Small shrub could change the face of farming in Pinal County
ELOY, Ariz. (AP) — A small, often overlooked shrub could make a big difference in the rubber industry and it could change the face of farming in Pinal County.
For several years, tire-maker Bridgestone has been researching the native desert shrub guayule (pronounced why-oo-lee) on a 300-acre farm in Eloy. The company is about to enter phase two of its research pilot project, doubling acreage dedicated to the shrub and encouraging other growers to plant it as a crop.
“It’s very exciting to see Bridgestone want to commercialize guayule,” said Bridgestone Operations Manager Dave Dierig. “It’s exciting for everyone.”
Guayule is a perennial woody shrub native to the desert regions of the Southwest and northern Mexico. It’s a rich source of rubber as well as ethanol, non-toxic adhesives and other materials.
Dierig is an expert on the plant and its potential. He has spent a career studying guayule and he focused his doctoral studies on the plant and the materials it can produce.
“Lots of plants produce rubber,” Dierig said. “Even sunflowers and lettuce have rubber in them, but it’s not a high-quality rubber. Guayule produces a high-quality rubber that has many uses.”
Since 2015, Bridgestone has been producing tires made from guayule-derived natural rubber.
“Rubber for tires is just one of the uses for guayule,” Dierig said. “The plant can also be used to make an adhesive and a natural termite pesticide. What’s left of the plant after extracting the rubber can be used for biofuel.”
In 2018, Bridgestone began a pilot project to test guayule production on a 300-acre plot of farmland on Harmon Road in Eloy.
Native to the desert, guayule uses far less water than other crops that are typically grown in the region, he said. It also doesn’t require pesticides to flourish.
Now, with years of research behind them, Bridgestone is expanding its pilot project to 600 acres.
In the second phase of research, the pilot program will recruit area growers and expand testing of different varieties of the shrub.
While guayule won’t be the dominant crop in Pinal County soon, the shrub could transform the area into a base for a new commercial-scale guayule industry, Dierig said. It could also help growers transition away from more water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton.
“Guayule could be the foundation of a sustainable farm economy in Pinal County, the new resource for tires manufacturing and a key to solving the supply-demand imbalance of renewable water in Central Arizona,” a press release from Bridgestone said. “By converting a portion of the relatively water intensive alfalfa acreage to lower water use crops, growers could reduce water demand while keeping irrigated land in production.”
Dierig believes many growers will be excited to plant the crop. Eventually, he would like to see thousands of acres of guayule growing throughout Pinal County and in other areas.
“I don’t expect guayule will replace cotton in Pinal County, but it would be a great replacement for other high-water-use crops. And it’s an easy crop to grow,” he said.
Bridgestone plans to host a series of educational day events for area growers at its Eloy facility to teach people about the plant and its benefits. The next growers field day is set for Oct. 6.
Guayule won’t replace imported rubber derived from rubber trees in Southeast Asia, but it will help companies like Bridgestone diversify its materials with a more sustainable source, said company spokeswoman Sara Stanton.
“Sustainability is a pillar for Bridgestone,” she said. “Guayule is one of the ways we are looking at diversifying our natural rubber supply and we’re excited about it.”
Guayule is planted in the spring, grows for about two years and can be cut three or four times before it needs to be replanted.
Guayule harvested in Eloy is processed into rubber at the company’s 10-acre facility in Mesa. Bridgestone expects guayule to become one of the fastest growing new crops in U.S. agriculture.
“When was the last time that the United States had so much promise in a new crop that it grew it by 104% in just two short years?” an email from the company representatives said. “Industrial hemp has been the fastest growing crop in U.S. agriculture, but now, there is a new crop — guayule — which is growing at an incredibly fast rate in the American Southwest.”