RESEARCHERS WHO have been working with a relatively unknown oilseed crop called cuphea (pronounced koo-FEE-ah) say it has the potential to lessen the U.S. trade deficit, reduce U.S. dependency on some petrochemicals, and become a profitable crop for producers looking for other rotation options with corn.

That's a tall order for such a small seed crop. But researchers from government, universities and private companies have been working to develop and commercialize this crop in the United States over the last 20 years, and they now think the time is right to promote it.

Cuphea produces a tiny oilseed that contains lauric acid and other natural fatty acids, which are used by industry. Modified lauric acid acts as a surfactant and is used in a multitude of household products, including soaps, detergents, shampoos and toothpastes. The crop grows best in the temperate climates of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and the Dakotas.

A crop worth considering

Here are some key reasons you should consider growing this crop:

Great interest

Procter and Gamble has been involved in developing the crop here in the United States. According to Brian McCormick, in research and development for Proctor and Gamble Chemicals, the world market for lauric oil is 4.5 million tons. Much of that now comes from palm and coconut oils imported from Malaysia. “The U.S. consumes about one-third, or up to 1.5 million tons, valued at more than $500 million in 2004. Imagine if that supply was coming from U.S. farmers right here at home,” McCormick says.

Compatible with corn

Cuphea excels in rotation with corn, says Terry Isbell, research leader in the new crops and processing technology unit for USDA in Peoria, IL. “First-year corn simply has better vigor when cuphea has been in the ground the previous year,” he says. “We have proven that rotating cuphea with corn reduces rootworm infestation, too.”

Conventional equipment used

In a typical production scenario in Minnesota, the crop is planted around the first week of May, using a no-till drill, and sprayed once with a postemergence herbicide. Before harvesting in September, the crop is usually sprayed with a desiccant to hasten drying. It's combined at about 35% moisture, then dried down to 10%.

Yields from 2004 and 2005 ranged from 400 to 600 lbs. of seeds/acre, producing gross revenues of $200 to $300/acre.

Another feedstock for biodiesel

“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 and Environmental Research Center (EERC). The center is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and Technology Crops International to develop a cuphea-based biodiesel with cold-flow properties equivalent to or better than those of petroleum diesel.

Looking for farmers

Only 100 acres of cuphea were grown domestically last year, but the crop's expansion is expected to jump to thousands of acres, according to Andrew Hebard, CEO of Technology Crops International, a global specialty crop production company that finds farmers to raise specialty crops. “We will be looking to significantly increase our contract crop production of cuphea in 2006,” Hebard says.

For more information about growing cuphea, contact Technology Crops International, Dept. FIN, 4201 38th St. S.W., Suite 108, Fargo, ND 58103, 877/780-5882, or visit www.techcrops.com.