To save water, Arizona farmers are growing guayule for sustainable tires

To save water, Arizona farmers are growing guayule for sustainable tires
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Most farmers in Pinal County, Arizona were aware that water cuts would eventually occur.

The Colorado River, a major source of water for crops, had been running at lower and lower levels, thanks to a 27-year drought intensified by climate change. The seven US states and Mexico that depend on the river are promised more water, which leads to chronic overuse of the existing supply.

When the government declared an official “shortage “ river last year, a rare step, it triggered severe water cuts in central Arizona. Pinal County farmers have been forced to look for water-efficient crops. Will Thelander, a third-generation farmer in Arizona, is currently testing a crop called Guayule.

Guayule is a desert-adapted shrub, pronounced “wyoo-lee”, and can be used for a variety of products, including natural rubber for tires. It requires half the water as cotton, alfalfa and corn, which are all water-intensive crops Thelander grows.

” What makes this plant so great is that it uses less water than traditional crops,” says he.

Supporters tout its many environmental advantages. It is native to the Chihuahuan Desert and requires less water than many other crops. It doesn’t need any insecticides or tilling once it’s established. This limits the chemical use and supports carbon storage.

Guayule is a topic that has attracted the attention of other industries looking for sustainable materials. For instance, research on the crop has been supported by tire manufacturers, most notably a multinational company Bridgestone, which hopes to expand and diversify its natural rubber supply chain.

A boon for the environment

Water managers and farmers often measure water using an acre-foot. This is the amount of water needed to cover one acre, one foot deep. One acre-foot is about 325,851 gallons.

Guayule requires about 2.5 acre-feet of water over 12 months. This is two times less than the water required for other crops like corn, which takes 4.5 acre-feet in four months. His alfalfa, which is a plant that is usually used as animal feed, requires 6 acre-feet for about eight months. However, the large yields of cotton he produces typically require 5 to 5.5 acres-feet in five months.

Guayule has an advantage over other thirsty crops because of its high-drought tolerance ..

“Guayule is a wonderful alternative, because it’s not a crop that will die if you fail to water it a couple of days late, or even a couple of weeks late, or in some cases a couple of months late,” Peter Ellsworth says, a professor of entomology and integrated pest management specialist at the University of Arizona. It is uniquely adapted to our .”

production region.

[Related: Artificial intelligence could help farmers water only the thirsty plants]

Ellsworth has been working for the agricultural industries for over 20 years, including with Guayule. Ellsworth explains that guayule has other environmental benefits. Lygus bugs, for example, don’t seem to harm guayule, but prefer to infest cotton. Ellsworth discussed landscape arrangements that would place guayule near cotton to reduce insecticide use and soak up lygus bugs. Guayule can be damaged by other insects and weed competition during its early stages of growth, but established plants are more resistant to these pests and don’t need additional spraying.

The plant also acts as a nursery, attracting and potentially supplying important pollinators and natural enemies of pests, such as predatory insects and parasitoids, to the rest of the agriculture system, Ellsworth says.

Guayule, a perennial crop that is harvested every two years, is called Guayule. It doesn’t need to be replanted once it’s established. This reduces the need for tractors and the amount carbon taken out of the soil. The low maintenance makes it ideal for farmers–particularly those in arid, drought-stricken areas of the southwest. The majority of farmers currently working with this crop are located in Pinal County where the Colorado River water cuts were the worst. They also live just south in Pima County.

” You’re not allowed to disturb the ground except once every two years when you bring some harvest equipment to cut it off and bring it back,” Thelander states.

a farmer in a baseball cap takes a selfie in front of a farm of guayule
Will Thelander on his guayule farm. Will Thelander

Sustainability and stability for farmers

Since 2019, Thelander has been collaborating with Bridgestone, a Japanese company that’s one of the largest tire manufacturers in the world, is sponsoring most of the research for guayule in Pinal County. The company has made a recent push to expand and diversify its renewable resources–and guayule has several appealing qualities over other sources. Ellsworth says that most of their natural rubber comes from hevea rubber plants in southeast Asia. These trees are now more vulnerable to changing farmer interests, conflict around the world, and other factors. And, he explains, although it would require more intense processing than hevea trees, developing a tire manufacturing process out of guayule would help mitigate the reliance on a less reliable rubber source.

As one of the test farmers, Thelander is currently growing 84 acres of guayule, but he says the company hopes to ramp up production of the crop to 300 acres by next year, 2,000 acres by 2024, and eventually have 25,000 acres in production by 2027.

[Related: Researchers are using tomato peels and eggshells to make tires]

But, just because guayule uses less water, that doesn’t mean farmers will use more. The total water consumption will depend on how many guayule or other crops are grown, and how much groundwater is available for farmers. Ellsworth states that guayule production is still very small and that farmers are skeptical.

“Growers behave much like scientists. They are skeptical and want to see proven technologies. “There are always barriers that can be overcome to get them to adopt something completely different, because there is always risk associated with that .”

But eventually, the lower water requirements may allow growers put more of their acres to work, rather than fallowing them. Ellsworth believes this is what is happening right now.

Thelander noticed the presence of local growers at a recent meeting held at the Bridgestone facility, Eloy, Arizona. According to Thelander, there has been a growing interest among farmers in guayule.

“Farmers seem to be interested. They’re getting contracts put together,” Thelander states. “You have a billion-dollar company like Bridgestone behind you. They guarantee prices. It can provide stability .”

for farmers

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