Guayule could be a game-changer for agriculture in times of water scarcity
Opinion: Farmers in Pinal County grow thirsty cotton and alfalfa because there is a market for it. This is why an effort to market guayule is so important.
Why do farmers in Pinal County continue to grow alfalfa and cotton, two relatively water-intensive crops, especially when their water supply is so severely reduced?
This is a common question.
Most farmers know they have to grow more drought-tolerant crops as the water from the Colorado River evaporates and the growing seasons become even hotter and drier.
But farmers can’t plant low-water crops that they can’t sell. Any culture they cultivate needs a market. And there are well-established markets for cotton and alfalfa – crops that produce higher yields in central Arizona than in most other parts of the world.
This is why Bridgestone’s efforts to help farmers grow guayule are so important.
Guayule has a ton of potential uses
Natural rubber is mainly grown in one place: Southeast Asia. This is a risk for American industrialists, especially if the region’s thirsty rubber trees fall prey to disease, unpredictable weather conditions or regional conflicts. Tire manufacturers like Bridgestone want a national source of rubber to diversify their supplies.
Enter the guayule, a shrub native to Mexico and the American Southwest.
You could call it the desert version of a peanut – in that it has dozens of potential uses beyond tire rubber. Guayule (pronounced why-yoo-lee) can also be made into a hypoallergenic form of latex, which could be used in gloves or other medical supplies.
The extraction process produces resin as a by-product, which can be used in adhesives. And the pulpy scraps are not only super absorbent, but when made into pellets, they burn with the same energy as charcoal, making them a potential source for power generation from biomass.
Even the deep woody roots of the plant can be turned into a natural pesticide.
It could also help farmers save water
But what makes it particularly attractive to areas like Pinal is its water resilience. Guayule typically uses 30% to 40% less water than alfalfa, said Bridgestone agronomist Sam Wang. And, as its research reveals, it may be able to survive on much less water than that, even for long periods of time.
Wang stopped watering a test crop early last summer – one of the hottest and driest on record – to see how that would affect yields. It is not yet harvest time, so results are not yet known, but the plants have recovered once water is restored in the fall.
If experience shows that guayule can be watered intermittently while still producing acceptable yields, this could have big implications for land that would otherwise fallow as water supplies dwindle.
Even if the irrigation districts find the funding to drill more wells, it is estimated that 30-40% of the fields should still be taken out of production. Which could lead to all kinds of air quality issues if this bare earth turned to dust.
And since agriculture uses over 70% of the state’s water supply, we all have a stake in finding ways to help farmers survive on less water.
But going to the guayule is not easy
Guayule has a long growth cycle. It takes two seasons before it can be harvested. But it can also grow up to six years, producing about three cuttings, before needing to be replanted. And once it’s established, farmers don’t have much to do except water it, which can also create important habitat for desert creatures.
But as Dan Thelander, a farmer from Pinal who has participated in several guayule experiments, can attest, growing guayule requires a learning curve, especially from such tiny seeds. It’s a bit like Goldilocks: plant them too deep and they won’t emerge, but plant them too shallow and they’ll fly away.
They need to be in precisely formed seedbeds, with clods of soil large enough for the seeds to adhere, which is not the number of farmers who grow cotton or alfalfa. It takes guardianship and specialized equipment to establish and harvest a guayule field.
Yet most farmers are not in a position to experience this sort of thing on their own. Equipment is expensive and farmers already live on low margins. Many do not own the land they cultivate, making it difficult to invest in what it would take to change the crop.
We need more collaboration like this
Fortunately, Bridgestone is well aware of this.
That’s why he’s working with the University of Arizona, nonprofits, and the United States Department of Agriculture on Science to make guayule cultivation even more efficient.
And why he pays farmers to grow guayule, so they can better understand how these practices play out in the real world. And why he built a research-scale facility in Mesa to process what farmers grow, to increase efficiency and reduce the cost of extracting rubber, latex, resin and d ‘other potential products.
This is a serious, multi-year effort with hundreds of players already involved.
If Bridgestone decides to take this publicity – and that’s the point, ultimately – it could be huge for Pinal. The company estimates that it would need around 25,000 acres of guayule in production for an initial start-up and 100,000 acres to power a large-scale processing plant, which, if it ever got to this point, would eclipse the size of the county’s cotton industry.
But even though guayule never becomes the next big cash crop, it is an attractive alternative for fields that would otherwise be lost to water shortages.
And an example of the innovation and collaboration we’ll need to navigate a warmer, drier future.
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