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Felker, P. 1996. Justification for a national new crops initiative. p. 109-114. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Justification for a National New Crops Initiative

Peter Felker

    1. Attracting Human and Financial Capital
    2. Universities
    3. Pesticide Registration
    4. New Crop Equipment

We are in a world agricultural market in which too many farmers in too many countries are competing for the same market share of the same crop. The recent difficulties in negotiating the GATT treaty are indicative of this problem. For example, farmers in France, Canada, Argentina, Germany, India, and the United States are all competing for wheat markets. In the sub-tropics the fierce price competition among farmers from various countries for rice and sugar cane is an illustration of the need to diversify agricultural systems.

With U.S. price supports and subsidies for existing crops approaching $10 billion/year (Agricultural Statistics 1991) there is unquestionably a need to diversify agriculture to find new uses and products for these land resource bases. There is also an urgent need to find higher value crops for agricultural areas that have low economic returns, such as many areas of Texas.

Therefore it is in the national interest to find a long term permanent solution to the price support issue by finding alternative crops for those crops that require subsidies and price supports. Thus it seems reasonable to devote a small percentage of existing funds for price supports to develop agricultural products that will ultimately avoid the need for price supports. While this search for alternatives is underway, it seems reasonable and just that the United States should not abandon farmers currently receiving price supports overnight.

These new agricultural products should include anything that is legal that can be produced from the land resource base including pine straw bales for landscape, epiphytes from trees for interior design, alligator skins, cactus fruits, mesquite hardwood floors, wildlife, ecotourism, zapote fruits in the Arizona deserts, or native nuts and berries from the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains.

Perhaps the best example of the economic benefits of agricultural diversification is California agriculture. California is the leading agricultural state in the United States with gross farm income of $17.9 billion (Carter and Goldman 1992). Surprisingly California's agriculture industry is greater than that states defense, semi-conductor, or entertainment industries. No doubt part of this success is due to the more than 250 crops that are grown. California produces half of the nations nuts, fruits, and vegetables on less than 3% of U.S. farmland (Carter and Goldman 1992). Farmland in pasture and cash grains dropped by 2 million hectares from 1964 to 1991 while vegetable, melon, fruit, and nut acreage has increased by a third. This illustrates a trend away from extensive agricultural crops with more emphasis on intensive, high-value fruit, vegetable, and nut crops.

There is no compelling need to farm just because the land base exists. It makes little sense for a family to farm 400 ha of sorghum, netting only $62/acre to make a $25,000 income when high value crops on 1% of that area might yield an equivalent income. In the California example we see that when many small diversified, high value cropping systems are aggregated, the resultant agricultural industry produces more revenue than extensive, low-value commodity cropping systems.


In 1979, then California Governor Jerry Brown told a gathering of new crop specialists, "The problem with new crop development is that you don't have a political constituency." The cattle industry, the cotton industry, and all the other major farm crops have a strong presence in Washington to make their concerns known. However the new crops industry has no such constituency.

Thus it is imperative for New Crops people form a strong professional society to make their views known to Congress and the Executive Branch. It is critically important that this group have strong representation from the commercial sector including brokers, retailers, and land owners/farmers. It is unlikely that a group composed solely of academics from the universities and government research laboratories will be viewed seriously by policy makers. Thus it is critical that this group have strong representation from the commercial sector as well as from the scientific community.

The recent formation of the Professional Association for Cactus Development (PACD) is an example of such a well integrated constituency group. The PACD membership includes nationally recognized chefs and food editors, national brokers of exotic fruits, commercial growers, and scientists.

There is little doubt that many farmers are not pleased with low prices they are paid for major commodities such as sorghum, wheat, apples, or milk. It is to the farmers benefit to have an opportunity to diversify into higher value, specialty niche crops where there is less international competition. While not everyone can grow a niche crop, good farmers should constantly search for higher value alternatives and the government and the universities should fully assist them in this effort.

Any organization that represents a broad constituency of farmers such as the Farm Bureau or the Farmers Cooperatives should be asked to participate in a national program to identify more profitable products from the land that require less price support. It is indeed most fortunate and welcome that the Council of Agriculture Science and Technology (CAST) has initiated a policy paper on New Crop Development (Janick et al. 1996).

It is useful to contrast the grower base and political constituency of the mesquite industry with that of the leucaena industry. The mesquite producers and users organization Los Amigos del Mesquite consists of several hundred woodworkers, barbecue manufacturers, lumbermen, sawyers, and hobbyists. After 13 annual conventions this diverse group has significantly increased the visibility and demand for mesquite products. In 1993 they were successful in getting the National Hardwood Lumber Association to approve new grading rules for mesquite lumber that would be internationally recognized. They also developed a joint program between the Texas Beef Industry Council and the mesquite barbecue producers to co-market beef and mesquite. In contrast, a single man with a background in both the cattle and oil business financed the commercialization of the Leucaena industry with development of commercial planting, cultivating, harvesting, drying, and marketing of high-protein leucaena range cubes in less than 4 years with a $3 million investment. This was a directed, organized development plan using teams of engineers, farmers and agricultural consultants.


