COLUMN ONE : Planting Hope and Crambe : A few bold growers are dropping old ways to push a new crop. Despite an uncertain market, they say this versatile plant from the Mideast could revive the ailing farms of the Midwest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those farming the western Dakotas live their grandfathers' lives and die their grandfathers' deaths.

They till the same land their ancestors homesteaded as the century began, often occupying the same wooden houses. And when their days on the light clay loam are done, the Germans are buried on one side of the church graveyard, while Norwegians are buried on the other.

The farmers coax to maturity the plants they've raised for generations: wheat and barley, barley and wheat, wheat and barley again, in cycles as predictable as the chill winds that drive across arid fields and slam into limestone buttes. The sameness has wearied the soil, while permitting pests and blight to thrive.

Lee Mayer sees another path. He appears an unlikely man of the vanguard--at 55, he is the average age of farmers in the state; in jeans, plaid shirt and duckbill cap, the very picture of tradition.

But for three years, he has sown and reaped a cousin of the wild mustard that flowers white and then puts forth delicate khaki pellets. Mayer has been harvesting crambe (pronounced CRAM-bee). He plays a role in an American quest as epic as the push to the frontier--the pursuit of new crops to reinvigorate the nation's land, its anxious agriculture industry and the small towns that depend on a cultivator class.

Crambe, a Middle East native, is the most promising alternative crop since the sunflower boom of 20 years ago. Its tiny globes--and the fatty acids inside--were first noticed in the early 1960s by U.S. botanists who were screening seeds from around the world. They weren't quite sure where to grow it or what to do with it.

Three decades later, researchers proclaim crambe a magnificent resource, as versatile as a Hollywood actor-writer-director-producer. Crambe oil and meal, their tests show, can lubricate industrial machines, feed cattle, coat plastic, kill bugs, condition hair and even produce a low-fat chocolate.

The birth of a new cash crop, though, is no easy task. Like any product launch, the process is astoundingly complicated, dependent on the goodwill and ability of farmers, refiners, inventors, marketers, policy-makers and potential customers--each in the proper order, at the proper time.

Seldom do these fall easily into place. Crambe already has experienced both heartening successes and shattering setbacks in the chancy world of commerce. Its circuitous path from lab to market exposes a gaping void in American farm policy. Plants are nurtured; demand is not. "We have not thought that much in general about growing a product," said Joseph Roetheli, associate director of the 3-year-old Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Center. It is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For many here, crambe inspires both ardor and desperation. One county agent wrote to radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, begging him to mention the plant on the air. An animal scientist flared in anger as he described the locals' reluctance to feed their herds crambe meal: "I've sat down with farmers and shared with them page after page (of research), and they just say, 'That's too much work. The old way is good enough. . . .' They don't see that it's for their own benefit!" A grower pleaded: "We need allies. Maybe the environmentalists could help."

The plant's advantages, its advocates say, are many: Crambe could help the United States reduce dependence on foreign petroleum and vegetable oils. And expanding the wheat-barley rotation to include crambe, a broadleaf with little resemblance to cereal grains, would interrupt nourishment for insects and disease. Growers could reduce pesticides and fungicides.

With widespread crambe use, Americans could pay out less in subsidies, which are responsible for 30% to 40% of the region's agricultural income. Crambe could be grown on land fallow because of grain surpluses. With a more stable farm economy, some of the rural villages withering away across the Plains might pull through.

A small band of adventuresome farmers has cultivated as many as 60,000 acres a season since crambe's introduction to Dakota fields in 1990.

The harvest has been put to use. Crambe oil helps keep bread wrappers from sticking together and makes cosmetics apply smoothly. Texas feedlots add crambe meal to their troughs.

Most enticing, Procter & Gamble bought crambe oil for a new product called caprenin, which was purchased by Hershey and M&M;/Mars for experiments with reduced-calorie candy bars. But the Mars "Milky Way 2" didn't reduce calories by much because the original bar does not use much chocolate. The test-market flop spawned a lawsuit--settled out of court--over whether the confectionary business was obliged to accept more caprenin shipments.

Now, crambe faces both its greatest crisis and its greatest opportunity. National Sun, the one processor crushing crambe into oil and meal, has suspended operations because its parent company wants to shift from raw materials to more lucrative sides of the food industry. A one-year supply of crambe byproducts is in storage, so, for the first time in five years, no one will plant it this spring.

