New Use For Cuphea

December 2, 2005 - 11:25

After 20 years in development, a new cuphea variety has the potential to lessen the U.S. trade deficit, reduce U.S. dependency on some petrochemicals and, most importantly for U.S. agriculture, deliver profitable alternatives to growers, according to Technology Crops International.

That might sound like a tall order for a crop most growers consider marginal, but this variety’s potential for producing oil might just make cuphea one of the hottest crops around.

“This crop can improve the balance of trade for the U.S., because it replaces currently imported materials for which there are no domestic competitors,” explains Terry Isbell, research leader in the new crops and processing technology unit at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Peoria, Ill.

For five years, a consortium of experts from academia, government and industry has worked diligently to develop cuphea for U.S. agriculture, and now commercialization of the crop is close at hand. Participants in the consortium include Procter and Gamble, USDA, Western Illinois University, the University of Georgia and Technology Crops International.

Cuphea has the potential to become a major specialty oilseed crop. With crude oil prices at an all-time high and trade deficits a growing economic concern, this is important industry news. Although only 100 acres of cuphea have been grown this year, the crop’s expansion is expected to jump to thousands of acres in the coming years, according to Technology Crops International.

“This is a specialty crop that literally has the potential to be a major new oilseed crop,” says Andrew Hebard, CEO of Technology Crops International, a global specialty crop production company that is leading commercialization of the crop. “We will be looking to significantly increase our contract crop production of cuphea in 2006 and are seeking qualified growers interested in spearheading its commercialization at the farm level,” Hebard adds.

Cuphea produces a tiny oilseed, which contains lauric acid and other natural fatty acids valued by agriculture. Modified lauric acid acts as a surfactant and is used in a multitude of household products, including soaps, detergents, shampoos and toothpastes. A C-12 fatty acid, lauric acid offers unique solubility in water and is responsible for the beneficial sudsing and cleaning properties of these products.

Based on 2003 data, the world market for lauric oil is 4.5 million tons, according to Technology Crops International. Brian McCormick, research and development material owner for Procter and Gamble Chemicals, has been personally involved in developing cuphea for six of the 20 years that Procter and Gamble has been involved in the crop’s development. According to McCormick, “The U.S. consumes about one third, or up to 1.5 million tons, valued at more than $500 million in 2004. Imagine that supply coming from U.S. farmers right here at home.”

Cuphea can also offer a replacement for biodiesel products. “The properties of cuphea oil make it ideal for overcoming the challenges of existing biodiesel products,” says Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director for research at the University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC).

Growers are anxious to sign up with Technology Crops International. Jeff Hufford, a grower near Morris, Minn., has grown cuphea for the past two years and will harvest his current 10 acres shortly. Hufford states that while growing the crop has been a learning experience, the fact it doesn’t require specialized harvesting equipment has been helpful. He adds, “I like the fact that this crop doesn’t compete with domestically-grown crops. I’m pleased to have been in on the ground floor with this project.”

Horticulture growers who have been growing cuphea in the greenhouse for its flowers for so many years just might have an exciting new future in row crops and could help be the new wave to the future.

For more information, visit www.techcrops.com or call (877) 780-5882.

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