Editor's Note: This is the Field Notes column, written by editor Vicky Boyd and published in the April 15, 2012, issue of Citrus + Vegetable Magazine.
Whenever the subject of biofuels is brought up, a debate over growing a crop for food versus fuel most likely will follow.
But what if you can grow a biofuels crop that actually may enhance food production in an area?
That’s the theory driving Dan Chellemi, a research plant pathologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Fort Pierce, and his team.
Chellemi, who has spent much of his life researching soil fumigants, is turning his work toward an integrated, nonfumigant approach to control soilborne pests.
The idea is to throw in a totally unrelated crop or crops to break the pest cycle created by repeatedly planting the same crop or crop families, such as tomatoes and peppers.
In this case, Chellemi is working with sunflowers, legumes and camelina—a mustard relative.
Such a cropping system also might offer an option to citrus producers who have removed groves but haven’t figured out what to do with the vacant ground. Because the rotation isn’t permanent, like citrus, peaches or blueberries are, it might provide cash flow and allow more time for decision-making.
Unlike research conducted in the 1980s that just looked at the feasibility of growing sunflowers for fuel, Chellemi also is looking at crop profitability.
After all, just because you can grow a crop doesn’t mean you will if you can’t make any money.
So far, the results look promising.
But with any new crop or cropping system, hurdles are bound to pop up.
Unlike the Midwest and the Canadian plains that have numerous established oil seed crushing plants, Florida only has a few.
And you can’t handle oil seeds like you would corn or soybeans. Oil seeds need special care and quick processing to avoid oxidization, which significantly decreases oil quality.
Harvesting is another challenge. In the Midwest, growers simply switch out the header on their combine from one that cuts corn or soybeans to one that will cut sunflowers or camelina.
Drive around the Midwest, and you’ll probably see at least one combine parked at every farm. But combines are a rare breed in Florida.
With the price of fuel going up just about every time you fill up, developing homegrown fuel that doesn’t cannibalize food production is an intriguing prospect and one that deserves continued attention.