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Varied strategies applied to novel crop production

Posted on May 31, 2024 by admin

By Heather Cameron
Westwind Weekly News

The 2024 Farming Smarter Conference and Trade Show, which was recently held at the Sandman Signature Lethbridge Lodge, included a presentation from Mike Gretzinger, Farming Smarter Research Coordinator in the agronomy program. Gretzinger spoke about the ups and downs of novel crops.

“What defines a novel crop?” Gretzinger asked. 

Gretzinger said that a novel crop is something with really small acres, something with limited agronomy.

“In normal crops, one small thing can go wrong and can derail the entire process. A lot of our staple crops that we have, there’s a lot more resiliency built into those systems. You can screw up your receiving rate, date, depth, whatever, and it’ll have a small impact on your overall bottom line, but that can make or break how things go with your novel crop, so limit acres near the area, agronomy lacking pesticides and registered products lacking, and just a low margin for error overall. And that’s important when we’re selecting a new crop to grow.”

Gretzinger then presented the five stages of technology adoption using slides and examples from the Farming Smarter archives to illustrate each, stating that he thought they could apply to novel crops. 

“You have the innovators that come in, the people willing to try 10 acres or something. You have the visionaries who see kind of what could be happening, and they start trying things out that their neighbours are doing the pragmatic assist. These are the people who are like, ‘Okay, this is an industry that’s going to go somewhere. Then the conservatives and skeptics are kind of on the later side.’”

Gretzinger explained that innovators are needed and a requirement attached to innovators is figuring out several factors: if those innovators have any competition, if they have a niche, and if there is a market and a need for their work. Innovators, Gretzinger said, should also ask themselves what the economics are, what the ROI (return on investment) potential is, what the risk is going to be, and what the displacement is going to be for them.

Then, Gretzinger showed slides from the archives of the organization, starting with artemisia, a study from 2009 that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and run by Paul Watson of the Alberta Research Council before it became InnoTech Alberta. This study, Gretzinger said, was done before Farming Smarter became Farming Smarter.

“Artemisinin is used to treat multi-drug resistant malaria, and it fixed a million people a year, so they can synthesize, or they can distill it down, and get the oil content out for the artemisinin, but there was some challenges,” said Gretzinger. “It was like seven times the yield they expected, and grew six feet tall. The percentage, 20 per cent oil content was through the roof, but global demands only a hundred thousand acres, so it was small peanuts in a global supply chain. This was 2009, when it was $2.2 million then to build a processing facility in Taber. It’s probably $10 to $20 million to build that same facility now, so it just never really took off. Somebody else probably already had something in place scaled up and that was maybe the end of the story. Who knows, maybe there’ll be other compounds that this could work on. But for its intended purposes the demand and the processing side, it was never going to be; it was kind of a non-starter, a really cool project overall.”

Another example that Gretzinger touched upon was calendula.

“They’re farm flowers essentially, and they can harvest it,” said Gretzinger. “It looks kind of just like miniature sunflower seeds with around 20 per cent oil content. The processing facilities found there’s not really a market for it, as there was all this potential, but there was no one really leading a charge for it. Then, that oil extraction process, just about broke their processor in trying to cold press this in trying to preserve the quality, and as soon as they got to that step, they’re like, ‘yeah, this is going to be a non-starter as well’.”

The second hurdle, Gretzinger said, is sustaining those early adopters, and using slides, he provided some examples including some of a winter barley project from 2009, and a video of harvest of camelina from 2009. 

“We’re trying to get to those visionaries, the people who are like, ‘Okay, we have something here. What can we make a go of?’ And that’s where Farming Smarter comes in. We kind of help through these ups and downs and a lot of the research we do focuses on these early innovative crops. Now, we’re looking at things like, is the crop adapted to our region? What is the climate like? What are the varieties? Are they actually suitable varieties? What are they doing? Do we need a breeding program? What are some of the basic agronomy seeding rates, seeding dates, and the fertility yield? And is it the same from other parts of the world as it is to what we need to grow? We’re also looking at the water management, pests and pesticide management and, just the overall basics for growing the crop.”

The third hurdle, Gretzinger said, is building industry. 

“We need those regional processors, we need infrastructure, we need investment, commodity supports, reinvestment of checkoff dollars, specialty equipment, some provincial specialists, breeders, all that kind of support network,” said Gretzinger. “If that doesn’t exist, it’s going to be really hard to see something go somewhere. To move it from a novel crop to where it’s becoming more and more widely adopted, you kind of need the rest of the support networks to be in there.”

Gretzinger provided quinoa as an example of a crop that is working on building industry.

Stage four, Gretzinger said, is what he calls ‘the wild cards.’

“Any number of things could go wrong,” said Gretzinger. “You’ve done all the hard work climbing the mountain, but any number of things could still go wrong. You’ve got supply chains issues. Can you get the skilled labour? Can you get it for a decent cost? Is it something that’s really labour intensive or something you can mechanize? The lending insurance is also such a wild card.”

Stage five, Gretzinger stated, is regarding maintaining a continuing supply.

“This is where we need to reinvest in research and we need to build that public support and we need to basically build that good news story around whatever we’re doing, and once we have that, that full picture, then I think that’s where we’re going to have the industry success,” said Gretzinger. “If the general public is behind something, the chances of funders not funding it, governments not supporting it, that drops significantly, and it just helps sustain the industry more than anything else.”

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