- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Alternative crops always make interesting copy. In the past, I have had the opportunity to write about the potential for growing tea tree in the San Joaquin Valley, dryland switch grass for biofuel, dragon fruit, jujube, capers, tropical papaya and, when it was still an "alternative crop" in California, blueberries. Western Farm Press published a story in the current issue about a UC Davis study, being conducted at the UC Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville, of jatropha, a potential oil crop.
Jatropha is a tropical, drought tolerant, perennial plant grown as a tree or shrub up to 13 feet in height, the article said. The fruit has three kidney-bean sized seeds which contain about 50 percent oil. For the trial, funded by Chevron, UC Davis scientists acquired jatropha seeds from India, started them in a greenhouse, then transplanted them into a one-acre parcel in California's southeastern-most county.
“I think jatropha would be ideal for this area,” the article quotes Sham Goyal, UC Davis agronomist. “A realistic estimate is an acre of jatropha could produce from 500 to 600 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year. If you’re paying $5 per gallon for diesel, that’s about $2,500 per acre of gross return.”
Goyal, a native of India, said the crop value would not allow for labor-intensive hand harvesting.
“If we cannot harvest the crop mechanically, then jatropha has no future,” Goyal is quoted.
The primary objective for growing jatropha is producing biodiesel with the plant's oil-rich fruit, however, by products can create paper, soap, cosmetics, toothpaste, rich organic fertilizer seed cake and biomass for power plants. Parts of the plant also have purported medicinal uses - providing treatment for skin diseases, cancer, piles, snakebite, paralysis, dropsy and many more, according to the Web site BioMass Development.