Dandelions as a cash crop
DARKE COUNTY – As the foreign market for natural rubber becomes more volatile, scientists and farmers alike are researching alternative sources of the valuable compound.
Traditionally, rubber has been produced from the Hevea rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), which grows primarily in Southeast Asia. But the region has grown unstable due to the expansion of neighboring countries and industrialization of the region, so scientists are looking for economic rubber alternatives.
The Ohio State University Agricultural Research and Development Center are looking to the Cossack Dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) as the next major rubber producer, and have created a formalized consortium of interested businesses and agricultural scientists called the Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives (PENRA).
The Cossack or Russian Dandelion has almost identical qualities compared to natural rubber harvested from the Hevea tree, and in many instances is easier to grow.
While rubber is present in our everyday lives, many don’t realize its impact on the world.
“People don’t realize how important rubber is,”PENRA Research Director Dr. Katrina Cornish said. “There are 40,000 different things made with natural rubber, and 400 medical products.”
Rubber alternative research couldn’t be happening at a more vital time, as the demand for the natural resources continues to increase while the global supply is unreliable.
“We’re far more at risk for not having rubber than not having enough fuel. If we don’t have any rubber here, we have no airplanes and cars will go back to going 30 miles per hour,” Dr. Cornish said.
According to PENRA, the United States imports 1.2 million metric tons per year, and if the U.S. Does not begin domestic production, the country will be forced to pay extremely high prices for tire rubber and/or face global shortages.
“We really do need to get going on this as quickly, because we are facing such a massive shortfall of natural rubber production.”
And national companies are have already recognized the dandelion as a primary rubber alternative.
In May of this year, the Bridgestone Corporation announced that through their research with PENRA, they had determined that Cossack dandelions could become a renewable, commercially viable source of tire-grade rubber. That’s why Dr. Cornish and other researchers at OSU are working to commercialize domestic sources of natural rubber while developing processes and markets for distribution.
The Ohio Department of Development (ODOT) has funded a pilot processing facility in Wooster where they’re able to process large quantities of rubber from Cossack dandelions, and the PENRA is planning to create a larger full-scale plant in three years.
Dr. Kornish’s research extends from the germoplasm to the processing of the dandelion itself, which will at some point be used to make both latex and solid rubber using different processing plants. The Cossack dandelion also produces inulin (not to be confused with insulin) which is a sugar that could be used in non-food applications or processed into bio-ethanol. The major benefit of using the Cossack dandelion as the new source of rubber is that it can be grown right here in the United States, including Ohio.
“It can be grown by anyone in Ohio; the whole state is in its growing region. It can also be grown in Canada,” Doctor Cornish said. “Basically if you took a horizontal line halfway up the (United States), north of that that line you could grow, and south of that line you can’t. So there’s a lot of growing regions.”
PENRA hopes to introduce the Cossack dandelion as a mainstream agricultural crop soon, but the task isn’t without its own challenges.
“The main issue with any new plant introduction is who’s going to pay for the first crop, because you can’t get a farm loan if you’ve never sold it before,” Dr. Cornish said. “So a large scale processing plant will be needed in the next few years, and before that someone’s got to plant the acres.”
PENRA has already setup several acres in different parts of the state this fall to see how the crop establishes itself in the different areas.
And so far, the response from local farmers is optimistic.
“We’ve talked with some (local farmers) and the reaction is generally very positive. I think everybody would love to have another profitable crop on their slate of things to grow, and I think this one is going to very profitable because demand is there,” Dr. Cornish said.
The Cossack Dandelion will eventually be grown as an annual crop, and farmers would aim to plant as soon as the frost melts in the spring. PENRA is currently researching the best time to pull the plants for the most yield.
The Cossack dandelions is grown in rotation, and grows in well-drained soil and heavy wet clay. It can also grow on marginal lands that aren’t’ being used for other crops.
PENRA’S goal is to create and maintain a full-scale processing plant in three years and have competitive regular farming in the region in five years.
So don’t be surprised if in a few years you notice the Cossack dandelion growing in a field near you.
Ryan Carpe is a staff writer at The Daily Advocate in Greenville.