Milkweed: Farmers Next New Cash Crop?

"Yesterday, our research was in the science fiction class. Today, we're in a 'go' situation," says Mike Alder, a plant scientist with a private research firm in Utah.

He's talking about research on milkweed, a costly and stubborn pest in row crops that may in a few years be a profitable cultivated crop on American farms.

Milkweed, known botanically as Asclepias syricia or Aslepias speciosa, is one of a group of plants that produce a milky sap called latex, the same basic material that natural rubber is made from. That's a clue to its potential value.

Latex is a natural hydrocarbon from which crude oil, alcohol, and even gasoline might be derived. "We see its potential as an alternate energy source, with animal feed coming from the residues," Alder says.

The research firm, Native Plants, did its first work with funds from the U.S. Dept. of Energy and now is funded by a commercial oil company.

Basic research up to this point has shown that the milkweed plant is adapted to widely variable growing conditions. It is more salt tolerant than many plants, it can tolerate a high water table, and it will grow at altitudes of 8,500 ft.

Now being grown in moderate sized field plots, it is yielding 1 1/2 tons per acre as a row crop and 4 to 5 tons per acre when solid seeded. The harvested plants are first processed to extract the latex, then the residue is made into animal feed which is 20% protein.

Alder and his associates are now calculating the economics of milkweed production on a commercial basis. They visualize a processing plant with growers supplying it on a cooperative basis. They speculate that 20,000 acres of milkweed would supply one plant.

"Growers could get right into production using their conventional equipment," says Alder. "They will need a vegetable planter, chemical applicator, crimper-swather, and baler."

"Weed control presents an interesting problem in a crop that is now considered a weed. We will have to show federal and state agencies that we can keep milkweed out of the places where we don't want it. This won't be a problem because we will harvest it before flowering, and we have a complete control program for harvested fields," Alder points out.

He estimates that commercial production of milkweed is only two or three years away: "It has great potential for marginal farm land in many parts of the world besides the U.S.A."