Attracting Human and Financial Capital

In rural areas it is often more difficult to obtain human capital to manage a budding new agricultural industry than to obtain funds for the development. The good business leaders already have their plate full. One potential investor's reason for withdrawing from a new crop development project was "because I can make or lose more money in the stock market in one afternoon than you will do in a year." Another major investor told a new crop developer that a $50,000 investment just isn't worth my management time. Very seldom are new crops sufficiently well developed that infusion of large amounts of capital will bring them to fruition, it takes time to develop equipment and production processes, supply streams, and markets.


There has been a lack of university participation in new crop development for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the two strongest reasons are (1) the strong agribusiness lobby for existing commodities i.e. cotton, sorghum, beef that demand faculty positions in those areas and (2) a national disciplinary scientific lobby to promote basic research in biotechnology and plant growth and development.

U.S. agricultural research mandates seem oblivious to the problems of excessive production of too few crops and continue to stress the need for new techniques (i.e. biotechnology) rather than for solutions to the major U.S. agricultural problems. For example a proposal to use genetic engineering technology to produce more of a crop that is already in surplus on a larger land resource base might be funded while a proposal to use non-genetic engineering techniques to replace the cropping system would not be funded. It is incredible that funding agencies continue to seek projects to increase the capability to produce more of the crops that are in surplus through biotechnology, while they have little interest in finding replacement agricultural systems to generate increased profitability for existing land resource base.

U.S. agriculture research is increasingly becoming involved in funding solutions to the significant scientific problems of the various disciplines i.e. plant physiology, soil science, stress resistance, genetic analysis of model systems, models for stress resistance--but not the problems of American Agriculture.

If scientists work on generic national problems they will be understood at national meetings and they are mobile for job opportunities between climatic regions. New crop development tends to be region specific and not broad enough to be in the national interest for all regions.

This region specificity makes it difficult to get grants funded that are not in the entire national interest. Without extramural grant support it is not possible to hire the graduate students and supplies necessary to generate the publications required for tenure.

Additional reasons why universities have not been involved in new crop development is that it is risky for new faculty members to base getting tenure on field projects. Lab work produces many more publications for the same effort than field work. Field trials must be repeated for several seasons (years) while lab work can be repeated in hours, days, weeks, or maybe months.

Universities also do not understand the need for taking their technologies to the market place. University researchers and administrators continue to believe that if research output has significant commercial potential, it will be adopted by the private sector. There are very few examples in the private sector of good products that have been developed without dedicated marketing efforts. Many excellent products developed in university research labs have not been adopted solely due to lack of a proactive approach. The "comfort zone" of university researchers is in the lab describing analytical results. It is much more difficult to achieve market penetration with new products. Furthermore achieving market penetration for new products is not the kind of activity that is considered for tenure or promotion.

It is absolutely necessary to fund resolution of the critical problems of the disciplines of agriculture science but not to the exclusion of direct approaches to resolution of critical problems of American agriculture especially the large expenditures to existing cropping systems.

Pesticide Registration

Perhaps the single most significant institutional barrier to new crop development is the EPA's position on pesticides for new crops. For example, EPA denied the special use permit request by the Texas Department of Agriculture for use of the preemergence herbicide norflurazon on a 150 ha Leucaena plantation that was to be used to produce high protein cattle feed. The request was denied in spite of the fact that (1) a refereed journal article identified norflurazon as the most effective herbicide, (2) norflurazon had been approved by the EPA for use in forage soybeans and alfalfa, and (3) USDA/EPA trials were being carried out to verify effectiveness and residue levels. EPA's position is that emergency use permits cannot be allowed for standard pests on new crops. They take the position that the investor should have understood the risks and if necessary initiated field trials with pesticides four to five years in advance of any commercial development. This EPA position is probably the single most significant institutional barrier to new crop diversification in the United States.

New Crop Equipment

There is a major problem getting machinery companies to produce equipment for new crops. Texas A&M University-Kingsville has contacted the engineering staff of several major equipment companies for assistance in adapting forage/hay equipment for harvesting the shrubby leguminous plant Leucaena for cattle feed. Most engineers at the national research centers express a genuine concern for the need to develop new equipment. However they are quick to point out that management has them fully assigned to fewer product lines. Thus there is very little help possible from equipment manufacturers even when using their equipment. It must be said that some of the engineers from smaller equipment companies, New Holland Equipment in Pennsylvania and Brown Bear Equipment of Corning, Iowa have been very helpful.

