Alternative crops could add potential income to an existing portfolio of commodities produced by Texas farmers, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service expert.

Dr. Rob Duncan, AgriLife Extension small grains specialist, told attendees at the recent Texas Plant Protection Association conference in Bryan that crops such as canola and sunflower are receiving more attention by farmers. These represent alternative crops that can be incorporated into a traditional crop portfolio of cotton, corn and sorghum, he said.

Flax and camelina are also getting some attention, but to a lesser extent, he said.

“Sunflower is a crop that both Texas AgriLife Research and Texas AgriLife Extension Service are doing lots of work (on),” he said. “Farmers who are incorporating this into their crop rotation are seeing some positive economic benefits.”

Castor was another crop Duncan discussed and one that is in high demand for manufacturing various products such as specialty lubricants and plastics. “We currently import 100 percent of our castor oil. This is a market we could definitely take advantage of in Texas,” he said.

Currently, India supplies most castor to the global market. Prices varied from $1.20 a pound to $1.40 a pound over the last year. Earlier this year at the Tri-County Crops Tour, Dr. Travis Miller, AgriLife Extension program leader and associate department head for the department of soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University, said from 1938-1972, Texas averaged about 70,000 acres of castor in production.

“Prices got low and the crop disappeared,” Miller said.

However, the oil that comes from castor is used in many industrial products and "currently all of this important feedstock is imported," he said. “This price is much higher than normal and reflects inflated prices in many commodities. The income potential is there due to premium paid for castor oil by industries worldwide. With sufficient water and good management, a farmer in the Texas High Plains region could produce 2,000(pounds) to as much as 5,000 pounds (per acre), with an oil content of approximately 50 percent. Average irrigated yields of 2,000 to 2,500 pounds per acre would be expected.

"This could be an additional revenue stream for Texas farmers, but we still have a lot of things that need to be worked out with regards to best management practices.”

Duncan said castor is quite productive on marginal land and has a “very valuable fatty acid profile.”

Both agencies are looking to develop best management practices for castor, reducing the ricin content as well as mechanizing production, Duncan said.

A successful castor industry will require a business plan to isolate castor seed, using a number of strategies to insure it remains only in industrial oil handling and marketing channels, Miller said.

“We are also looking at irrigation and weed management studies,” said Duncan. One project looked at castor as a volunteer weed, he said. Castor can contaminate grain crops if not properly managed.

“We need to make sure that we have management options so that castor contamination is a non-issue.” The research involved treating castor at both the two-leaf and four-leaf stage with varying amounts of 2,4-D, Clarity, Ignite and Roundup. In all, approximately seven different herbicides were found to be effective in both pre- and post-emergence control of castor, Duncan said.

Producers can learn more about alternative crop production online at http://varietytesting.tamu.edu/oilseed.

b-fannin@tamu.edu