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Cuphea in bloom.

Midwest Farmers Get a New Crop for a New Millennium

By Linda McGraw
December 6, 1999

Farmers in the next millennium may plant new crops on land where corn and soybeans once grew, thanks to cooperative research efforts of Agricultural Research Service and Oregon State University researchers. Getting new crops into greater use tomorrow hinges on developing products and markets for their oil and fiber today, according to Thomas P. Abbott, leader of new crops research at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill.

ARS chemist Bliss S. Phillips and other Peoria researchers are processing cuphea’s seed into oil and developing coproducts to help create markets for the oil, which is rich in medium-chain triglycerides such as lauric and capric acid. Industrial oils made from these acids are valuable to the United States because they can replace others made from imported palm kernel and coconut oil. Lauric acid is used in foods--mostly vegetable shortenings--as a defoaming agent and a booster for soaps and detergents.

Until now, domesticating cuphea has been hindered by problems with seed shattering, stickiness and dormancy. These problems have been overcome by Oregon State University plant breeder Steven J. Knapp. He has genetically redesigned cuphea in work that was funded, in part, by ARS. Phillips is helping midwestern farmers plant the new generation of cuphea plants with traditional farm equipment. This should help smooth the way for farmers to plant cuphea in rotation with corn and soybeans every three years. The benefit: cuphea can help disrupt the life cycle of corn rootworms-- pests that account for more pesticide use on U.S. row crops than any other insect. Corn rootworms can cost up to $1 billion a year in control and yield losses.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A story about the development of other new crops for future planting by Midwest farmers can be found in the December issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click here to read the story on the web.

Scientific contact: Thomas P. Abbott, ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, 1815 N. University Street, Peoria, IL 61604, phone (309) 681-6533, fax (309) 681-6524, abbotttp@mail.ncaur.ars.usda.