This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News through the next several weeks, looking first at the country's energy challenges.
LA BELLE, Fla. — Facing decimating blights and rising fuel prices, farmers in Florida are looking to a tropical plant rarely grown in America as their newest cash crop: Jatropha curcas, the hottest biofuel buzzword on the market.
“When I touch this plant and feel this plant the first thing that comes to my mind is yield and cash flow,” said Bryan Beer, a Jatropha farmer.
Beer is banking on a lot of cash flow from his first crop of what some experts see as the latest and greatest source of biofuel.
As the Jatropha plant flowers, it produces small green fruit at the end of its stalks that contain oil-bearing seeds. For centuries, poor farmers in the tropics have used the oil from crushed up Jatropha fruit as fuel for lanterns — but now they’re not the only ones looking for a cheap source of fuel.
It may turn out to be an ideal crop for Florida, which offers the tropical climate the plant requires. “It grows up to 50 years and it uses far less water and far less fertilizer” than traditional Florida crops, said Jatropha grower Paul Dalton and CEO of My Dream Fuel LLC.
Jatropha is drought-resistant and grows well even in sand, so some Florida farmers are uprooting their citrus groves to plant it. Citrus requires a much greater amount of care and water to thrive, and crops have been devastated in recent years by the effects of canker and greening.
Researchers say 20 pounds of seeds will produce one gallon of Jatropha oil, and they are hailing Jatropha for yielding four times the fuel per acre as soy and ten times more than corn.
“The United States is ahead of the curve when it comes to things like production of oil from soy and corn,” said Roy Beckford, a researcher at the University of Florida — but those biofuel sources aren’t without their problems.
Beckford said that a conflict emerges when growers divert their crops toward fuel production, driving up prices across the board. “Jatropha, on the other hand, is a non-food crop that has quite a bit of potential,” he said.
“It is not a food vs. fuel [issue],” said Dalton.
Some farmers think Jatropha may offer a hope of a quick solution. “It grows to full maturity within five years and you can get a commercial harvest within one to two years,” said Dalton.
For now, India and China are “way ahead of the United States in terms of production,” said Beckford, who estimates that less than 100 acres of the plant are currently growing in America. “India has probably more than eight million acres right now,” he said.
But as farmers get ready to increase Jatropha production, some critics fear the potential ecological impact.
“When you go from the laboratory to the industrial scale, sometimes the problems become very real ones and I don’t think we have all the answers yet,” said Pete Quasius, president of the Audubon Society’s Southwest Florida chapter.
But as the cost of oil and gasoline continues to rise, any alternative source of fuel is going to get a lot of attention.
“There’s buyers from here to Asia to Africa to South America — everybody wants it,” Beer told FOX News. “It’s just a matter of time before we can produce it.”
Phil Keating joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in March 2004 and currently serves as FNC's Miami-based correspondent.