Alternative crops like sunflowers and black-eyed peas experienced a mixed bag of production and market conditions this season, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.
Some crops are showing their value within opportunistic growers’ portfolios, while others’ potential continues to rise as their popularity increases among consumers.
Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Lubbock, said alternative crop acres dipped somewhat due to good prices among traditional commodity crops like corn, sorghum and cotton.
Farmers who typically grew confectionary sunflower and sesame seed reduced alternative acres or dropped the crops for the 2021 season altogether to take advantage of higher prices elsewhere, Trostle said. But alternative crops also made gains from technologies that will increase efficiency and new products that could translate into increased market demand.
“Alternative crops are typically grown as part of a producer’s rotation schedule, but some of them are showing more and more potential,” he said. “It is difficult for these crops to compete with large commodity crops in acres, but for a grower, they represent options that can improve the soil and bottom line.”
Texas sunflower acres dropped to between 30,000 and 40,000 acres compared to 50,000 in 2020, Trostle said. Sunflower prices were good and kept pace with traditional crops, but buyer contracts were scarce for confectionary sunflower.
Contracts for oilseed sunflowers were enhanced by a single buyer who buys a range of Texas grain and seed crops for export to Mexico to meet demand there, he said.
There was also some sunflower demand from a bird food-packaging operation in Central Texas that finds better prices on Texas sunflower seeds compared to paying for out-of-state imports, Trostle said.
Sesame probably struggled the most, Trostle said. Prices were above normal relative to historic sesame markets but could not compete proportionally with other crops.
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Trostle said acres dropped as producers took other options. Last year, growers planted more than 50,000 acres in Texas.
The crop is the No. 4 oilseed globally, but it is a delicate crop that continues to be hand-harvested throughout most of the rest of the world because traditional varieties shatter their seed, which makes mechanical harvest difficult. Texas producers have a technological advantage over international producers because of recent advancements in non-shattering plant varieties and the use of harvesting equipment that separates seeds from the pods with little yield loss.
One positive note for sesame’s future, Trostle said, is that another non-shattering variety has shown potential in Texas. The non-shattering varieties and new products such as tahini continue to gain consumer interest.
“There could be some opportunities for some growers in North Texas because there is a proposed processing plant in Oklahoma,” he said. “Sesame is one of those crops that could be interesting because certain products are driving demand higher.”
Guar’s struggles continue, Trostle said. Guar seeds produce a polymer gum and emulsifier used in oilfields, cosmetics and some foods, Trostle said. It experienced a bump in demand as fracking emerged as a cost-effective way to regenerate abandoned oil wells.
Prices collapsed after a high run-up that ended in 2013, and guar lost traction among other products, Trostle said. There is still some organic production of guar in Texas, but it was not contracted in Texas for 2021.
A potential boon for future guar prospects is current U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency work that could bring federal program crop insurance to guar by 2023.
“The source material is inexpensive, and if the price goes too high, product makers and manufacturers find other alternatives to use,” he said.
Black-eyed peas and beans average around 30,000-40,000 acres, but the crop turned out to be a good opportunity for growers south of Lubbock, Trostle said.
A large hailstorm in June devastated tens of thousands of cotton acres past the window to replant, he said. Black-eyed peas were an option for any grower with experience, as supply and demand economics worked in their favor.
California’s vegetable crops, including peas and beans, suffered heavily due to drought and water restrictions, which left a supply void filled by Texas growers, Trostle said.
Seed and buyer contracts were readily available to growers with experience with peas, he said.
“Peas are a lesser alternative crop but are a great option for rotation because they are a legume,” Trostle said. “It’s also a short-season crop with modest water requirements compared to peanuts. It is a favorable outcome as black-eyes are doing well this year, and next season cotton will follow legumes.”
Alternative food crop future looks bright
Trostle said he expects a continued evolution in the future for alternative crops here in Texas and beyond. The American Society of Agronomy has recently added balanced nutrition in foods to its standards related to food supplies and security.
“The emphasis has been food security for a long time, but now they are looking at the importance of nutritional security and foods that provide balanced nutrition and health benefits,” he said. “Anthocyanins for instance provide anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory anti-cancer benefits, and some of our alternative crops represent food options that have a much higher nutritional density than other traditional crops.”
Trostle said producers are likely to see increased opportunity to expand their crop-growing potential by gaining experience and building relationships with buyers as market demand continues to grow.
Landing a contract and contract renewal rates favor experience and reliability, Trostle said. Building knowledge and know-how and a reputation as a reliable grower who can meet demand on a variety of high-demand crops can add value to a producer’s bottom line in a range of circumstance any given growing season.
“The key with alternative crops is for producers to experiment with a portion of their land to increase their opportunity by learning how to grow something new,” he said.
“It can be for rotation or just to experiment, but the learning experience of success or failure and improving on what they get right or learning from what they get wrong can lead to new opportunities that might relieve the pressure on an operation when weather or market conditions are working against it.”
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
Pastures responded well to recent rainfall, and low-lying areas had standing water in them. Second-crop corn under irrigation looked excellent. Harvests continued. Pastures and rangeland were doing well. Pecan weevil emergence began following rainfall, and black and yellow aphids were causing issues in some orchards. Hay harvest continued. Livestock were in good condition, but fly numbers were increasing.
Storms delivered spotty rains around the district. Wise County reported 4-8 inches of rainfall while Hardeman County reported hot, dry conditions. Dryland cotton stands were good and improving with rains, but crop conditions remained fair in some areas. Irrigated cotton looked very good.
