CORVALLIS - What was once an obscure northern California wild flower is now poised to be a multi-million dollar oil seed crop in the Willamette Valley.
Oregon State University crop scientists, working with growers, industry and government, have developed a new oil seed crop called meadowfoam "from scratch" in about three decades.
Developing a completely new crop from a wild plant is the exception rather than the rule in modern agriculture, experts say. It is tough to condense thousands of years of selective breeding, marketing and societal acceptance into a relative instant in time.
Today, there are 67 growers in the Oregon Meadowfoam Growers, or OMG, and more contract growers raising thousands of acres of "Floral," a variety of meadowfoam that OSU crop science professor Gary Jolliff first selected in 1985 and released with exclusive licensing and marketing to the OMG in 1994. The seed is harvested and shipped by railroad to an oil seed crushing facility in Arizona.
The oil from meadowfoam's small, hard seeds contain "long-chain" fatty acids, said OSU crop science researcher Jim Crane. "The longer the chain, the more stable the fatty acid, the better it will hold up in high temperatures and the better lubricant it makes," said Crane.
"Meadowfoam oil is so unique that if I were to show the chemical profile to an oil chemist, they'd immediately be able to identify it as meadowfoam," said Alan Wohlman, industrial chemist and vice president of science and technology of Fanning Corporation, which is currently funding much of the meadowfoam research at OSU.
Seeing a fantastic potential for meadowfoam oil, Fanning has funded meadowfoam research at OSU for the past 3 years, experimented with different uses for meadowfoam, and marketed and sold meadowfoam to industry.
"There is extremely exciting potential for meadowfoam oil," said Wohlman. "It is already used in products for hair care, skin care, color cosmetics like lipstick and foundation, and in the industrial sector to improve pigments in dyes and inks."
Meadowfoam seed oil might have value some day as high grade machine lubricants or as ingredients in pharmaceuticals, he added.
The new oil seed crop is suitable for growing on the wet, heavy Willamette Valley soils where grass seed is now grown, but can be grown on any of the valley soils, according to OSU Extension agronomist Russ Karow.
"We found that one of the few other things the grass seed farmers could grow instead of grass seed on their wet soils was meadowfoam," said OSU's Crane. "They could plant meadowfoam in the fall, just like grass or winter grains, using the same equipment. They could harvest it in June, swathing it in rows, and let it dry on the ground and come pick it up, just like grass or grain. And a year's rotation from grass seed to another kind of crop reduced the risk of disease build up and grassy weeds."
Through the late 1980s, OSU's Jolliff, Crane and colleagues worked on increasing the seed oil yield and improving the performance of meadowfoam strains for better harvest. They also worked with growers to learn better how to grow it, experimenting with different planting and fertilizing regimes and pollination studies.
By the early 1990s the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and meadowfoam growers secured long-term USDA appropriations. OSU plant geneticist Steve Knapp started to work on developing higher yielding varieties of meadowfoam and mapping the plant's genes. A challenge is to increase pollination and seed set rates in meadowfoam, and a higher yielding, self-pollinating variety may be ready for release to growers in a few years.
Meadowfoam research has spawned unusual public and private partnerships among industry, growers, academia and the government - a very different approach from the past, where each sector worked more in isolation. Funding has come from Oregon Department of Agriculture, OMG, USDA, the Pacific Northwest Regional Commission, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and Fanning Corporation.
"The public has said that agriculture should have more private partnerships," said Karow. "The development of meadowfoam is an example of a whole new era in agriculture."