A new oilseed crop that could reduce insect and disease problems will be grown in corn and soybean country this spring.

The crop is cuphea (koo·FEE·ah), a North American plant that produces lauric and capric acids, ingredients used in detergents, soaps, cosmetics and lubricants.

Technology Crops International (TCI) is contracting with upper Midwest farmers who are interested in spearheading development of the new oil crop. TCI, a specialty crop production company based in Winston-Salem, NC, is working with Procter & Gamble to develop a domestic supply of lauric acid, says Andrew Hebard, president of TCI.

Today, the main sources of lauric acids are palm and coconut oils imported from Malaysia. “Our business depends on lauric oils and we would certainly like to be able to purchase competitively priced raw materials here in the U.S.,” says Brian McCormick of Procter & Gamble Chemicals.

“There are not that many new crops we can grow that already have an established market,” says Frank Forcella, a weed scientist at the USDA Agriculture Research Service in Morris, MN, where cuphea is being studied. “That's the nice thing about cuphea. There's already a market for the oil.” And because cuphea oil has traits that can't be produced by corn or soybeans, “it's a true alternative crop.”

What's the potential acreage? “We see it as similar to sunflowers,” says Terry Isbell, director of USDA's new crops and processing technology research center in Peoria, IL, which has patented a cuphea refining process. U.S. growers planted 2.75 million acres of sunflowers in 2005.

The University of Georgia, Western Illinois University and USDA-ARS are developing cuphea genetics, with support from Procter & Gamble.

“We're looking for a third crop — something to add diversity to Midwest agriculture,” says USDA plant scientist Russ Gesch, who is overseeing cuphea field trials. The search has gained impetus as corn rootworm and other pests evolve to survive corn-soybean rotations, he says.

Field trials in Illinois showed that rotating cuphea with corn reduced rootworm and cut the need for insecticide, saving $20-30/acre, Isbell says. “Cuphea offers some significant benefits to farmers, particularly corn growers. First-year corn simply has better vigor when cuphea has been in the ground the previous year.”

Cuphea has been grown on a very small scale in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and North Dakota for the last four years. Karl Retzlaff, who grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and dark red kidney beans in west central Minnesota, planted six acres of cuphea in 2004 and five acres in 2005. “It was really interesting to be involved in this,” says Retzlaff, a former high school science teacher, who remembers when his dad first started raising another new oil crop in the 1940s — soybeans.

Cuphea can be produced with conventional equipment. Retzlaff planted it the first week of May, using a no-till drill, and sprayed once with a post-emergence herbicide. Before harvesting, the crop was sprayed with a desiccant to hasten drying. Retzlaff combined it the first week of September, using soybean-harvesting machinery. The crop came out of the field at about 35% moisture and TCI dried it to about 10% for storage.

Retzlaff's yields in 2004 and 2005 ranged from 400 to 600 lbs. of seeds per acre, producing gross revenues of $200-300/acre. “That will improve with better varieties,” he says.

There's still a lot of basic research to be done on cuphea, which is considered “semi-domesticated,” Gesch says. Investigators are working on determinacy and shattering problems, yield improvements and higher lauric acid content. Meanwhile, cuphea is attracting intense interest from oil chemists and processors, according to USDA scientists.

The crop, which forms striking purple flowers and unusual leathery leaves, has sparked a lot of attention from growers, too, Retzlaff says. “It certainly helped my social life. It's a real conversation starter.”