A major investment in dollars, research, and expertise by commercial companies is backing the expected launch of commercial guayule production in the West and Southwest in the next several years.
The guayule shrub, an industrial perennial crop, is a source of natural rubber, mostly found under the plant bark. The tire industry, for example, is gearing up to use domestically-grown guayule rubber as a major tire and auto part component which could create a large market for guayule growers.
While growers are always looking for cropping options, growers theoretically could face a big question – grow guayule for industrial use versus continue growing traditional food and fiber crops to feed and clothe the world. Guayule farming would certainly be a large learning curve.
Companies, including Bridgestone, PanAridus, and Yulex, hope to convince growers to grow guayule. One source would like to see 100,000 to 200,000 acres of guayule grown in the low desert regions of Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas – states which already grow some guayule.
Unknown is whether guayule could be a crop fit in California agriculture due to tight water supplies and strict regulations.
Another source says Arizona could become the “epicenter” of guayule production. Guayule, Parthenium argentatum - pronounced Why-YU-lee, is a desert shrub which produces resins and bagasse, along with rubber.
Guayule rubber is currently used mostly in medical and personal care items as a replacement for latex rubber which can cause allergic reactions in some people. Likely, the largest market potential for guayule is automobile tires and auto parts.
Almost all of the world’s current supply of natural rubber is from the hevea tree grown in Southeastern Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of India. The idea is for the U.S. to halt imports of hevea rubber and replace it with regionally-grown guayule rubber.
Guayule no stranger
Guayule is no stranger to crop production in Arizona and California. During World War II, about 30,000 acres of guayule were grown in the Grand Canyon State. Guayule was also grown in California in the San Joaquin Valley, plus Escondido, the Imperial Valley, at Valley Center, and as far north as Salinas.
Domestically-grown guayule rubber was needed in the U.S. during the war to make rubber tires and parts for vehicles for the war effort, as Japan blocked Asian hevea rubber exports to the U.S.
Guayule is a perennial crop which takes about 18 months to reach harvest size. The entire shrub is harvested without the roots. The plant grows back in about a year and then harvested again, minus the roots. It grows another year and then the plant and roots are harvested together.
While guayule is currently planned for arid-growing areas, breeders are working on cold tolerant varieties which could allow production in colder areas of the nation.
One source suggests that about 500,000 acres of guayule would be required to replace the U.S.’s current rubber supply from hevea.
Big Tire’s guayule venture
The Bridgestone Corporation, the largest tire manufacturer in the world, and Cooper Tire are two tire companies gearing up to manufacture tires and auto parts made with guayule.
Last fall, Bridgestone manufactured a passenger tire with all rubber components - including the tread, sidewall, and bead filler – made from guayule grown at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC) farm in Maricopa.
Until then, hevea was Bridgestone’s sole source of natural rubber.
This guayule milestone came on the heels of Bridgestone setting up shop in the Grand Canyon State. Its first of two facilities is the company’s 281-acre Bridgestone Agro Operations Research Farm at Eloy located about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix.
Bridgestone grows guayule in the fields, plus has production contracts with several commercial growers to grow the shrub in Maricopa, Safford, Tucson, and Yuma areas for testing purposes. Bridgestone does not have guayule plantings in California.
The second facility is Bridgestone’s 10-acre Biorubber Process Research Center located at Mesa near Phoenix. The research and innovation facility works to further improve the company’s rubber extraction process from the guayule shrub.
In August, Western Farm Press discussed the tire giant’s commitment to guayule, the company’s related goals, and its achievements at the Bridgestone farm with William Niaura, Bridgestone’s director of new business development.
Niaura stated, “Bridgestone is a big player in the guayule rubber market.”
Bridgestone’s decision to enter the guayule business is based on several reasons. First, he says the company views imported hevea natural rubber as an unstable supply, due to hurricanes in the growing region and disease issues in hevea trees grown in Asia.
Second, Niaura says hevea harvest is labor intensive. Rubber is extracted from the tree by inserting a tap into the trunk and the hevea oozes out - similar to the process of sap removal from maple trees to boil into maple syrup. He views guayule is a better alternative since guayule will be mechanically mechanized.
“By the mid 2020’s, Bridgestone will have a commercial source of (guayule) rubber,” Niaura says.
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Bridgestone plans a “bio-refinery approach” to guayule, not only removing rubber from the plant but also bagasse and resin. Bagasse is the remaining fibrous matter after rubber removal. According to Wikipedia, bagasse can produce biofuel, pulp, and building materials.
According to Niaura, the guayule plant contains 73 percent bagasse, 15 percent water, 6.5 percent resin, and 5.5 percent rubber.
“Looking to the future – 2020 and beyond - Bridgestone’s long-term vision is to optimize genetics, and to maximize the entire guayule process, including plant quality and yield, and to proceed toward the commercialization of guayule,” says Niaura.
Bridgestone’s ultimate goal is to replace 30 percent of the hevea rubber in Bridgestone tires with guayule rubber, he says.