No doubt the difficulty in obtaining assistance in adapting existing agricultural equipment product lines to new crops is a result of the major mergers in world equipment dealers in the last decade. For instance the acquisition of Steiger by CASE, of Versatile by Ford, and of Farmall by International Harvester and then by CASE reduced the number of agriculture equipment dealers from nearly a dozen 15 years ago to four major companies today i.e. CASE, John Deere, Ford, and Agco. The resulting equipment companies want to only produce highly profitable equipment lines that have a proven high demand. The costs for expensive engineering staff required for new product development must show a high rate of return. Thus speculation on new equipment development for unproven markets is something that equipment manufacturers are very reluctant to do. The paucity of small equipment manufacturers is a major bottleneck for new equipment development. It is critically important that national programs for new crop development include representatives from large and small agricultural/forestry manufacturers. Legislation should be considered that would provide tax incentives for equipment manufacturers to compensate for staff time in diversifying our agricultural base.


Due to the enormous financial burden of subsidies for existing crops, a long-term, permanent solution to these expenditures must be part of financial responsibility. Development of alternative crops for the land resource base that consume these subsidies is a rationale approach.

Funding for new crop development has come from some state governments, from AARC programs where the crops were non-food, non-feed and from earmarked funds in federal legislation. New crop development has not been funded by the USDA or NSF competitive grants as new crop development has been too applied. Perhaps the greatest efforts in new crop development have arisen from small unsanctioned expenditures (i.e. bootlegged) of other programs. Many soft money research programs have struggled for years and even decades to keep field equipment repaired and graduate students funded. In summary funding for new crop development has proceeded without a national initiative and has only been possible due to the collective energies of soft-money researchers throughout the country.

Our experience with the parallel commercialization of mesquite, leucaena, and cactus over the last 16 years indicates that the total annual cost for the three crops is about $150,000. This is for a team with a PhD leader, graduate students, and field assistants, using laboratories, tractors, greenhouses and field supplies. Thus the average net cost/crop in a shared development program is about $50,000/yr, but overhead requirements can increase this to $75,000. This is expensive when viewed in perspective of university budgets, but small when compared to the cost of $30-100 million dollar capital improvements in industrial plant improvement, to the costs of a small overpass on the highway or to the $10 billion government subsidies to existing crops.

New crop development specialists have been asking for--and receiving far too little funding. By the same token, they can not be permitted to only describe potential new crops but must be required to take some of these new crops to commercial fruition.

Some staff aides of the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives are strongly opposed to using funds earmarked for farmer assistance to support "lab coat research in Universities." This is evidently due to the perception that this research is primarily for the professional advancement of the researchers and that the research is too long term to be useful in their life time. Clearly, new crop research must have immediate tangible benefits to be politically viable.

A national grants program for diversification is required for an applied program aimed at replacing crops that currently require subsidies. This diversification program should involve; plant exploration, genetic improvement trials, development of cultural practices (e.g. planting, weeding, harvesting), disease and pest management, getting approval for pesticides, market development, attracting investors, enhancement of grower base, and bringing product to commercial fruition.

It is suggested that $5 million/year ($100,000/yr for each state) be made available over a 5 year period. The Secretary of Agriculture has authority to create such a program under Section 5 of the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter. It is suggested that a national advisory board provide guidance and oversight to the program and that the advisory board be comprised of; successful food brokers, nationally known chefs and food editors involved in new crops, agronomists/breeders, EPA pesticide staff, chemical industry personnel, private sector investors, CEO's of new crop companies, USDA managers, and economic botanists/botanical garden directors.

The state programs should hold annual meetings to serve as the state focal point for new crop development. These annual meetings should feature new cultivars, cultural practices, exhibits of uses, and prizes for growers with the best new use.

It is appropriate for this program to originate from the states rather than from the central government to facilitate a more relevant bottom-up program for new crop development. Regionally based programs assumes that the management staff would be sufficiently familiar with the ecology, botany, and business climate to not overlook promising new crops. Clearly there must be coordination of state programs to avoid duplication of effort. However, to assure the broadest possible diversification of both crops and political constituency, state based programs would be preferred over regional programs. It would be inappropriate for the board to specify that the new crop must fit any category other than it be legal and that it replace existing crops that require subsidies or that the new crop provide greater economic returns/financial stability to existing crops. It is hoped that bipartisan support can be developed to create this program to create a permanent solution towards reduction in farm subsidies.


Two fundamental changes are required to take advantage of economic development of new crops. First, public policy must change to foster new crop development in federal agencies, state agencies, and in universities. Secondly, multi-disciplinary teams of active business people, botanists, generalists, and marketing specialists must be formed, given funding and held accountable for milestones and time lines for new crop development.

We cannot sit idly by and wait/hope for such a grants program. We must all communicate to our university administrators, state legislators, and Congressmen the advantages of a federal new crop program to provide a permanent solution to the budget crisis. The benefits to society in terms of reduced federal deficits, increased variety in our lives from more interesting food and fibers, and economic development of depressed regions will be the result of our efforts.

Key points of A National New Crops Grant Program are as follows.


Last update June 4, 1997 aw