Occasionally, critics will accuse American farmers of being unimaginative, planting mile after mile of the same crops, mile after mile of corn, or mile after mile of soybeans, or – in the South or Southwest – mile after mile of cotton. But farmers are inherently innovators and will look for either better ways of growing their crops or entirely new crops to grow.
Agriculture began 10,000 years ago when indigenous people took plants and animals they were hunting or gathering and made them crops and livestock. They became the first plant breeders and animal domesticators.
In recent years, farmers have periodically searched for plants in the ecosystem that could be domesticated and used in new ways for our food and fiber needs. For instance –
- Milkweed grows wild all over the Northeast and North Central U.S. It’s an important food source for monarch butterflies. But in the last 30 years, some farmers are growing the weed commercially. The milkweed filaments are hollow and coated with wax, and so have good insulation qualities. Tests have shown that they’re superior to down feathers for insulation. During World War II, over 11 million pounds (5000 t) of milkweed floss were collected in the U.S. to be used in life jackets. As of 2007, milkweed was grown commercially as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows.
- Okra is best known as a vegetable crop in the southern region of the United States. However, current research shows okra’s potential as an alternative to soybeans in areas where the soybean cyst nematode (SCN) severely reduces yields. The market for okra could be similar to soybeans, and okra could be grown using the same planting and harvesting equipment.
- Ancient Varieties. Some organic farmers have started cultivating or processing ancient varieties of grain like Kamut, a trademarked variety of wheat grown mostly in the northern plains. Kamut came to the U.S. when an airman in World War II sent some seed from the Middle East to his father in Montana. Interest in the large grain waxed and waned until research showed that it was 40 percent higher in protein than modern wheat, had more vitamins and a higher lipid to carbohydrate level. Growers also discovered it was naturally resistant to pests so it flourished in organic growing environments.
- Perennial Crops. Almost all of the food crops grown in the U.S. are annual varieties, meaning they have to be planted anew each year from seeds selected from the previous year’s crop. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute is experimenting with perennial varieties of our common grains. The main advantage is soil conservation and less use of fertilizers and pesticides.
- Alternative Ethanol Feedstocks. Corn, of course, has been the source of most of the ethanol and biofuels in the U.S. But other areas of the world have been very successful with crops like sugarcane or soybeans. Switchgrass is a fast-growing, perennial prairie grass that can grow up to seven feet tall, producing a lot of biomass that could be converted into ethanol. The U.S. government is supporting research into switchgrass and other alternative sources for ethanol. For more detail about alternative ethanol crops, click here.
- Native American Seeds. Native American plant breeders and farmers have been growing crops for at least 4,500 years in what became known as North America. Recently, there has been a move to collect and preserve traditional varieties of maize, beans and squash, in particular. For instance, as late as 1908, the Iroquois nations in upstate New York were growing at least 60 varieties of beans and celebrating that diversity in annual ceremonies. Commercial agriculture came in and all but two varieties were seemingly lost. But isolated and unknown farmers kept growing many of the different varieties as “a hobby” or “just because I like to see them grow.” In the 80s, groups like Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson started systematically collecting many of these varieties.
- New Uses for Current Crops. New uses or new markets for crops that are being grown in limited quantities are being researched, now. These include pearl millet, proso millet, buckwheat, amaranth, canola, sunflowers, safflower, sesame, flax, chicory, kenaf, black-eyed peas, crambe, rapeseed, sun hemp, cuphea, meadowfoam, sicklepod and niger. Many of these crops are now grown in rotation with traditional crops like corn or soybeans. Other crops are expanding their range like fruits, vegetables, ornamentals and nuts. Livestock producers have been experimenting with exotic species – at least for North America – like ostriches, llamas, alpacas, foxes, mink, and exotic breeds of goats, sheep, poultry, horses and mules. Some farmers and some Native Tribes are starting herds of buffalo or American Bison. Some farmers are setting up fish farms, or Christmas tree farms, or bamboo farms. Other farmers are finding ways to add value to their products. For instance, Shepherds Dairy is the only dairy milking sheep in Nebraska. Kim and Larry Curtis were looking for ways to add value to their milk, and Kim came up with the idea of soaps and lotions. She now sells her products in stores throughout the Midwest and over the Internet.
- In a way, soybeans were once an alternative crop that became a staple. Soybeans originated in China and Manchuria and were a major part of those nation’s diets probably for centuries. The crop was introduced to the U.S. somewhere around 1880, but it wasn’t until World War II when Manchuria stopped exporting beans that U.S. production began to increase. Between 1970 and today, it has become a staple commodity. For instance, in 1979 York County farmers grew just under half a million bushels of soybeans. In 2008, they grew 5.8 million bushels. Here is how those numbers break out –
In 1979 farmers in York County planted 4,800 irrigated acres of soybeans that yielded 40 bushels/acre =192,000 bushels 8,100 dryland acres of soybeans that yielded 36 bushels/acre =291,600 bushelsTotal:483,600 bushels In 2008 farmers in York County planted 80,700 irrigated acres of soybeans that yielded 61 bushels/acre =4,922,700 bushels 18,700 dryland acres of soybeans that yielded 49 bushels/acre =916,300 bushelsTotal:5,839,000 bushels
One of the advantages of new crops is that a diversity of crops may make it possible to weather a downturn in any specific, single crop. Also, careful rotation of crops can reduce the need for additional pesticides or fertilizers.
Many organic farmers of alternative crops – like Dave Vetter of Aurora – have begun to clean, mill and process their harvests, and found tremendous profit potential. For instance, the Robert Beguin family of Rushville, NE, used a federal grant to help them market value-added products. Their cleaned, organic wheat sells for $6.75 a bushel rather than the $2.50 he might get at the local elevator.
South Dakota farmer Rick Heintzman markets his golden flaxseed directly to consumers, clinics, hospitals and health food stores. Flaxseed is high in omega-3 fatty acids and has been used to manufacture linen clothing. By marketing directly, Rick can command as much as $168 a bushel, 50 times what the local elevator offers.
It’s also possible for farmers interested in alternative crops to get federal money to help them do the research into growing and marketing. The USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has awarded research grants since 1988, and some grants are available for individual farmers. There’s more information at sare.org.