Looking at the production side of guayule, Bridgestone agronomist Sam Wang believes guayule requires about the same amount of water as cotton – about four acre feet for both. Wang previously served as director of the University of California’s Desert Research and Extension Center at Holtville, and at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center.
Niaura says guayule requires less management than many annual crops. Guayule may require herbicide treatment in the plant’s first growth cycle but less in the second and third growing periods.
He says current irrigation systems – including flood, subsurface drip, and center pivot – all work well delivering water to guayule plants. In its test plots, Bridgestone is growing USDA seed lines, including the varieties AZ 1 through AZ 6.
Michael Fraley is the chief executive officer of PanAridus, based at Casa Grande, Ariz. The company’s goal is to commercialize guayule as a domestic source of natural rubber, and as a new industrial crop for Arizona growers and the agricultural industry.
Fraley is a third generation agriculturalist whose grandparents farmed mostly cotton in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He earned his plant science degree at Fresno State. The family sold their cottonseed business to Stoneville, and then moved to Arizona where he learned about guayule from USDA staff in Phoenix.
“I like guayule since 100 percent of the plant can be utilized, much like cotton, and its lower irrigation (water) requirement than some conventional crops grown in the Desert Southwest,” Fraley says. “This is extremely important as we look toward sustaining agricultural commerce in arid regions.”
He says the guayule plant has a high pest tolerance.
According to Fraley, the global tire industry uses about 70 percent of the world’s rubber supply. He says guayule gained notoriety in the early 1900s when South American leaf blight disease wiped out many hevea rubber plantations, primarily in Brazil. As a result, a group of people began extracting native stands of guayule in northern Mexico’s Sonoran-Chihuahua desert.
Fraley says the future of guayule is tied to genetics, including higher farm yields. Yield per acre has grown, he says, from about 550 pounds to about 2,000 pounds per acre.
“Genetics, agronomics, and farming are the keys to guayule’s success. We can extract it and make products with it. If the yield is not high enough to be competitive in a commodity-based market then guayule will not succeed,” he says.
PanAridus’ guayule seed is the only state- and federally-certified seed on the market, says Fraley.
PanAridus has made dozens of tires with guayule using Cooper Tire’s compounding and formulation. The company hosted a ride-and-drive event in Texas last year featuring tires made from guayule rubber.
Fraley estimates that rubber from about 90-100 plants is needed to make one passenger tire.
Beyond tires, Fraley says the resins in the plant can produce ingredients for the flavor, fragrance, and adhesive markets. The bagasse has a very high energy value which could be used to produce jet fuel and other products.
PanAridus currently has production contracts with several Arizona growers growing guayule for test purposes and seed increase. Fraley says the company has enough seed on hand to plant 100,000 acres of guayule.
The company hopes to sign commercial grower contracts in Maricopa, Pinal, and La Paz counties in central Arizona in one to two years. He says growers would be enumerated based on the costs of scale.
“By then, I think we’ll have enough confidence in agriculture and the banking community to gain crop financing,” says Fraley.
For now, PanAridus does not plan to grow guayule in California.
“The cost of conducting business in California is somewhat prohibitive.”
Building a pilot plant is next on PanAridus’ agenda, probably in Pinal County south of Phoenix. The plant would process about 7,000 tons of guayule annually for rubber, bagasse, and resin, and focus on research and development.
Fraley says a critical key to guayule’s succeed is planting via direct seeding, versus transplants, as transplants can increase production costs by about $1,000 per acre. PanAridus has a patent pending on direct seeding.
He says stand establishment from seed requires 30,000 to 40,000 plants per acre. Direct seeding would allow growers to effectively and efficiently achieve required acreage demands.
As mentioned earlier, guayule rubber is not for producing tires and auto parts. It’s currently used to produce medical and consumer products industries, including non-latex medical gloves and condoms.
The Yulex Corporation is a specialty rubber provider based in in Chandler, Ariz. The company has a pilot plant at its home site, plus a molecular breeding facility and several greenhouses near San Diego.
Yulex’s founder, president, and CEO Jeff Martin says about 50,000 products are made with rubber worldwide with a global retail value of about $500 billion.
“Yulex Pure guayule-based specialty natural rubber has none of the allergenic latex sensitizing antigenic proteins found in traditional commercial hevea latex. It’s considered a safe alternative for people with Type I allergies,” Martin says.
Martin believes agriculture will be the “tipping point” for the guayule industry – not only in producing consistently high quality rubber, but high yields to justify the crop and the industry. He believes guayule rubber yields should be a minimum of about one metric ton of rubber per acre annually and the industry will achieve this level in the next few years.
“This industry will tip once yields are high enough to prove the economics,” Martin believes. “Once this occurs, the industry will go full throttle.”
He believes central Arizona will become the “epicenter” of the guayule industry.
“In 10 years, I believe Yulex will be very profitable and dominating the market for alternative rubber for medical and consumer products,” Martin predicts. “Yulex will be viewed as a world leader in hybrid technology providing seed to the industry.”