By Steve Heisler

Old-timers used to call jatropha the ‘Florida pistachio’ and revel in its gastrointestinal properties. Cookbooks from the 1930s detailed how the nut from this naturalized plant from Mexico’s Vera Cruz region could be roasted and eaten, while its ability to fight constipation and act as an anti-inflammatory was well known in South America.

To Roy Beckford, a Lee County agricultural and natural resources agent, the history of jatropha is fascinating, but its potential as a new crop and source for biodiesel is even brighter. As a researcher with UF/IFAS, Beckford is studying 176 tree-shrub seedlings in Buckingham for diseases, stressors, pollinators and response to flood conditions.

Once harvested, the golf-ball sized nut must have its husk removed and three seeds within are pressed for oil. The seedcake—or what is left—is organic and can be put back in the soil as fertilizer. “We’re gaining a lot of knowledge,” he says. “I want to find alternatives and the means to diversify farms. One of the areas that I’ve been interested in getting farmers involved in is the production of crops for biodiesel.”

During the past two years, jatropha curcas topped the list of crops, including soy, corn, castor and grape seed, Beckford says. The oil from its seeds can be used in diesel engines without processing and, with oil prices only recently lowering, jatropha remains an attractive option.

“There has been a lot of grass roots interest in alternative energy,” Beckford says. “Lots of farmers and landowners and investors have been asking about biofuel and how they can actively participate in that process.”

An Option for Farmers and Ranchers

Among those actively involved and outspoken about jatropha is LaBelle’s Bryan Beer. Beer was getting ready to visit Wauchula with Beckford to speak about jatropha in November. He has 23 acres planted and is planning to plant another 60 acres after doing further research.

After Beer’s father mentioned jatropha to him in the summer of 2007, he went to a Miami conference of about 700 attendees that September. He soon was giving network news interviews on the subject. Now, his company will sell through its nursery, plant and advise former orange growers and others looking for an option.

“It gives somebody an alternative in a very bad industry right now,” says Beer while acknowledging that it may take five years to see if it will work. “That’s why I think this could be good for Florida farmers and ranchers.”

Beer’s efforts include developing a pressing facility so industry newcomers can get help extracting oil from the tree. Currently, a tree produces only about two gallons per tree annually. Their plan is to increase that amount as new techniques are explored. He is flying to Costa Rica and Brazil, both users of oil from jatropha, for ideas on design in 2009.

Those considering it should remember that today’s go-green attitude and awareness of global warming should make it attractive for struggling citrus growers, regardless of fuel costs. According to LaBelle Grove Management, no jatropha is currently commercially produced and the size of the untapped market for it is unknown.

“People need to consider that even if petroleum-based diesel goes to 50 cents a gallon, there’s always going to be a market for this,” says Beer, whose family has grown citrus in Florida for three generations. “My heart bleeds and pumps agriculture, and I hate seeing people in a position where all they have to do is sell their land. It gives people an alternative crop is what I’m hoping.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Beer cautioned prospective jatropha growers to shift slowly from citrus and to not jump at offers for unproven strains that turn out, in three or four years, to blossom but yield very little oil.

“It’s very important for people to realize there are a lot of sharks out there trying to sell these plants, and you don’t know what you’re getting,” he says. “It’s become very clear, and it’s sad but true that people move down here and they’ve never farmed a day of their life in Florida but now they’re experts and know what they’re talking about.”

Beer has faced his own challenges moving into the jatropha market: His first crop was never pressed because it was wiped out by 13 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Faye. And during two nights when the temperature dropped below 28 F for six hours and plants defoliated, his learning curve increased.

Those same plants returned stronger once temperatures increased, he says.

“This is by far the toughest plant I have come across in my agricultural career,” Beer says. “Our biggest challenge so far was the water and the freeze.”

Mechanical Harvester Needed

Another challenge has been the ongoing development of a mechanical harvester. Jatropha is more economical in South America because labor costs are lower, Beer pointed out, but the development of a harvester should make plucking fruit during spring and fall easier. He says France-based Oxbow International and agricultural engineers from the University of California–Davis are helping design it.

“The concept is the same as a blueberry harvester,” he says. “You don’t want to knock off your fruits that aren’t ripe, but you want to be able to harvest the right fruit.”

Another harvester is being developed by Bill Vasden, president and founder of Tampa-based U.S. Crude Jatropha Oil. A fourth-generation Floridian whose family owns large tracts of predominantly agricultural land in central Florida, Vasden sensed jatropha’s potential in mid-2007.

He says a fully automated harvester, now in its latter stages of research and development, could be available for shipping to other growers by spring and could quickly unlock commercial-scale production statewide. It is being modified and tweaked at the company’s Arcadia shop.

As technology improves, the low-key Vasden is in no rush to proclaim jatropha as growers’ next great opportunity. With 3,700 acres being planted and another 10,000 in Florida under contract, he knows the publicity will come.

“We’re kind of in the mind-set to do, then show,” Vasden says.

That’s his philosophy as he envisions large plantations resulting from year-old test plots near Arcadia and Indiantown. The strains he tests, those with high yield characteristics from Brazil and Thailand, have been intercropped in some instances with other feedstock crops like soy and camelina or on cattle grazing land.

“With the cattle, we plant the jatropha like a huge checkerboard in 100-acre squares,” he says. “In between that time and the first six months, it gets high enough that cattle won’t trample it.”

Whether jatropha and cattle can thrive on the same land remains to be seen. But as Vasden looked at jatropha’s usual maturity in three years, he spoke of the “perfect storm” that led to its emergence: greening, lowering land prices and the need to be cost effective.

“It’s important people have something they can see,” he says. “Let’s see how my 100 head of angus do on my 600 acres planted with jatropha. The last thing these guys (other growers) need is a waste of money or a waste of time. We just can’t afford it in our state right now.”

A Bright Biodiesel Future

The future of biodiesel appears to be bright, according to Alan Weber, an adviser to the Jefferson City, Mo.-based National Biodiesel Board. Biodiesel production in 2008 is expected to top 650 million gallons, up from 500 million in 2007—and of it, 65 percent is from soybean oil, down from 80 percent the previous year.

“We have a lot more capacity as opposed to production,” Weber says. “Raw material supplies an important part of the industry and that’s where jatropha fits, in terms of looking for new crops or technologies that can add to that supply.”

That’s how Beer hopes to fit in. He says he didn’t vote for the incoming administration but is encouraged by its commitment to biodiesel and alternative energy.

Any jatropha that he grows will not be exported for fuel-hungry users in other states, he says.

“We’ll take care of local farmers and ranchers and then we’ll branch out,” Beer says. “We have too many problems in Florida before we can help anybody else.”