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WIU program focuses spotlight on alternative crops

September 22, 2006


AgriNews Publications

MACOMB, Ill. - Win Phippen, director of the alternative crops research program at Western Illinois University, is concerned with the U.S. imports of foreign oil.

It's one of the projects he's working at WIU's alternative crops research plots, located on the WIU farm outside Macomb. He's been researching how to produce oil from a shrub-like plant called cuphea. The oil from the cuphea will end up not in SUVs and automobiles but in soaps and detergents.

``Cuphea is a compound that's being looked at for a compound called lauric acid. Lauric acid is needed in most soaps and detergents. Most of that chemical is imported into the United States through coconut and palm kernel oil and the United States is looking for a domestic source for this lauric acid,'' he said. ``It's my job to develop varieties that are suitable for agricultural production.''

The cuphea program - Phippen is the only traditional cuphea breeder in the nation - is typical of the WIU alternative crops program. The program takes traditional agricultural practices and ways of thinking and pairs that with crops outside the traditional scope of corn, soybeans and wheat to come up with ways to produce non-traditional crops.

WIU doesn't yet offer a course of study in alternative crops although students in introductory agronomy classes do travel to the site to see the various alternative crops and sections on alternative crops are included in some agriculture program courses.

Visibility and research are the main goals of the alternative crops program. Phippen and his staff and students work to raise awareness of alternative crops and they do research into how the crops can be produced on a larger scale.

``I think one of the biggest roles in the alternative crops program is really extension and outreach,'' Phippen said. ``I put on an alternative crops display every year, a demonstration plot to show that there are different crops. Here's what it looks like, here are some of the production guidelines and that there are alternatives. No other university in the state is really doing that. That's the major outlet for the alternative crops program, to create visibility for these alternative crops.''

Phippen also serves as a resource for growers - he takes calls and e-mails from producers of alternative crops from around the country. He travels throughout the year and makes presentations about alternative crops and the WIU program.

The program was started six years ago by Phippen, who received his doctorate degree from the New Crops Program at Purdue University.

Funding is one of the program's biggest challenges. Funding comes from C-FAR (the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and USDA's Agricultural Research Service. Many of the crops grown at the WIU site go to the ARS research facility in Peoria so ARS researchers can work on ways to develop products from those crops.

``Funding can be a challenge because alternative crops don't have stakeholders or large associations behind them generating funds,'' Phippen said. ``We do rely heavily on CFAR but we also have to be very creative in the way we develop our grants and on developing ideas on how alternative crops actually fit into today's production.''

Research projects, such as the cuphea breeding program and the milkweed program, receive support from those who propose them. The milkweed program, started six years ago, was proposed by Natural Fibers Corp., which wanted to find a way to grow and harvest milkweed commercially for use as a hypoallergenic batting agent in pillows and comforters. Phippen and his staff have been working with the company ever since to solve production issues.

Education - whether of the students involved in the program or of farmers visiting for the first time at one of the program's field days or of schoolchildren - is another way the program practices its outreach.

The alternative crops site is the launching site of hundreds of monarch butterflies each year.

``An interesting sideline has developed here,'' Phippen said of the monarch program. ``So far we've had six schools come this year, from grade schools to high schools.''

Students can see every stage of the monarch lifecycle, from the pale green chrysalis which the butterflies attach to the film coverings over the cuphea breeding plots, to the larvae to the new butterflies themselves.

The alternative crops program itself is a launching site for the students who participate as part of their studies in the agriculture department at the university. Although WIU does not have an alternative crops program of study, students participate in the program through agronomy and ag science courses.

``It really gives the students a sense to be introduced to new crops and be involved in small-scale plot research,'' Phippen said. ``They're involved in the program from planting to note-taking to identification to harvesting and processing the seeds.''

One of those students is Drew Bogner, a WIU senior who will graduate in December 2006. Bogner's major is in agricultural science and agronomy. His family operates a grain farm near Henry, Ill. Bogner became involved in the program three years ago. While his family raises corn and soybeans, Bogner said there were questions at first then continued interest in his work at college farming milkweed and counting butterflies.

``When I'm back at home or during summer break, I get a lot of questions. Most people don't know why we're doing it so that's a big question,'' Bogner said. ``Once I explain then there's a lot of interest in how it's going. A lot of people who have asked me in the past, when they see me, they ask me how it's going. There seems to be a lot of interest in the program.''

The students actively participate in the program. The program usually has around four students each year. Students participate by doing a number of tasks that can range from planting, weeding and harvesting to taking notes, taking photographs and working on the program's Web site. They also can work on internships with the program. One intern currently is working on developing different products from milkweed. The program prepares Bogner and other students with classroom and research knowledge and teaches how to put that knowledge to practical use.

``When you're working in this setting, you're thinking on your feet a lot,'' he said. ``You have different things coming at you and you have to get your thought process lined up. As a student, I'm able to be out here working with the professors and it's been a great opportunity for me. I'm learning in the classroom and then I'm able to come out here on a day to day basis and apply those theories.''

Fred Iutzi, the program's research agronomist, comes himself from a farm background. His family farms 1,000 acres in nearby Hancock County. Iutzi's job is to oversee the day-to-day operations of the farm itself and supervising the data collection. Iutzi has been with the program for a year, joining the program from Iowa State University and having worked with the extension service in Iowa. Coming from a traditional grain farming background, Iutzi said the switch to crops like sesame, okra and niger has been a learning experience.

``It's a challenge,'' he said. ``The one thing I've reflected a lot on in the past year is that most of the things that I've done here, I've done for the very first time in my life. I never did cuphea harvest before. I think it's a very healthy environment to operate in.''

Iutzi sees opportunities for those who take part in the program, even if they continue working with traditional crops.

``Even if I decided I wanted to be a corn and soybean agronomist, I think I'd be a much better one for having the experience here,'' he said. ``This is the kind of environment where you can really focus on applying solid agronomic principles because you're starting from the ground up.''

The program's four major crops are milkweed, cuphea, niger and okra. Other crops are grown in the research plots such as sesame. Those are crops that are waiting for money to become available for the type of research that Phippen, Iutzi and the students are doing now with cuphea, milkweed, niger and okra.

Phippen is encouraged by a word in a speech given by President Bush earlier in the year.

``We want to keep them on the radar screen. For the first time, President Bush in his State of the Union address mentioned - he didn't say alternative crops - but he did say some alternative crops like switchgrass. So it's nice to think they're at least starting to think about it and the politicians are starting to think about it.''




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