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Pongamia trees hold promise as protein crop

Native to southeast Asia, the trees produce beans that can be used as a substitute for soy.

It’s likely that there are no farmers in Kansas who have even heard of pongamia trees. That may be about to change.

A new company, TerViva, is promoting the Southeast Asian-native trees — and the “beans” they produce — as a new crop with the potential to help Florida farmers find a profitable replacement for the citrus industry that is being pummeled by citrus greening disease as well as falling consumer demand for orange juice and grapefruits.

According to TerViva agronomist Elisabeth Beagle, the sub-tropical trees love the heat; are tolerant of high-salinity soils; are capable of surviving in soggy soils and even standing water; and have external nodules that collect and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, so they do not require nitrogen fertilizer.

Beagle says that a large part of her job is working with growers, helping them learn how to prepare the land and what kind of irrigation on nutritional needs the trees have. From planting to first harvest takes about four years, she said. Once the trees begin to bear fruit, though, producers have annual harvests without having the expense of planting a crop. Once in production, the trees will bear fruit for 25 years.

“We have had trees still yielding fruit at 40 years, but we are budgeting it as a lifetime of 25 years,” she says.

The beans provide a plant-based protein that is a food source for both animals and humans and can be processed to create vegetable oil as well.

TerViva co-founder Margaret Kavalaris says the per-acre production of pongamia beans could reach 10 times that of an acre of soybeans, giving the crop a significant potential for profitability.

Beagle and Kavalaris were among the more than 900 women who attended this year’s Women in Agribusiness convention in Minneapolis, Minn., in late September.

“Florida has been good to us. We have about 500 acres of orchards right now,” Kavalaris says. “All of our growers and most of our investors are citrus growers. They have been devastated by greening. They keep hoping for a variety that will not be affected and are trying to replant groves, but they spend $600 to $700 a year on the trees and then after 7 years, they die. It’s awful for those producers.”

Pongamia's potential

Kavalaris added that she and TerViva co-founder Naveen Sikka became fascinated by pongamia trees' potential as a sustainable and regenerative crop that could provide plant protein and vegetable oil for humans and livestock without the need to clear the rainforests to plant soybeans.

“We don’t expect to replace soy. Pongamia requires a sub-tropical climate to flourish. It is very pest and disease resistant, but persistent freezing temperatures do kill the trees,” Kavalaris says. “So, we are limited in where it could be planted. Our goal is to get about 500,000 acres in production. But with it being so much higher yielding, it would be the equivalent of planting 5 million acres of soy. There’s a lot of potential in Hawaii, Florida, California and south Texas.”

She says TerViva and many of its investors hope for an answer to greening and a return to citrus, but realistically they know that there is reduced consumer demand for orange juice because of the anti-sugar movement, and for grapefruit because it interferes with the effectiveness of statin drugs.

“Ideally, we will one day be growing pongamia side by side with citrus and adding plant protein to help feed a growing world population,” Beagle said.

She said that TerViva has been using pistachio shakers to harvest the pongamia beans, but in 2020 will have its first shaker developed specifically to harvest pongamia. After harvest, the pods are dried to just under 10% moisture before they are harvested for oil and meal.

“The meal has karanja and ponagamol flavonoids that give it an unpleasant taste,” Kavalaris says. “Our company is the first to discover how to process the beans to remove those flavonoids to make it palatable. Better yet, the waste products created by the removal process create an excellent biopesticide. So that’s an additional byproduct that contributes to the profit margin.”

Pongamia is a familiar crop in the areas where it grows wild, which include Hawaii, Australia and India, where the oil has been used for lighting lamps for hundreds of years. In addition to being used for animal and human food, the seedcake can be used as a natural, high-nitrogen fertilizer, Beagle says.

Kavalaris says that while pongamia flourishes in the sub-tropical climate, it is non-invasive and can be intercropped with forages.

“We can have a sustainable food crop that is also profitable. And our final goal, of course is for our farmers to make money and our investors to make money,” Kavalaris says.

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