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Waters, L. 1990. New crops research and development: A state perspective. p. 14-16. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

New Crops Research and Development: A State Perspective

Luther Waters, Jr.


  1. INTRODUCTION
  2. INITIATING A NEW CROPS PROGRAM
    1. Champion(s) of the Effort
    2. Time
    3. Industry Interest
    4. Academic Priority
    5. Political Priority
    6. Financial Support
  3. CRITICAL ACTIVITIES IN A NEW CROPS PROGRAM
    1. Feasibility (Market, Economic, and Biological)
    2. Champion(s) for a Crop or Product
  4. THE MINNESOTA EXAMPLE—THE CENTER FOR ALTERNATIVE CROPS AND PRODUCTS
    1. Conduct of In-depth Symposia
    2. Publications
    3. Research Projects
    4. Database Development
    5. Clearinghouse for Questions and Ideas
  5. SUMMARY

INTRODUCTION

This paper summarizes some of our experiences gained at the University of Minnesota in recent years in developing the Center for Alternative Crops and Products. We expect that these experiences are typical of similar programs in other states and in private organizations. It has been necessary to deal with the development of this new initiative and our specific projects and activities in an atmosphere of resistance, skepticism, parochialism, and unreasonable expectations. Fortunately, there are always some individuals and organizations that are supportive of and enthusiastic about new crops research and development.

INITIATING A NEW CROPS PROGRAM

The principal activity in starting a new crops program, whether it is intended to develop one or numerous crops, is achieving an effective organization. There are a number of important factors to be considered, as follows:

Champion(s) of the Effort

Every successful new venture requires one or more champions. New direction implies a high probability of failure, so there must be someone who is willing to take the risks and not be disturbed when problems occur. Without this kind of leadership, vision, and simple persistence, new ideas are not likely to be successful.

Time

An effective organization requires the commitment of rime by individuals, and probably a lot of individuals. There is no shortage of time, since most of us are expected to do new things. It is simply a question of whether individuals are willing to give priority to new crop and product activities. In some cases there really is no interest but there are other reasons why a commitment may not be made, including fear of failure, peer disrespect and administrative disapproval. If more is known about people's interests and their crop and disciplinary experiences, it's easier to overcome these problems and obtain their eager participation.

Industry Interest

Agribusiness is the end user of any new crop research and development efforts and can, consequently, discourage or encourage this work. Experience shows that interest increases and declines with the general profitability of agriculture, i.e. there is little encouragement when soybeans are $15/bushel. Despite these interest cycles, there are numerous individuals in all aspects of this sector who have vision, foresight, and consistent interest in diversification of agricultural opportunities. These progressive people should be involved in the planning efforts and can be very helpful in adoption of results.

There must also be the capability and the infrastructure in industry to adopt the results of research and development projects. If the gap between the information and the capability to use it is too great, it will not be adopted. This technology transfer is critical. In some cases, this can be overcome by governmental support programs that provide a temporary "bridge" to allow for adoption of the information and technology in pursuit of the new opportunity.

Academic Priority

In an academic setting, faculty probably have more freedom to explore new crops and take risks than do their counterparts in private industry. This freedom is dependent, however, on the priority given to this type of work by administrators at all levels. One of the greatest sources of discouragement to faculty is the potential negative impact their participation in new crops work may have on their performance evaluations. This type of research is viewed as applied, although that is not necessarily true, and a lot of administrators give more priority, to basic research. While it is important to generate enthusiasm among colleagues, it is equally important to convince administrator's, whether in a public or private environment, that the work is valuable, of scientific interest, and can involve a range of research activities from applied to basic. It should also be possible to show, that this work builds effective interdisciplinary cooperation and opens new ways for researchers to see the application of their research.

Political Priority

Significant support in various forms can come from political sources so it is necessary to cultivate enthusiasm in this area as with other groups. Although some political agencies may not provide financial support, they can be helpful in conducting research and development projects in the areas of marketing, promotion, legislative liaison and others. Conversely, political agencies and legislative groups can have a very negative impact on development efforts, if these projects are not high on their priority list. Some politicians and lobbying groups feel that agriculture is already too productive.

Financial Support

It is not possible to accomplish long term goals without adequate financial support; however, areas such as new crops research and development require that the factors discussed above be dealt with first. Additionally, some results may need to be generated in advance of funding proposals as evidence of potential. When enthusiasm is developed on all "fronts" for new crops, funding still may not be simple but it is much more likely to be available.

