The first time Jay Davison opened a bag of guar seed, he thought someone had sent him a bunch of small pebbles by mistake.
But the tiny seeds — smaller than a pea, harder than the heart of your boss — might hold promise to further diversify the agricultural economy of northwest Nevada.
Most commonly grown in Pakistan and India, guar beans are finding a surprising new use in the petroleum industry. When they’re crushed, the beans produce an oil that’s a valuable lubricant during hydraulic fracking operations at natural gas wells.
The crop looks to be a natural for Northern Nevada because it likes hot, dry weather and alkaline soils, says Davison, an alternative crops specialist in Fallon for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
But Davison, who has spent the better part of two decades looking for new crops for farmers in northwestern Nevada, acknowledges guar carries no guarantees.
Assisting his research is David Shintani, a professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno. Shintani’s interests include the production of industrial materials from plants.
Davison has a test patch of guar along Highway 95 at the south edge of Fallon, and another small patch is growing at the east edge of Reno near McCarran Boulevard at the Main Station Field Lab. But even if the crop grows here, the market may not be large enough to support production in Northern Nevada.
And even if a market exists, farmers may not be willing to make the investment in time and equipment to take on a new crop.
Then there’s the matter of competition.
While about 80 percent of the world’s production of guar comes from Indian and Pakistan, growers in Texas have been growing the beans and selling them for conversion into oil at a nearby processing plant — the only processing plant in the United States.
While Davison figures that current demand exists for about 100,000 acres of guar nationwide, he estimates that only about half that acreage is planted in guar.
Still, he says growers in other parts of the nation might not welcome competition from Nevada farmers. Davison estimates that guar crops in Nevada could generate revenue of about $1,000 an acre while using less water than the alfalfa crops that dominate the region’s agriculture.
But putting first things first, Davison grew his test plot of guar this summer, trying a variety of spacing techniques for the foot-high plants. Another growing season or two will allow him more time for tests on the right time to plant, the right times to irrigate, the best ways to harvest.
The alternative crop specialist will be keeping his eyes open, too, for farmers who might be willing to devote an acre or two to a larger scale test in coming years. If they’re successful, they’ll help spread the word to other growers.
Even if the crop does well, and even if a market is shown to exist, farmers still may be unwilling to invest in the equipment they need or take the time to learn the skills needed for a new crop.
That’s particularly true, Davison acknowledges, as hay prices rebound and the growth of dairy herds to provide raw ingredients for a big new dry-milk plant in Fallon promises to keep hay prices high for a while.
Farmers are likely to be cool to new crops if they can make money growing the hay that they know well.
On the other hand, Davison says it’s clear that the climate is changing, and farmers should be taking a look at alternative crops that use less water.
One recent success, at least in a small way, has been teff. But its story demonstrates the challenges of introducing a new crop.
Demand for teff has grown dramatically because it’s a gluten-free grain with other attractive nutritional qualities.
Eleven years ago, three dozen farmers gathered to hear a presentation from Davison about the potential of teff. None of them responded.
But the researcher convinced a friend to plant a small trial plot, and that initial tiny acreage grew to 100 acres within a few years.
Today, about 1,200 acres are planted with teff and half the teff sold as grain or flour in the United States is grown in state.
“It’s a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Davison says.