Thar She Grows

Thar She Grows header image
A new crop is giving a nautical look to some Willamette Valley fields.

Walk down any supermarket aisle and pull down a random sampling from the shelves-breakfast cereal, cola, skin lotion, a dish towel, chips, canned soup, flour. Each of these products somehow has a direct link to the past.

Most the world's major crops-wheat, corn, potatoes, cotton-have a lengthy history of human cultivation and use. Cereal crops, such as wheat, barley and oats, have been under cultivation in Eurasia for more than 10,000 years. Corn is known to have been cultivated by New World natives for many centuries. The modern varieties we know can be thought of as the mere "tip of the iceberg" of a crop's past.

Developing a completely new crop from the wild is the exception rather than the rule in modern agriculture. It's tough to condense thousands of years of selective breeding, marketing and societal acceptance into a relative instant in time.

Researchers standing in a field of meadowfoam.

Photo: Bob Rost

Yet Oregon State University crop scientists, working with growers, industry and government, have accomplished what few modern scientists have-they have developed a new oil seed crop called meadowfoam (Latin name Limnanthes alba) "from scratch." What was an obscure northern California wildflower is now poised to become a multi-million dollar crop in the Willamette Valley.

"Meadowfoam is probably one of the first new crops found by chemical analysis rather than historical use," said Steve Knapp, an oil seed crop geneticist with OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station who has worked on the genetics of meadowfoam the last 10 years.

Meadowfoam was "discovered" by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during systematic analysis of thousands of wild plants in the 1950s and 1960s.

"We were searching thousands of plants from all over the world to see if they could benefit man," explained Bob Kleiman, a retired consultant who worked on plant chemistry for 37 years with the USDA. "We were looking for new industrial oil seed crops, fiber crops, anti-tumor crops and any other plants with valuable substances. We found and characterized meadowfoam seed oil. It had unusual properties-new fatty acids never before found in any plant materials."

A field of meadowfoam.

A field of meadowfoam planted in the Silverton Hills east of Salem. Photo: Bob Rost

"Most vegetable oils, such as cottonseed or canola oils, contain chains of 16 or 18 carbons," explained OSU crop science researcher Jim Crane. "Meadowfoam seed contains high percentages of 20- and 22-carbon chains. The longer the chain, the more stable the fatty acid, the better it will hold up in high temperatures and the better lubricant it makes."

"Meadowfoam oil is so unique that if I were to show the chemical profile to an oil chemist, they'd immediately be able to identify it as meadowfoam," said Alan Wohlman, an industrial chemist and vice president of science and technology of the Fanning Corporation of Chicago, a firm currently funding much of the meadowfoam research at OSU.

"There is extremely exciting potential for meadowfoam oil," said Wohlman. "There is a very promising and expanding market in the personal care industry. It is already used in products for hair care, skin care, color cosmetics like lipstick and foundation, and in the industrial sector to improve pigments in dyes and inks."

Meadowfoam seed oil might have value some day as high-grade machine lubricants or as an ingredient in pharmaceuticals, he added.

Out of thousands of types of plants screened by the USDA in the 1950s and 1960s, only a few hundred, including meadowfoam, were thought to have potential value to humans. OSU was one of 12 research sites in the United States chosen by the USDA to perform growing trials in the late 1960s.

A field of meadowfoam flowers.

OSU researchers used genetic material from wild meadowfoam flowers like these, growing near Redding, California, to develop commercial meadowfoam varieties. Photo: Jim Crane

"At that time, OSU professor of crop science Wheeler Calhoun and I planted 264 kinds of plants chosen by USDA, including meadowfoam," said Crane, a senior faculty research assistant with the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science who has worked at OSU since 1969.

In those early trials in Corvallis, meadowfoam grew well, remembers Crane. Being from northern California, it was well suited for cultivation in western Oregon's wet cool winter, cool spring and dry summer. It performed best when seeded in the fall, overwintered and harvested in early summer, just like winter grains and grass seed crops.

In 1971, conservation issues first influenced the development of meadowfoam as a crop. Sperm whales, hunted for centuries for their high-grade oil, became protected by international law. The world needed a replacement for sperm whale oil, which contained "long chain," fatty acids used in high grade machine oil, auto transmissions, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Man standing on a deceased sperm whale.

A 1971 ban on sperm whale harvesting sparked the initial interest in developing meadowfoam as a substitute source of high-grade oil. Later, meadowfoam became a potential alternative to grass seed crops in the Willamette Valley. Photo: Tony Stone Images

"At that time, we made the decision to domesticate meadowfoam and to develop it as an oil seed crop, as a possible replacement for sperm whale oil," recalled Crane. "Our slogan for our developing meadowfoam program at the time was 'Thar she grows!'"

