CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While none of three recent next-big-thing crops have had runaway success, research continues with hopes their contributions to profitability, soil health, diversity and sustainability will benefit Midwest growers and consumers.
For crops like camelina, hemp and Kernza, slow progress is being made with the collaboration of researchers, support associations and farmers.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” says Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa.
There has been talk of camelina’s potential for oil and feed use over the years. An annual in the brassicaceae or mustard family originating in Europe and grown successfully in some parts of the U.S. and Canada, its potential in the Midwest, particularly Minnesota, is being studied. Its benefits include drought tolerance, resistance to pests, a short growing season and its suitability in a crop rotation, Secchi says.
But yields are low and there is a need for more management knowledge.
“We can’t expect the farmer to take all the risk. Think of all the research that has been done for corn and soybeans,” she says. “I think we put too much burden on the farmer. It has to be the whole supply chain and Extension.”
Camelina has been tested for many years for its industrial oil, but the yield is considerably lower than canola, says D.K. Lee, University of Illinois researcher and professor interested in sustainable food, fiber and fuel production.
He says there may be future use for camelina in jet fuel, but the yields must improve considerably to make it viable.
Research and on-farm experience have already weeded out some hemp production in the Midwest, but work continues to determine what types of hemp might work better here.
Growing hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) isn’t going to be viable in the Midwest. It is too labor intensive, not suited to row crop conditions here and there aren’t markets, says Lee, whose research includes hemp agronomics.
On the other hand, hemp as a specialty grain or fiber crop could work, he says, while standing in a hemp nursery, a part of the Urbana research plots.
Those growing CBD hemp in field trials at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield recently came to the same conclusion that CBD isn’t a viable field crop here Lincoln Land agronomy professor Bill Harmon says his interest was piqued at a national conference in 2020 when people were saying CBD might be the next big thing in Illinois, but “it’s incredibly labor intensive and you need irrigation,” he says of his conclusions about the experiment at the central Illinois school.
Like farmers without a market, the college in Springfield destroyed the crop that year.
“It’s a real back-breaker and markets aren’t really established in central Illinois,” Harmon says.
There are many regulations to follow, and “it smells like skunkweed,” he says of the crop that was planted near the campus where the aroma “caught the noses” of people nearby.
The marijuana look-alike was well-marked with signs declaring it has “no euphoric effect,” Harmon says.
In 2022, Lincoln Land students grew the grain-fiber version of hemp instead. It had very low yields. There are no herbicides labeled for use in the crop, yet, he says.
“Fiber is not ready to take off now,” agrees Lee.
He says there has to be more research here and there is no infrastructure yet. Use of hemp grain in animal feed is not here yet either, he says.
In fall 2024, a hemp crop will only be grown at Lincoln Land in greenhouses. There are jobs in the cannabis industry, so this is one way the college can train students about what is involved in the growing of that crop, Harmon says. They will be growing CBD seed in the greenhouse and have no plans for any kinds of hemp field crops now.
At the University of Illinois, research continues on the agronomy of fiber and feed hemp to be ready when the markets and infrastructure are also ready. Trials are looking at nitrogen, density, row spacing, seeding rate, no-till, and tillage with USDA funding, Lee says.
These hemp variety trials are considering it a specialty crop, with a short growing season perhaps after winter wheat as a double crop, he says.
There has been less enthusiasm for growing hemp in Iowa than in Illinois, where there was “a lot of buzz a few years ago,” Secchi says.
It’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” issue, as there wasn’t processing or a market for it when interest in growing the crop arose.
“If there’s a crop and not processing it doesn’t work,” she says.
Kernza, a form of perennial wheatgrass trademarked by Kansas-based The Land Institute, was first introduced to Illinois farmers by Woody Woodruff at Illinois Stewardship Alliance meetings several years ago.
He and Jack Erisman of Goldmine Farms, an organic farm in Pana, were two of four Illinois farmers growing the crop then. The wheatgrass with 8-foot root mass is promoted as a sustainable food source, soil builder, and climate change carbon sinker with a harvestable grain that can be made into flour.
“I feel like a pioneer developing a new food,” Woodruff told Illinois Farmer Today in 2017.
Woodruff, who had started growing the wheatgrass in 2012, shared tips about row width, weed control and specifics he had learned by working with the crop. When he died in 2020, the crop still showed potential, but it hasn’t taken off on a grand scale in the Midwest.
Kernza acreage has slowly increased in Iowa in recent years, Secchi says. In 2018, 500 acres were grown in the Hawkeye State, which rose to 4,000 acres in 2021 and the same in 2022.
“It is a great idea because the grain is a perennial and bread can be made from its flour,” says Secchi, who has made Kernza bread at home.
Benefits of the perennial crop is not having to sow it every year, its ability to sequester carbon, a habitat for wildlife, and ability to slow soil erosion, she says.
“The problem is the yield is not comparable with wheat,” she says.
According to The Land Institute, its yields are one-third that of traditional wheat. As Kernza has done better than wheat in drier regions and on marginal land, more funding and research is being done in Kansas and the Dakotas, Secchi says.