Gary and Billie Deen of Marana, Ariz. are agricultural innovators. Like other growers, they are constantly on the lookout for new crop options to generate revenue to keep their operation financially afloat.
Two years ago, the Deens were contacted by the Bridgestone tire company about growing a new crop under contract for Bridgestone’s research and testing purposes – a desert shrub called guayule (pronounced Why-YU-lee).
Guayule is a perennial plant that yields natural rubber, resins, and bagasse. Bridgestone is among several companies who envision using guayule rubber to create a wide array of industrial products, including automotive tires, auto parts, biomass for fuel, plus medical and personal care items.
“I thought I’d give guayule a try. It sounded like a good opportunity,” says Gary who with wife Billie own and operate Double D Farms Partnership in the Avra Valley.
Gary’s single reservation about growing the industrial crop was tying up the land for three years.
“I was a little apprehensive about that,” he admits.
However sealing the guayule deal for the Deens was Bridgestone’s pledge to pay the equivalent annual income from cotton per acre per year. Today, the Deens grow 38 acres of guayule for Bridgestone, along with cotton and desert durum wheat on their 1,000 acre operation.
The Deens are not the only growers in Arizona with trial guayule grower contracts as several other companies also have contracts with growers.
In the future, Bridgestone and others plan to launch a commercial guayule industry in low desert areas, including signing many contracts with growers in low desert areas to grow the crop. Central Arizona could possibly become the ‘guayule epicenter’ with acreage also grown in New Mexico and West Texas.
Possible plantings in the Southern California desert are uncertain right now due in part to continued drought and state regulations.
Why is Bridgestone involved in the guayule business? The tire giant has a bold sustainability goal to produce about 30 percent of its natural rubber needs for tires from guayule. The company prefers to source natural rubber from ‘local’ guayule growers, and halt some of its natural rubber imports derived from hevea trees grown in Southeast Asia.
Growing guayule as a crop in the low desert is a ‘work-in-progress’ since more knowledge is needed to improve plant growth and yield. That’s where growing experiences with the Deen family and others will pay dividends.
To plant his initial 30 acres of guayule, Deen prepared the fields during the 2014-2015 winter. The guayule followed a wheat crop. He plowed and laser leveled the fields, furrowed them out, bed shaped into 38-inch rows, and applied pre-plant herbicides including Prowl H20. A post application of AIM EC was also applied.
In mid-April last year, Bridgestone planted four-inch guayule transplants at five acres per day, followed by furrow irrigation.
Deen says, “At first there was ‘transplant shock’ for 3-4 weeks and then the young plants took off growing. It was exciting to see the plants start to mature.”
He was concerned that there might be a large weed problem in the guayule plantings which might prevent cultivation but this never materialized. Insecticides have not been needed since planting.
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This spring, Bridgestone planted an additional eight acres on the Deen farm via transplants and direct seeding. After several irrigations, the herbicide Aim EC was applied for weed control. The few weeds in the field included morning glory and pigweed, plus some salt cedar trees trying to take root.
Soils on the Deen farm are mostly a sandy loam with some silt clay.
Deen has irrigated the guayule on the same schedule as cotton – about six irrigations per year total. In the guayule, he added an irrigation during the winter and skipped one during the summer.
He says the guayule requires about the same amount of water as the 3 to 3.5 acre feet required for cotton.
Fertilization in the guayule has included about 200 pounds of ammonium phosphate 16-20-0 per acre at pre-plant; the same product and amount used on the Deen’s grain crops. About 100 pounds of UAN32 per acre were applied by water after the second irrigation.
As the young plants have grown, leaf development has led to taller, bushier plants. Deen says the shrubs remained greener than expected during the winter months, and then went dormant. A shot of irrigation water in the spring quickly greened up the shrubs.
In established plants, guayule blooms from late March through October, similar to other desert plants. Blooms are yellowish green in color. When blooms dry out, irrigation is applied on schedule, and the plants bloom again.
The six irrigations were made in February, April, June, July, September, and November. The guayule stand benefited from a two-inch rain in August.
Sam Wang, research agronomist with Bridgestone, says the company will mechanically harvest the two-year old guayule plants (2015 planting) – the whole plant minus the roots - between this December and next April.
The plants will be cut and left in the field for a short time to dry, and then baled and delivered to Bridgestone’s Biorubber Process Research Center located at Mesa near Phoenix for processing.
Gary and Billie say the guayule plant has a pleasant smell, an odor they can smell at their home two miles away. The Deens have been pleased with Bridgestone’s timely payments paid in March and July.
“They have paid well and made sure to reimburse us for any extra expenses,” says Gary.
Overall, Gary and Billie are pleased with their decision to grow guayule, and would like to continue growing the crop in the future.
“It’s worked real well for us. It hasn’t created a big change in our operation,” says Gary.
Billie says guayule provides them with an important crop option.
“We don’t have many crop choices in this area. Our crop options are limited including wheat, corn, cotton, and alfalfa. The guayule experience has been great,” says Billie.
Not only that, Gary chimed in, it’s also been a learning experience.
“I’m used to rotating crops from year to year,” Deen says. “As a perennial, guayule will be here for a while. I don’t know how guayule will impact the soil due to the lack of rotation. Unknown is whether there could be an issue preparing the soil again to grow cotton again.”
Since the guayule was planted, the new crop has piqued the interest of those driving by the fields, including other growers and hunters.
“The first thing they ask is what the crop is, and then ‘How do you spell it?,’” Deen chuckled.