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COLUMN ONE : Planting Hope and Crambe : A few bold growers are dropping old ways to push a new crop. Despite an uncertain market, they say this versatile plant from the Mideast could revive the ailing farms of the Midwest.

March 09, 1995|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOTT, N.D. — Those farming the western Dakotas live their grandfathers' lives and die their grandfathers' deaths.

They till the same land their ancestors homesteaded as the century began, often occupying the same wooden houses. And when their days on the light clay loam are done, the Germans are buried on one side of the church graveyard, while Norwegians are buried on the other.

The farmers coax to maturity the plants they've raised for generations: wheat and barley, barley and wheat, wheat and barley again, in cycles as predictable as the chill winds that drive across arid fields and slam into limestone buttes. The sameness has wearied the soil, while permitting pests and blight to thrive.

Lee Mayer sees another path. He appears an unlikely man of the vanguard--at 55, he is the average age of farmers in the state; in jeans, plaid shirt and duckbill cap, the very picture of tradition.

But for three years, he has sown and reaped a cousin of the wild mustard that flowers white and then puts forth delicate khaki pellets. Mayer has been harvesting crambe (pronounced CRAM-bee). He plays a role in an American quest as epic as the push to the frontier--the pursuit of new crops to reinvigorate the nation's land, its anxious agriculture industry and the small towns that depend on a cultivator class.

Crambe, a Middle East native, is the most promising alternative crop since the sunflower boom of 20 years ago. Its tiny globes--and the fatty acids inside--were first noticed in the early 1960s by U.S. botanists who were screening seeds from around the world. They weren't quite sure where to grow it or what to do with it.

Three decades later, researchers proclaim crambe a magnificent resource, as versatile as a Hollywood actor-writer-director-producer. Crambe oil and meal, their tests show, can lubricate industrial machines, feed cattle, coat plastic, kill bugs, condition hair and even produce a low-fat chocolate.

The birth of a new cash crop, though, is no easy task. Like any product launch, the process is astoundingly complicated, dependent on the goodwill and ability of farmers, refiners, inventors, marketers, policy-makers and potential customers--each in the proper order, at the proper time.

Seldom do these fall easily into place. Crambe already has experienced both heartening successes and shattering setbacks in the chancy world of commerce. Its circuitous path from lab to market exposes a gaping void in American farm policy. Plants are nurtured; demand is not. "We have not thought that much in general about growing a product," said Joseph Roetheli, associate director of the 3-year-old Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Center. It is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For many here, crambe inspires both ardor and desperation. One county agent wrote to radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, begging him to mention the plant on the air. An animal scientist flared in anger as he described the locals' reluctance to feed their herds crambe meal: "I've sat down with farmers and shared with them page after page (of research), and they just say, 'That's too much work. The old way is good enough. . . .' They don't see that it's for their own benefit!" A grower pleaded: "We need allies. Maybe the environmentalists could help."

The plant's advantages, its advocates say, are many: Crambe could help the United States reduce dependence on foreign petroleum and vegetable oils. And expanding the wheat-barley rotation to include crambe, a broadleaf with little resemblance to cereal grains, would interrupt nourishment for insects and disease. Growers could reduce pesticides and fungicides.

With widespread crambe use, Americans could pay out less in subsidies, which are responsible for 30% to 40% of the region's agricultural income. Crambe could be grown on land fallow because of grain surpluses. With a more stable farm economy, some of the rural villages withering away across the Plains might pull through.

A small band of adventuresome farmers has cultivated as many as 60,000 acres a season since crambe's introduction to Dakota fields in 1990.

The harvest has been put to use. Crambe oil helps keep bread wrappers from sticking together and makes cosmetics apply smoothly. Texas feedlots add crambe meal to their troughs.

Most enticing, Procter & Gamble bought crambe oil for a new product called caprenin, which was purchased by Hershey and M&M/Mars for experiments with reduced-calorie candy bars. But the Mars "Milky Way 2" didn't reduce calories by much because the original bar does not use much chocolate. The test-market flop spawned a lawsuit--settled out of court--over whether the confectionary business was obliged to accept more caprenin shipments.

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