Table of Contents
Putnam, D.H., E.A. Oelke, and L. McCann. 1993. Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products: Programs in information exchange and research. p. 114-119. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.
Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products: Programs in Information Exchange and Research
Daniel H. Putnam, Ervin A. Oelke, and Laura McCann
- Value of Diversity
- Importance of Markets
- An Open Forum
- Importance of Information
- Long-term Orientation
- FUNCTIONS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
- Idea Evaluation
- Research Coordination
- Information Exchange
- Developing Linkages
- Table 1
- Table 2
- Table 3
The mid-1980s brought with it economic and environmental conditions which
convinced many in the agricultural community that changes were necessary to
maintain the viability of modern agriculture. The resounding successes in
productivity of the American agricultural system since World War II seemed
dampened by a severe depression in prices and lower farm incomes. The burden
of farm debt and frequent farm auctions forced angry farmers to descend upon
state and national capitals demanding change. Although the "farm crisis" was
many-faceted, the 1990 Farm Bill, with its emphasis on "flexibility" in crop
choice, was a recognition of the negative effect that overproduction of major
crops had on the farm community, and a confirmation of the desirability of crop
and livestock enterprise diversification.
This economic turmoil and dislocation of rural communities presented a
challenge to University State Experiment Stations, Departments of Agriculture
and Natural Resources, Extension, and Educational institutions. Perceived as
bureaucratic in nature, slow to change, and often difficult to access, these
entities nevertheless had tremendous resources which could be brought to bear
on these issues. Recognition of these possibilities led University of
Minnesota Horticulture Professors Luther Waters and David Davis to form the
Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products in 1986. It was visualized
not as a new department within the College of Agriculture, but as a means to
focus energies from several departments on the area of crop diversification and
utilization. It arose not by legislative mandate or from large grants, but
from faculty discussions exploring ways to achieve cooperation between
disciplines to increase crop diversity. Part of the impetus for the Center
came from experience implementing integrated production-to-market horticultural
projects in the early 1980s (Waters 1991).
New crop development is not new to Minnesota. Wild rice (Zizania
aquatica L.) once a very minor gourmet specialty crop, is now widely
marketed nationwide, and was born in the swamps, lakes, and streams of northern
Minnesota. It was aided in its development by entrepreneurial farmers and
University of Minnesota researchers. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.),
an underutilized native-American crop (until the Russians proved its
viability), developed rapidly in Minnesota in the 1970s, partly due to
agronomic research at the University of Minnesota. Fieldbean (Phaseolus
vulgaris L.) was at first a failure in Minnesota and the Dakotas, but
subsequently succeeded when a change in technology (herbicides) made it an
economically viable crop (Robinson 1987).
Since alternative agricultural enterprises could include everything from
developing bed and breakfast operations to roadside vegetable stands, the
Center narrowed its focus to diversification of plant and animal production and
marketing. An alternative crop or animal is simply one different from crops or
animals currently being cultivated. Obviously, this concept yields a universe
of possibilities, each with its own series of limitations (Vietmeyer 1986).
Sources of alternative plants or animals include: (1) newly developed species
(e.g. triticale); (2) new commodities developed from existing crops or animals
(canola, dairy sheep); (3) domestication of wild plants or animals (crown
vetch, wild rice, red deer); and (4) previously domesticated crops or animals
newly introduced into a region (lupin, llama). For example, the introduction
of cold-tolerant soybean into northern Minnesota, Oregon, or Canada (where
farmers are largely unfamiliar with it), is an extension of the
crop-introduction process. All the factors important to the introduction of a
new crop impact this process, even if the crop is familiar elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, this is the most common form of species introduction or new crop
Alternative crops could include (1) lower risk crops for which
significant portions of the Production-Utilization-Marketing matrix are known
(e.g., canola); or (2) higher risk options for which significant
knowledge of production, utilization, and marketing does not widely exist
(e.g., milkweed, quinoa). Alternative crops could include (1) commodity crops,
the product of value of which is largely generic and enters into a broad
market, such as protein or oil (examples are oilseed sunflower or lupin for
protein), or (2) specialty crops or animals, where the uses and markets are
limited (e.g., mustard or Belgian endive).
The Center was created as an entity to (1) generate, receive, and evaluate new
crop or product ideas; (2) facilitate research on alternative plant or animal
production or products; and (3) disseminate information to the public on
alternative plant and animal products.