Procuring long term funding is a difficult situation. There is no wisdom in depending on benevolent interests, internal or external, for the sustained funding necessary to conduct programs with aggressiveness and confidence. From the beginning it is necessary to plan on producing a product of sufficient value to permit the complete recovery of all costs plus some small buffer that can be used to initiate new work. When costs are recovered using the products produced, the program has control of its own destiny. However, when funding comes from other sources, those sources are in control and the project can be terminated at their discretion. The best that can be achieved is a mix because most administrators are not going to allow a program to be totally independent and beyond their financial control.

CRITICAL ACTIVITIES IN A NEW CROPS PROGRAM

After the initial hurdles of establishing an organization have been successfully overcome, there are some activities that are critical to the successful development and commercialization of new crops. Only two of the many activities will be discussed here. Both are applicable to most situations and are probably of the greatest importance.

Feasibility (Market, Economic, and Biological)

No project should be undertaken without the benefit of a satisfactory amount of market and economic research. In order to plan a successful program of development, it is necessary to start with at least the answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the product and how much does it cost?
  2. Who is the consumer?
  3. What are the characteristics of the demand?
  4. What are the competing products and how much do they cost?
  5. What advantages does the new product have?
  6. Are there product specific questions?
The information above is always geographically relevant. If the environmental conditions under which crops are grown change, changes also occur in such factors as costs, yields, product quality, biological adaptability, and, consequently, feasibility. It is not always necessary to have an in-depth feasibility analysis at the sta rt of work on a new crop. The information needed may not be available until some research is conducted. A systematic "step-wise" approach of a limited investment in feasibility studies followed by limited investments in research followed by further feasibility, then further research, then further feasibility, etc. has been successfully employed. At any point in the process where the feasibility analysis is negative, the project can be terminated. Without the feasibility component, however, large research investments can be made in a project with no value.

Champion(s) for a Crop or Product

Just as it was necessary to have a devoted champion for the cause of a new crop program, it is equally important to have one or more people with the same dedication to a crop or product. This commitment is really required on two fronts-in research and commercialization. On the commercial side, these people are often referred to as entrepreneurs or "risk takers." They make risk investments while faced with great criticism. If these investments are made with the benefit of sound research, a project has a chance of success. Without this support, these investments are not only risky but foolish.

THE MINNESOTA EXAMPLE—THE CENTER FOR ALTERNATIVE CROPS AND PRODUCTS

While the above comments are general and philosophical, they are based upon experiences gained in setting up the Center at the University of Minnesota. Here, the discussion will deal with activities being conducted by the Center in Minnesota and why these particular activities are being pursued.

Conduct of In-depth Symposia

The most visible activities of the Center to date are the symposia that have been and will be conducted. They are used to create awareness and provide education in an area with potential. In each case, the objectives have been to compile and disseminate current information on the subject, promote interaction between public and private sectors, identify research needs and encourage further research and development.

Publications

Four kinds of publications have been and are being developed: symposia proceedings, crop specific publications, a newsletter, and a collection of existing publications. The symposia proceedings are records of the event and become reference documents. The crop specific publications are as valuable as extension fact sheets and production guides. The newsletter is both a communication tool as well as an information dissemination vehicle. The collection of publications is an effort to compile existing publications for a defined list of crops.

Research Projects

The research projects are developmental efforts with specific crops involving interdisciplinary teams to solve predetermined problems that are barriers to commercialization. This determination is made through brainstorming sessions and limited feasibility analysis.

Database Development

Crop Information Database. This activity is in the developmental stage and constitutes an effort to assemble what we know about crops in an electronic database so that it is useful to researchers, planners, and industry.

Expertise Database. The process of surveying the faculty at the University of Minnesota in colleges relevant to agriculture is well underway and similar efforts are being made with a neighboring land-grant institution. This information will permit the determination of individuals having interest or expertise in problem areas and facilitate coordination of cooperative research and education.

Clearinghouse for Questions and Ideas

With the above activities, the Center will serve as a clearinghouse for questions and ideas. Up to now, there has been no central source that clientele could contact for help.

SUMMARY

Successful research and development in new crops at the state level requires that several positive forces exist simultaneously. There must be leadership with one or more people willing to champion the cause of new crop research and development. In addition, industry interest and willingness to take risk, academic and political priorities, and marketing and production potential must also favor this kind of work. All these elements are necessary to successfully develop and commercialize new crops.


Last update February 12, 1997 by aw