Growing unruly wild plants is very different than cultivating carefully bred, more predictable domestic crops, stressed Crane. Wild meadowfoam species tend to grow flat along the ground and shed their seed right away at maturity, characteristics adapted to a life in the wild. But what works for a plant in nature isn't necessarily what a grower looks for in a crop.

"We grew thousands of wild meadowfoam plants, looking for those that were upright, and held on to their seed," he said.

Out of 11 species and subspecies found in the wild, Crane and Calhoun found that alba, a subspecies of meadowfoam native to northern California, grew best in western Oregon and had the best quality seed oil.

After growing and selecting the best plants for seven or eight generations at OSU, the first variety, "Foamore," was released to growers in 1975 through the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station.

Separated plots of meadowfoam.

OSU researchers grew thousands of wild meadowfoam plants searching for desirable qualities. These plots contain experimental varieties. Photo: Jim Crane

"Growing it wasn't difficult, but it sure didn't act like a domestic crop at first," recalled retired grower Marvin Ringsdorf of Eugene, one of the first to try commercially cultivating meadowfoam. "Fertilizer lessened the yield, rather than increasing it. It required bee pollination. To grow it, you needed to learn some things, but newer growers have gotten yields as good as more experienced growers have gotten. They (newer growers) just need a little advice from others."

"We had to take a risk at first," added John Duerst, a grower and president of the Oregon Meadowfoam Growers Association (OMGA). "We were conducting kind of a big Willamette Valley research project."

By the late 1970s, the petroleum industry had come up with more economical substitutes for sperm whale oil than the relatively expensive meadowfoam oil. Once the Japanese cosmetics industry showed an interest in meadowfoam oil, researchers and growers decided that the oil might have more customer appeal and garner higher prices for cosmetics than for machine lubrication.

A bee on a flower.

A big expense in growing meadowfoam is renting bees. OSU researchers discovered a self-pollinating variety in the wild and say they'll be able to release a commercial variety with the trait in a few years. Photo: Jim Crane

In 1978, OSU crop scientist Gary Jolliff replaced Calhoun, who left on an overseas assignment.

By 1981, the field burning issue had exploded in the Willamette Valley. The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) started charging a fee to growers to burn their fields after grass seed harvest. Part of these funds were targeted to search for alternative crops for grass seed, to reduce smoke from field burning in the valley.

"One of the few things the grass seed farmers could grow instead of grass seed on their wet soils was meadowfoam," said Crane. "They could plant meadowfoam in the fall, just like grass or winter grains, using the same equipment. They could harvest it in June, swathing it in rows, and let it dry on the ground and come pick it up, just like grass or grain. And a year's rotation from grass seed to another kind of crop reduced the risk of disease buildup and grassy weeds."

Through the late 1980s, with funding from the DEQ program, Jolliff, Crane and colleagues worked on increasing the seed oil yield and improving the performance of meadowfoam strains for better harvest. They also worked with growers to learn how to grow it better, experimenting with different planting and fertilizing regimes and conducting pollination studies.

In 1988, a deadly automobile accident on Interstate 5, where smoke from a grass seed field had reduced visibility, put a temporary halt to funding for meadowfoam research. "After the I-5 accident," explained Jolliff, "the governor put a moratorium on field burning and our DEQ funding source dried up."

Researchers kneeling in a field of meadowfoam.

OSU senior research assistant Jim Crane, center, and growers examine meadowfoam at an alternative crops field day on a farm near Peoria, Oregon. Crane has worked with meadowfoam since 1969. Photo: Bob Rost

But by the early 1990s the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and meadowfoam growers had secured new USDA appropriations that made possible longer-term genetic research on meadowfoam. OSU plant geneticist Steve Knapp started to work on developing higher-yielding varieties. He began mapping the genes of meadowfoam, wanting to expand the genetic horizons of the plant to ultimately increase seed and oil yield. One of his and Crane's biggest challenges has been to try to increase pollination and seed set rates in meadowfoam.

"Pollination by bees has been one of the biggest headaches in meadowfoam production," said Crane. "Each flower has to be visited by honeybees several times for high seed set. And often only two seeds are set, rather than the full potential of five seeds per flower. The biggest cost in growing meadowfoam is renting bees. A grower needs to rent a lot of hives-at least two per acre, to get adequate pollination. At $35 per hive, that's a lot of money if you have hundreds of acres of the crop. And if the weather is cool or rainy during spring bloom, then the bees don't fly and you lose your possibilities for good pollination and high seed yields."