Flea hopper and grasshopper pressure were increasing. Corn and sorghum harvests were delayed by rains. Some sorghum was cut for silage. Pastures looked excellent for August with plenty of grazing for cattle. Hay supplies were abundant. Very little fieldwork was done due to wet conditions.
Armyworm pressure on Bermuda grass fields was heavy. An abundant hay supply seems to be shaping up. Some producers were preparing to plant early wheat due to abundant rains. Creeks and rivers were flowing, and some were outside their banks.
Drying conditions allowed harvest of corn and grain sorghum crops to resume. These harvests should wrap up within a week if the weather cooperates. Corn yields were average with a range of 100-125 bushels per acre. Soybeans yields were 30-40 bushels per acre. Some cotton producers started defoliation of their fields.
Cotton prices were very high. Rice harvest started. Haymaking continued, with most fields being fertilized to make a second cutting. The district reported one of the most productive hay harvests in recent history. Cattle remained in good condition with strong prices.
Armyworms continued to be problematic. Cherokee County reported increased infestations, and producers were spraying insecticides to control them. Bermuda grass stem maggots were also a problem, but hay production continued. Most livestock were in good condition as producers reported more grass than normal for August. Smith County reported producers were preparing for winter pasture planting.
Rainfall in some counties helped hay, corn and sorghum, but other counties still needed rain in a bad way. Heat units were needed to advance cotton development. Farmers were cleaning up weedy fields to prepare for small grain planting. Haygrazer and Sudan hay was being swathed for baling.
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Soil moisture levels were short to adequate. Conditions turned hot and dry. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good. Corn, sorghum and cotton conditions were mostly fair to good with some counties reporting good to excellent corn conditions. Cotton was accumulating heat units, but dryland cotton needed moisture.
Soybean and peanut conditions were good. Weed control remained a problem due to flushes of weeds during wetter conditions. Livestock were in good condition, and supplemental feeding continued on a small scale. Some producers were preparing to plant wheat for grazing.
Topsoil moisture throughout the district was short to adequate. Some areas received 4-6 inches of rain. Corn harvest started. Producers expected to see soybean and cotton condition improvements following the rains. Pastures and livestock were in good condition. Armyworms were causing widespread damage due to rainfall and cooler August temperatures.
Conditions were hot but mild compared to an average August. The district received some much-needed rain. The timing and amount of the rainfall were very beneficial to cotton producers. The pecan crop progressed nicely. Pastures were much greener than normal for this time of year.
Land preparation for small grains continued. Some cattle producers were holding on to calves longer than normal due to good grazing, but lower prices on heavier weight cattle were not benefitting them.
Cooler than normal temperatures continued across the district, with highs in the mid-90s and lows in the upper 60s. Widespread rainfall and flooding were reported as some areas received 1-4 inches of precipitation in an hour. Average precipitation for the area was between 3-6 inches for the week.
Pasture and rangeland conditions continued to improve. Weed growth increased in undeveloped areas. Hay grazer stages were all over the board as far as stand and maturity. Farmers reported standing water in cotton fields. Most cotton had flowered. Whitefly numbers in cotton increased, and southwestern cotton rust was a concern.
Pecan producers were seeing some aphids in orchards as anticipated. Many alfalfa and Sudan grass fields were cut and rained on, which was expected to decrease quality and value substantially. Those who had not cut yet were cutting now. Producers continued to feed livestock and wildlife.
Low-lying areas were still holding water making conditions difficult for producers, but some areas were improving. Hot and dry temperatures should dry pastures and fields. Rice harvest was progressing, however scattered rains were delaying farmers in specific fields. Several areas with Blackland soils were showing surface drought cracks.
Pasture conditions were holding, and hay producers were still attempting to harvest what they could. Rangeland and pasture ratings ranged from poor to excellent with good ratings being most common. Soil moisture levels ranged from adequate to surplus.
Scattered rainfall was reported across the district. Hay cutting and baling continued. Sorghum harvest neared completion. Corn harvest continued with average yields reported. Cotton looked healthy with lots of bolls starting to open. Livestock and wildlife were in fair to good condition. Cattle, sheep and goat markets remained steady or slightly higher.
Producers were weaning and taking lambs and kid goats to market. Kendall County reported stomach worm issues with sheep and goats. Fall gardeners were planting.
Conditions were hot and dry. Temperatures reached 100 degrees in some areas but were mostly in the 90s during the day and 70s at night. A few spotty showers were reported, but producers in most areas were able to continue fieldwork without interruption.
Northern parts of the district reported very short to short soil moisture levels while central and southern areas were mostly adequate with some areas reporting short moisture conditions. Corn and sorghum harvest continued, and grain sorghum harvest was nearing completion in some areas. Corn harvest was complete in some areas.
Cotton harvest continued in some areas and defoliation was about to begin in other areas. Cotton bolls were opening in some areas. Early planted cotton was harvested and at area gins. Peanuts were being irrigated and sprayed with fungicides. Forage crops were cut and baled. Bed preparation for strawberries continued. Turfgrass was being harvested. Producers continued to harvest cantaloupes and watermelons.
Pecan orchards were developing well, and good yields and quality were expected. Pasture and rangeland conditions were drying down. Native and improved grasses were struggling in some areas and looked excellent in other areas. Ranchers were providing supplemental feed to livestock and wildlife.
Feed prices were increasing. Stock tanks and pastures could use rainfall. Livestock were performing well and bringing good prices with late winter calves fetching very good prices. Fawn and quail covey numbers were promising.