A central point of agreement among Center participants is that agricultural and
natural resource diversification is desirable. It is recognized that
diversification of plant or animal enterprises may be important sources of
economic development, contribute to the utilization of marginal lands, help in
fighting erosion, enhance nutrition, provide new industries, or spread out
economic risk for farmers (CAST 1984). Crop diversity has the potential to
contribute sustainability or stability from either an environmental or economic
perspective. It is recognized that not all new or alternative plants or
animals will do all of these things (indeed some are less desirable from
several perspectives than our traditional crops and livestock), but simply that
biodiversity is an untapped resource that deserves attention. The end result
of our efforts should be the creation of an agricultural or natural resource
option where none previously existed.
New plant or animal enterprises must be market-driven to be successful.
Although there are many ideas for alternative plant and animal product
development, the Center has recognized that a plausible scenario should be
developed which would tie each idea to an economically viable outcome. Each
new crop or animal should be considered from a whole-system,
"production-utilization-marketing" perspective, recognizing the opportunities
and limitations of each component. This approach has been widely recognized
nationwide as being critical to the success of new crop efforts (Knox and
Theisen 1981; Thompson 1988).
New ideas (even outlandish ones) deserve a reasonable hearing. Too often, new
crop ideas are rejected (in a knee-jerk fashion), or embraced (in a knee-jerk
fashion) due to lack of an in-depth hearing or careful analysis. Some new crop
or product ideas just might be "crazy" enough to work (e.g., kiwi fruit or
alfalfa sprouts), and an environment should be provided where creativity is
This is the "Information Age," and we believe that agriculture provides no
exception to the value of information to the modern economy. It is first
necessary to develop in-depth knowledge of the biology of unconventional crops
as well as potential markets and utilization patterns for that crop option.
However, knowledge by itself may not benefit a new crop option. Information
often exists in various forms but is poorly distributed and largely
unavailable. When farmers, researchers, food processors and entrepreneurs have
access to information, the value of that information is multiplied manyfold.
It is probably in the area of information exchange that the Center has proved
to be most valuable.
A final point is that new crops and products require sustained long-term
efforts. All new crop, animal, and product options have problems or
limitations. Minor crops are minor, largely because there is something wrong
with them! Humanity has selected the crops we grow over millennia of trial and
error, a force which we shouldn't ignore (Robinson 1987). What were the
reasons that the plants we now call new or minor crops are not more
widely grown? Many of the plants under consideration today previously were
rejected by older civilizations. Are there significant changes or potential
changes in technology or markets to justify their viability today? The answers
to these questions are not easily provided (as the history of any new crop will
attest) and require sustained efforts to elucidate (CAST 1984).
The Center staff consists of a director (half-time faculty), a full-time
coordinator, a part-time accountant, a steering committee and advisory board,
and students and others hired on a part-time basis. Luther Waters served as
co-founder and director until 1990, and Laura McCann has been program
coordinator with the Center since its inception. The steering committee sets
direction and policy in cooperation with the director and consists of
individuals from the departments of Agricultural and Applied Economics,
Agricultural Engineering, Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Animal Science,
Entomology, Food Science and Nutrition, Horticultural Science, Forest
Resources, Plant Biology, Plant Pathology, and Soil Science.
The Center has an administrative board (department heads, deans and directors)
and an advisory board. The latter has proven to be especially valuable to the
Center, helping to set direction and policy. The advisory board currently
consists of state senators and representatives, individuals from the Minnesota
Department of Agriculture, agricultural and product-based corporations and
cooperatives, as well as legislators, farmers, county extension agents, and
people from commodity groups and the banking industry.
One role of the Center is to provide a forum for fielding and evaluating new
crop ideas. At the outset, a legitimate focus for debate was realized as a
need. The Center has served as a central point of access for outside groups
and individuals interested in alternative crops and animals. Within the
University, the Center provides an important incentive and a catalyst for
interdisciplinary work. The Center has held several structured "brainstorming" sessions to address specific research needs. Outside groups have requested better access to the resources of the University to answer specific questions or develop specific ideas. Extension and research faculty have received many inquiries asking essentially, "What else can I grow?" Although individual faculty still get many questions like this, the Center has functioned as a central point of access to more efficiently field questions on alternative plant and animal enterprises. This is especially important given the wide range of expertise required. The Center has developed a "Registry of
Expertise" within the University to help channel ideas and questions to the
right resource personnel.
A second function is to provide structure and incentives for conducting
interdisciplinary research on new plant and animal products. Several projects
of the Center have been completed recently and others are currently underway
(Table 1). Ideas for research have come from the steering committee, advisory
board, other faculty, producers, farm groups, or even funding agencies, who
perceive a need. The major contribution of the Center to this process was to
write grants, assemble teams, administer grant funds, help write reports,
communicate results to the public, and negotiate between various participants
in a research project. This role provides a significant incentive for faculty
to tackle sometimes difficult and time-consuming interdisciplinary projects.
