Future Bumper Crop

Guayule is poised to have a bigger impact on industry and agriculture, even our way of life.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Paul Connors

Jeff Martin, Yulex president and CEO, and Jim Mitchell the company’s VP of technology development, examine a field of guayule at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center.

Jeff Martin, Yulex president and CEO, and Jim Mitchell the company’s VP of technology development, examine a field of guayule at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center.

When the Japanese captured almost all of the planet’s rubber tree plantations in World War II, guayule played a small, but vital role rescuing the allied effort. It, too, produces rubber, a material critical for the hoses and belts, tires and tubes that kept trucks and tanks running, as well as aircraft carriers afloat and planes flying.

Now, with little fanfare, it’s being cultivated again in the American Southwest. This time, it could be here to stay as a viable option for farmers, as well as a hedge against what some see as the inevitable crash of the rubber market.

Consider for a moment the tenuous nature of the natural rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. This one plant produces about half of the world’s rubber; most of the other half is synthetically produced, a process that uses petroleum and yields a product that is, for many uses, inferior. Yet, it’s expected that by 2020, worldwide demand will grow 40 percent for natural rubber, a daunting number for any industry, especially for one that depends on a plant that takes 8 years to mature. Also, a whopping 93 percent of Hevea now grows in a small slice of Southeast Asia, much of it on large plantations that make it susceptible to the same blight that nearly wiped it out in its native Amazon region in the latter 1800s.

A modifed cotton harvester is used to cut guayule.

A modifed cotton harvester is used to cut guayule.

Now, consider the versatility and durability of guayule, and the upside for the American farmer. To thrive, guayule, which is native to arid regions in Mexico and the Southwest U.S., needs about 60 percent of the water that cotton and alfalfa require. Yet it can survive without irrigation for months, if not years. It has no known pest problems because it produces a terpene resin that acts as a natural pesticide. Perhaps even more important to farmers, it’s a multi-product crop, not only producing rubber, but, among other things, a resin that can be used for adhesive and a residue that can be used as a highly efficient alternative energy source.

All that, and farmers receive a price that is reportedly competitive with other crops grown in the Southwest. And, say those familiar with the plant, demand could soon out-strip supply, raising the price even more.

On the forefront of guayule development is Yulex, a 12-year-old Maricopa, Ariz.–based company that began with money from its founder and president, Jeff Martin. Starting work with patents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Yulex has since developed more productive varieties of the plant, as well as more efficient processes for extraction of its products. All of this allows the company to extract as much rubber from guayule per acre as from Hevea, says Martin.

Currently, Yulex works with six growers who have planted 3,500 acres in guayule. Martin sees that acreage growing to 1 million, even 2 million. When? He can’t say for sure, but then again, he believes the world will need not only additional rubber, but also more of the natural variety.

Yulex chose the Massey Ferguson® 492, which came from Empire Agriculture, because “it can handle the extreme conditions we work in,” says Jim Mitchell.

Yulex chose the Massey Ferguson® 492, which came from Empire Agriculture, because “it can handle the extreme conditions we work in,” says Jim Mitchell.

“The International Rubber Study Group predicts shortfalls of 3 to 4 million metric tons of natural rubber over the next decade,” Martin says. “If we’re to have that kind of [growth] in 10 years, we need to be addressing that today, since it takes 8 years for rubber trees to get in full production. That’s not happening.”

In that shortfall, Martin sees opportunity. To manage and attract more farmers to its agriculture program, Yulex recently signed with Arizona Grain, which, under the terms of the agreement, will oversee the guayule growing cycle from field to processing. Also, Yulex will supply its proprietary seed to Arizona Grain’s network of 600 growers. Farmers who are currently outside the network can also inquire about working with Yulex, says Martin, who believes the current state of the guayule market is in the farmer’s favor.

Trevor Kammann farms 26 acres of guayule for Yulex. He grows it for seed and harvests another 50 acres for other farmers. It’s a small commitment for Kamman, but he says guayule could grow to a larger footprint on the 2,000 acres he now works near Yuma.

“As a farmer,” he says, “you’re looking to see what fits your rotation. [Guayule] offers another option, more diversity.” It also doesn’t require a major investment, since, says Kammann, “your average cotton grower has the necessary equipment to keep it growing.

“I’m hopeful,” he adds, “that this could become a bigger part of our operation. The signs are there for that to happen and, yes, I think there’s an upside.”

The rubber from the desert shrub is hypoallergenic, meaning it won’t produce allergic reactions as does Hevea-extracted latex.

The rubber from the desert shrub is hypoallergenic, meaning it won’t produce allergic reactions as does Hevea-extracted latex.

“Our model,” Martin says, “ has been to demonstrate that the market exists, that there is a demand, and then work backwards through the supply chain and to the growers. Then the risk to the growers becomes greatly diminished and demand keeps ahead of agricultural production. We expect that to continue.”

Colleen McMahan, the lead scientist for domestic natural rubber development with ARS, sees the prospects, too. While stopping short of calling it a wonder crop, McMahan, who’s worked with the domestic natural rubber team for 7 years, notes that guayule’s potential to produce two products—rubber and resin—is significant. Add to that the bagasse, the post-rubber and -resin extraction residue, and the plant is all the more valuable, she says. Some studies have even shown that the guayule bagasse produces 8,000 to 9,000 BTUs per pound, which is slightly more than switchgrass and shelled corn.

Everyone interviewed for this story, however, points to an even greater benefit to growing guayule on a larger scale. Having more than 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber produced overseas, where it’s susceptible to leaf blight is, says McMahan, “a strategic vulnerability.” She adds, “Our modern way of life is not possible without natural rubber. [Guayule] also offers a possibility for security.”

Martin agrees. “Just like with oil, we need to reduce our reliance on imports,” he says. “I don’t want to overstate this, but we rely on natural rubber from a vulnerable source.

“We are,” he concludes, “so concerned about oil that we don’t think about what we roll on.”