This year, farmers in Pinal County, Arizona will lose two-thirds of their irrigation water from the Colorado River due to a historic shortage declaration triggered by the driest period in more than 1,000 years. And within two years they will be completely cut off from the Colorado River.
Some farmers react by laying fields fallow. Others sell their land to solar companies. And then there’s Will Thelander, a farmer who partnered with EDF, Bridgestone Americas and the University of Arizona to test a new crop that uses half the water of the alfalfa he previously grew.
Replacing crops with a desert shrub called guayule used to grow rubber is one of many strategies that will be needed in Arizona and other regions to adapt to water scarcity and keep agricultural economies in check. a new era of aridification. However, it is not as simple as planting different seeds in the ground.
Make a big impact on water conservation, starting at 25 acres
Bridgestone, Thelander and EDF signed an agreement for the six-year guayule pilot project in 2018, but an extreme heat spike delayed planting by a year. In 2019, Bridgestone helped Thelander plant guayule on 25 acres and together they gained experience in crop establishment, irrigation needs and timing, and pest and weed management. .
Thelander and Bridgestone harvested the plants from his field this month. They plan to plant 80 acres on another nearby field later this spring.
Thelander is also helping Bridgestone recruit more growers from Arizona, while Bridgestone and EDF have begun outreach to tribes to explore growing guayule on their land.
On a large scale, guayule can have a big impact on water conservation. Converting 100,000 acres to guayule in Pinal County could save 150,000 acre-feet of water per year, or 15% of the county’s current agricultural use, according to preliminary estimates.
Bridgestone to expand guayule production with multi-million dollar, multi-year commitment
But growing guayule in Arizona is only one step. A processing plant is also needed to turn guayule into rubber – a substantial investment of tens of millions of dollars.
Bridgestone has been testing guayule in research fields in Arizona since 2015 and built a demonstration-size research bioprocessing facility there in 2014.
In a major sign of its commitment, Bridgestone’s global board of directors agreed in November to move the guayule project from the research and development phase to the exploratory commercial phase, which means building a larger plant capable to treat up to 20,000 acres of guayule from 75 miles away. This plant is expected to open in 2027.
To help scale, Bridgestone is applying for a Climate Smart grant from the Department of Agriculture that would also integrate water monitoring with OpenET, another project led by EDF, NASA and the Desert Research Institute.
Bridgestone’s motivation is the diversification of the supply chain, across geographies and plant biology. Many people don’t realize that natural rubber comes from a tree in Southeast Asia, notes Dave Dierig, agricultural operations manager at Bridgestone, who studied guayule for his doctorate.
How Dwight D. Eisenhower Supported Guayule Expansion
While attempts to cultivate guayule have failed over the years, there is precedent for successful large-scale production in the region.
In fact, the U.S. government directed the largest guayule production effort ever during World War II. EDF calls the guayule pilot project “Project Ike” because President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a major in the U.S. Army, supported a plan to grow guayule in California if the U.S. was cut off from Asian rubber , which happened during the war.
Today, Bridgestone is testing guayule again in California’s San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, as well as New Mexico, Italy and Argentina. Plans are also underway for Mexico, where guayule is a native shrub.
A resilient culture for a drier future
When guayule was first grown in the western United States more than half a century ago, the crisis was a world war. Today, the crisis is climate change.
Dry and water-stressed agricultural regions like Pinal County are at risk, and some farmers are already giving up. Will Thelander acknowledged that new solutions are needed to ensure that future generations can continue to farm in the region. Switching to water-efficient crops like guayule may be one of many strategies farmers are adopting to stay sustainable in a drier future.