The very existence of the Center has helped to develop linkages between
researchers from different disciplines and with private sector groups who
otherwise would not have been in contact.
The Center has sponsored in-depth symposia on many different alternative
agricultural enterprises, ranging from dairy sheep to amaranth (Table 2).
These have provided in-depth educational and networking opportunities for
researchers, extension agents, farmers, entrepreneurs, and agribusinesses, and
have several benefits: (1) they create public awareness of the existence of an
opportunity; (2) they assemble expertise from a wide geographic area; (3) they
result in a publication which has value into the future; and (4) they may lead
to further research or termination of an idea (Waters 1991). These symposia
have been largely self-supporting or supported with small grants. The research
and educational value of such symposia should not be underestimated. In some
cases, more could be learned in several days by bringing together "experts" in
a field than by years of dogged individual efforts.
The fourth role that the Center has played is in the area of information
exchange, publications, and database assembly. Symposia are a form of
information exchange and a source of publications, but other publications have
also been developed (Table 3). The Center has helped in creating, under the
leadership of Ed Oplinger, University of Wisconsin and Erv Oelke, University of
Minnesota, a comprehensive Alternative Field Crops Manual. This consists of
chapters on a wide range of about 50 alternative field crops, from adzuki bean
to vernonia. Little may be known of many of these crops, but in other cases,
information was available, but poorly assembled and distributed. The goal was
to make information on minor crops more widely available. This project began
in 1989 and is now virtually complete. The Alternative Field Crops Manual has
been distributed to over 30 states and 7 provinces, and to all county agents in
4 states. This project is an excellent example of successful inter-state
cooperation towards a defined goal.
The Center helped to produce a video teleconference "Flex-Crop Acreage
Opportunities in the 1990 Farm Bill" (February, 1991), which was downlinked to
many communities nationwide. This teleconference featured Center Steering
Committee members, economists, national farm bill experts, USDA personnel, and
the opportunity for call-in questions on minor crop options available under the
Several research reports and production guides have been developed on specific
crops or products (Table 3). A "white paper" on canola, which analyzed the
prospects for this crop in Minnesota was published early in 1991.
The Center personnel have made presentations at University of Minnesota Branch
Station Field Days, agricultural fairs, field plot demonstrations, and public
meetings to inform the public about minor crops. One effort was the production
of a "Biodiversity Dinner" which was conducted at the St. Paul campus of the
College of Agriculture. This was designed to spark the imagination of faculty,
students, and staff as to the potential culinary offerings from minor species.
Dishes included buffalo meat, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth crackers, adzuki bean
pastries, apios vegetables, lupin pasta, multi-grain breads, soybean dishes,
and wild rice soup.
One information-exchange effort is the development of minor crop databases.
The Center has made some progress in this area, but there is much room for
expansion in the future. The Center has created an "Alternative Agricultural
Opportunities Database," an assemblage of over 1,500 fact sheets, experiment
station and extension publications from all over the United States and Canada
on many different alternative crops and enterprises. Many of these
publications are out of print or difficult to locate. This database has been
made available to the National Agricultural Library (Beltsville, MD) and has
recently been published.
A database on lupin was developed in cooperation with researchers in Russia and
Ukraine, where considerable work on lupin has been conducted. Nearly finished,
this database has over 4,500 entries of titles and/or abstracts on all aspects
of lupin from both Slavic-language and English-language sources. This database
contains many articles not previously available in the west and is one early
fruit of glasnost. We have had excellent cooperation with our (formerly
Soviet) cooperators, in spite of many logistical difficulties in working
between the two cultures and over great distances.
The Center has been quite successful at attracting many individuals with
diverse interests to contribute to a combined effort. In addition, linkages
with other states, federal, and industrial sectors are critical to the success
of new crop efforts (Thompson 1988) and the Center has begun to make these
connections. All of these projects have been highly interdisciplinary in
nature, with excellent cooperation from many quarters. More recently linkages
with "Sustainable Agriculture" efforts within the University are underway.
It is our view that one of the most valuable and powerful tools we have in
agriculture and natural resources today is the free flow of information. One
need only visit a (previously) closed society to realize the value of
information as a stimulus for progress in agricultural research as well as
economic development, and the penalties which are incurred by curtailing free
exchange of ideas and information. The same should be said of flow of
germ-plasm, as the development of a new crop is closely related to the quality
of the plant germplasm research system (Thompson 1988). It is perhaps in this
way that a center such as the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products
can be most valuable: in creating new knowledge of opportunities, and providing
a forum for collection and dissemination of information, with the aim of
creating agricultural options where none previously existed.
The Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products, University of Minnesota,
developed largely on the volunteerism of its steering committee and without
large funding, has proved to be a valuable structure in the area of information
exchange, research management, and dissemination of knowledge relating to
alternative plant and animal enterprises. Most participants in sponsored
activities and projects have provided positive comments. However, these
efforts are small in relation to what is required to fully tackle the
development of new crops, and recurring support for this long-term type of
activity is difficult to find. Interest often fluctuates depending upon the
prices of major commodities and size of state budgets. However, it is our
feeling that if research and information dissemination dollars are to help
create agriculture importance, rather than follow agriculture
importance (which has been largely the case with our established crops), then
larger sustained investments are required to accomplish this goal.
- Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). 1984. Development of
new crops: needs, procedures, strategies and options. Rpt. 102. Ames, IA.
- Jolliff, G.D. and S.S. Snapp. 1988. New crop development: Opportunity and
challenges. J. Prod. Agr. 1:83-89.
- Knox, E.G. and A.A. Theisen (eds.). 1981. Feasibility of introducing new
crops: production-marketing consumption (PMC) systems. A report prepared for
the National Science Foundation, Soil and Land Use Technology, Columbia, MD.
Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.
- Robinson, R.G. 1987. New crops: Successes, failures, and why? In: Grain
Legumes as Alternative Crops. Proc. Symp. 23-24 July, 1987. Center for
Alternative Plant and Animal Products, Univ. of Minnesota, St. Paul.
- Thompson, A.E. 1988. Alternative crop opportunities and constraints on
development efforts. Strategies for Alternative Crop Development: Case
Histories. Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products, Univ. of
Minnesota, St. Paul.
- Vietmeyer, N.D. 1986. Lesser-known plants of potential use in agriculture and
forestry. Science 232:1379-1384.
- Waters, L. 1991. Alternative crop development efforts in Minnesota.
Table 1. Research projects conducted through the Center for Alternative
Plant and Animal Products.
zAll of these funding sources operate primarily in the state of
|Project ||Funding sourcez|
|Amaranth Feasibility Study (1988-89) ||Minnesota Department of Agriculture|
|Belgian Endive Development (1990-91) ||Agricultural Utilization Research Institute|
|Canola Task Force (1990-91) ||Agricultural Utilization Research Institute|
|Risk Assessment of Lupin (1988-91) ||Central Minnesota Initiative Fund Agricultural Utilization Research Institute Bremer Foundation|
|Production of Native Wildflowers (91-92) ||Legislative Committee on Minnesota Resources|
Table 2. Symposia sponsored and co-sponsored by the Center for
Alternative Plant and Animal Productsz.
zAll of these symposia have resulted in the publication of
proceedings which are available from the Center or cooperating agencies.
|Symposia Sponsored by the Center:|
|Grain Legumes as Alternative Crops ||July1987|
|Soybean Utilization Alternatives ||Feb. 1988|
|Cut and Dried Flowers ||Dec. 1988 |
|Shiitake Mushrooms ||May 1989|
|North American Dairy Sheep ||July 1989|
|Deer Farming ||Sept. 1989|
|Wood-Based Economic Development ||Apr. 1990|
|Alternative Agric. Opportunities Workshop ||June 1990|
|Organic Meat ||June 1990|
|Grain Amaranth: Perspectives in Production, Processing and Marketing ||Aug. 1990|
|Prospects for Lupins in North America ||Mar. 1991|
|First National Symposium on New Crops ||Oct.
|Strategies for New Crop Development (Amer. Soc. Agron.) ||Nov. 1988|
|Herbs 91--International Herb Growers and Marketers Association ||July 1991|
|Second National Symposium on New Crops ||Oct. 1991|
Table 3. Publications and audio-visuals produced primarily by the
Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products (October, 1991).
|Symposia Proceedings (see Table 2)|
|Prospects for Canola in Minnesota--A White Paper|
|Lupin Production and Utilization Guide|
|Alternative Crops for Minnesota|
|Alternative Field Crops Manual (with Univ. of Wisconsin)|
|Lesser Known and Grown Field Crops Slide Set|
|"Flex Crop Opportunities in the 1990 Farm Bill" |
|National Video-teleconference (with USDA)|
|Alternative Agricultural Opportunities Database (with USDA)|
|Joint US-USSR Lupin Database (citations and abstracts)|
|"BioOptions" Newsletter (quarterly)|
Last update April 8, 1997