Steven Temple, a UC Davis agronomist, is betting on beans. California grows many kinds now, but Temple says tepary are the most drought-hardy and have been grown in New Mexico and Arizona. Garbanzo beans, already grown commercially in California, are also drought-resistant. Other researchers suggest lupines and bell beans.
Kugler likes industrial crops. Castor, for instance, went out of U.S. production in 1973 but yields strategic acids stockpiled by the Defense Department--and used in lipstick, soap and cans.
These crops don't just save water. Many require fewer pesticides, because appearance doesn't count in animal feeds and oil seeds. Kenaf sucks harmful salts from the soil, and kenaf paper could help preserve forests.
Developing commercial markets for these products isn't easy. Temple notes that a good chunk of the vast Central Valley planted in garbanzo beans--otherwise known as chickpeas--would easily swamp current worldwide demand.
On the other hand, these new crops are held to strict market standards from which many traditional California crops are notoriously exempt. Says William Liebhardt, director of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research Program: "If you didn't have the federal government programs, the rice industry, like the corn, wheat and cotton industries, wouldn't exist as they do now."
Fortunately, markets for some new crops are beginning to blossom. Wynn Oil, a small Azusa concern, sells a patented jojoba lubricant for automobiles called X-Tend Supreme.
Think new crops never succeed? Kugler says soybeans only caught on in a big way 30 years ago. Now, U.S. farmers grow almost as much soybeans as they do wheat.