and the penalties which are incurred by curtailing free exchange of ideas and information. The same should be said of flow of germ-plasm, as the development of a new crop is closely related to the quality of the plant germplasm research system (Thompson 1988). It is perhaps in this way that a center such as the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products can be most valuable: in creating new knowledge of opportunities, and providing a forum for collection and dissemination of information, with the aim of creating agricultural options where none previously existed.


The Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products, University of Minnesota, developed largely on the volunteerism of its steering committee and without large funding, has proved to be a valuable structure in the area of information exchange, research management, and dissemination of knowledge relating to alternative plant and animal enterprises. Most participants in sponsored activities and projects have provided positive comments. However, these efforts are small in relation to what is required to fully tackle the development of new crops, and recurring support for this long-term type of activity is difficult to find. Interest often fluctuates depending upon the prices of major commodities and size of state budgets. However, it is our feeling that if research and information dissemination dollars are to help create agriculture importance, rather than follow agriculture importance (which has been largely the case with our established crops), then larger sustained investments are required to accomplish this goal.


Table 1. Research projects conducted through the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products.

Project Funding sourcez
Amaranth Feasibility Study (1988-89) Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Belgian Endive Development (1990-91) Agricultural Utilization Research Institute
Canola Task Force (1990-91) Agricultural Utilization Research Institute
Risk Assessment of Lupin (1988-91) Central Minnesota Initiative Fund Agricultural Utilization Research Institute Bremer Foundation
Production of Native Wildflowers (91-92) Legislative Committee on Minnesota Resources
zAll of these funding sources operate primarily in the state of Minnesota.

Table 2. Symposia sponsored and co-sponsored by the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Productsz.

Subject Date
Symposia Sponsored by the Center:
Grain Legumes as Alternative Crops July1987
Soybean Utilization Alternatives Feb. 1988
Cut and Dried Flowers Dec. 1988
Shiitake Mushrooms May 1989
North American Dairy Sheep July 1989
Deer Farming Sept. 1989
Wood-Based Economic Development Apr. 1990
Alternative Agric. Opportunities Workshop June 1990
Organic Meat June 1990
Grain Amaranth: Perspectives in Production, Processing and Marketing Aug. 1990
Prospects for Lupins in North America Mar. 1991
Cosponsored Symposia:
First National Symposium on New Crops Oct. 1988
Strategies for New Crop Development (Amer. Soc. Agron.) Nov. 1988
Herbs 91--International Herb Growers and Marketers Association July 1991
Second National Symposium on New Crops Oct. 1991
zAll of these symposia have resulted in the publication of proceedings which are available from the Center or cooperating agencies.

Table 3. Publications and audio-visuals produced primarily by the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products (October, 1991).

Symposia Proceedings (see Table 2)
Prospects for Canola in Minnesota--A White Paper
Lupin Production and Utilization Guide
Alternative Crops for Minnesota
Alternative Field Crops Manual (with Univ. of Wisconsin)
Lesser Known and Grown Field Crops Slide Set
"Flex Crop Opportunities in the 1990 Farm Bill"
National Video-teleconference (with USDA)
Alternative Agricultural Opportunities Database (with USDA)
Joint US-USSR Lupin Database (citations and abstracts)
"BioOptions" Newsletter (quarterly)

Last update April 8, 1997 aw