Knapp and Crane realized there was great potential to increase yields if self-pollination could be bred into meadowfoam. Low seed set and the need for a lot of bees might be a thing of the past. Were there some self-pollinating varieties in the wild? Could they be compatible enough to be bred into their alba subspecies?

In 1992, as part of Knapp's genetic research program, Crane grew plants that represented the world's entire collection of meadowfoam, every strain.

Man looking closely at a meadowfoam plant in a field.

Glenn Fisher, an OSU entomologist, looks for signs of the Scaptomyza fly, whose larvae tunnel into meadowfoam. Researchers don't know if the insect does economically significant damage to the crop. Photo: Bob Rost

"I noticed a couple of plants in the field had terrific seed set," he recalled. "I took these seeds and grew them out in the greenhouse where there were no natural pollinators. Sure enough, these plants were setting seed without pollinators."

Crane and OSU crop science researcher Daryl Ehrensing looked up the "pedigree" of this subspecies (Latin name versicolor) and headed south to the region around Redding, California, to find the wild origins of self pollination.

"We had a record of where the original wild plants were collected for the original USDA plant screenings," he said. "We went to the first site and it was a shopping mall. But then we looked in the ditch along the road and, luckily, there were some wild plants left. Another site is now a housing development. There's nothing left there."

Crane and Ehrensing found another field near Redding with the self-pollinating versicolor meadowfoam and collected seed in dishpans to bring back to OSU.

A tractor making tracks in an empty field.

In late June, with the blooms long gone, Peoria, Oregon, grower Denver Pugh harvests seeds from dry, reddish-brown meadowfoam plants cut earlier. Photo: Bob Rost

"I remember that if Jimmie Crane and Daryl Ehrensing had gold in those dishpans they could not have been more excited," said retired grower Ringsdorf. "That seed was probably worth millions of dollars, now that I think about it."

Knapp and Crane predict they will have a self-pollinating variety of meadowfoam ready for field trials in a few years. To do that, they need to breed the self-pollinating ability of versicolor into the domesticated lines of the alba subspecies that grow upright and don't shatter (fall off the plant) before harvest time.

OSU crop scientists have not only had to transform an unruly wild plant into a higher-yielding crop you can harvest mechanically. They also have struggled with the forces of the marketplace. How do you sell something new to the world when the world doesn't yet know it needs it?

"Growing meadowfoam is so easy compared to marketing it," mused retired meadowfoam grower Ringsdorf. "Something new is too much risk for many corporations to want to take on. The first few years, when growers tried to market the oil, it was like a roller coaster. We got offers from fringe companies to develop the oil into products, ones that weren't too trustworthy."

A collection of products, such as body lotion, sunscreen and hair color.

Already, meadowfoam oil goes into several cosmetic products. Here are examples. Photo: Bob Rost

"Profit is the name of the game," said Jolliff. "It is important for farmers, but it may be even more important for large industrial oil users who must make major shifts in manufacturing formulations, processes or products. It became apparent that the key to meadowfoam commercialization was the development of profit potential for growers, plus profit potential for oil buyers."

In 1992, armed with the potential for a self-pollinating variety, OSU found a partner in private industry. The Fanning Corporation, a wholesaler of raw materials to medicine and industry, became interested in the potential of meadowfoam oil.

Seeing fantastic potential for the oil, Fanning has funded meadowfoam research at OSU for the past three years. The firm has been experimenting with different uses for meadowfoam and marketing and selling meadowfoam to industry.

"OSU research is important to us," said Fanning's vice-president Alan Wohlman. "We need OSU to develop new higher-yielding varieties of meadowfoam, to provide field support to growers and to breed new self-pollinating cultivars so there can be a larger, more consistent supply of the oil."

Today, there are 67 growers in the Oregon Meadowfoam Growers Association, and more contract growers, raising thousands of acres of "Floral." This is a variety of meadowfoam that OSU's Jolliff first selected in 1985. He released the variety to the growers association in 1994, with exclusive licensing and marketing rights. The seed is harvested and shipped by railroad from the Willamette Valley to an oil-seed crushing facility in Arizona.

A handful of meadowfoam seeds.

Seeds are shipped by rail to an Arizona crushing facility where the valuable oil is extracted. Photo: Bob Rost

"The exclusive licensing and plant variety protection of 'Floral' came out of the recognition that there was no voice for new crops," said Jolliff.

Meadowfoam's public and private partnerships are leading the way in crop science, according to some. Industry, growers, academia and the government are all working together - an approach different from that of the past, when each sector worked more in isolation.

"The public has said that agriculture should have more private partnerships," said Russ Karow, an agronomist with the OSU Extension Service. "The development of meadowfoam is an example of a whole new era in agriculture."

Published in: Innovations