Yet agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland has leased National Sun's crushing facility, which is located in Enderlin, N.D., and is studying crambe's potential. "If an ADM would come in, that would turn this cloud on the horizon into a bright new sunshine," Roetheli said. "They've got the marketing expertise, the capability."

If the company has any inclinations one way or the other, it's not telling. The ADM marketing specialist for crambe referred questions to an executive at the company's Decatur, Ill., headquarters. The executive did not return calls.

The next few years ought to tell whether Lee Mayer is a visionary or if, as some of his neighbors counsel him, he should have stuck to the customs of his forebears.

With crambe, Mayer has allowed himself to hope--no small commitment after all the other types of seed he's dropped into the ground. Sunflowers sucked up too much water. For buckwheat, the ground warmed too late. Garbanzo beans, pinto beans, soybeans, Oriental mustard, safflower . . . to his dismay, Mayer discovered the disadvantages of each. "Kind of fussy," he sums them up.

Crambe hasn't been all easy either, but he knows at least it's something he can grow . Mayer, his brother Francis and nephew Darwyn spent three seasons learning how, and the yields, more than 2,000 pounds an acre, have turned as much profit as wheat and sometimes more.

They bought a semi--a used truck cab and a new trailer--with the 1993 crambe revenue; now the Mayer Farm can transport its own produce and avoid shipping fees. The Mayers used the money from their most recent crop to pay off debts from four dry years.

"I got by 31 years without it," Mayer said of crambe. "But I'm doing better since it's here."

In that, crambe is ahead of other unusual plants that farmers hope to groom into staples: kenaf in California and the South, lesquerella in Arizona, cuphea and meadowfoam in Oregon, milkweed in Nebraska. These unfamiliar names, their partisans hope, will some day be important ingredients in America's soaps, lip balms, medical gloves, comforters and tissues. None, however, has yet achieved the status of commercial crop.

With 65 million acres of farmland idle every year, and taxpayers spending about $15 billion every year as a result, it would be to America's advantage if every one of them succeeded.

"We don't want another 5-million-acre crop. We want a lot of crambes," said John Gardner, director of the Carrington Research Extension Center of North Dakota State University. Despite recent events, Gardner projects that crambe eventually will be planted on 150,000 to 300,000 American acres annually.

At 37, Gardner is lean and intense, a loquacious man who punctuates his monologues with folksy phrases. By all accounts, his powers of persuasion are the force that propelled crambe this far.

"You can use corn for fuel, or for cornflakes, or for artificial hemoglobin. From an efficiency point of view, that works well," Gardner said. "But the land responds to the corn like it's corn, not all these different products.

"From an ecological standpoint, if the farmer has a choice of a whole host of crops, those are like biological tools in his toolbox. You can look at the land and match the crop to that piece of land, what it needs that year."

Crambe, like the other alternative crops, fits into his grand strategy: "In the big world, we need to be rewarded for doing what's best for the land."

In the mid-1980s, the South was the center of crambe experiments, but a Kentucky professor concluded the climate was too humid. He published a report suggesting that crambe was better suited to the northern Plains.

Gardner had been trying to think of new crops that would complement wheat. He read the article. "Boom," he said.

At the research center, Gardner raised plots of crambe next to plots of rapeseed, which produces a similar oil. Flea beetles gorged themselves on the rapeseed. The chemicals needed to fight off the insects would be toxic to birds, including bald eagles.

The flea beetles nibbled at the crambe, then stopped. They didn't like it.

Gardner watched. "I think," he said to himself, "we can find the farmers."

He started in 1990 with some of the locals, who included some of the state's most progressive young growers. The Carrington area, near the Minnesota border, is more flexible agriculturally than the region west of the Missouri River. There is more rain, more money, hence more willingness to take a risk.

Roger Gussiaas, an open-faced man who at the time was not yet 30, became one of the crambe pioneers. He signed up 50 of his 2,700 acres. "There's got to be something better out there than wheat on wheat on wheat," he said.

Gussiaas is the third generation of his family to cultivate his piece of prairie. His father, Mervin, son of a Norwegian immigrant, ostensibly had retired. But although the elder Gussiaas had moved to town, he spent plenty of time around the meticulous spread, with its hedge of box elders, the American flag flying from an eagle-topped pole, a pug named Otis and a flock of frail kittens the size of mice.

Mervin Gussiaas was, to understate it, unenthusiastic about his son's foray into crambe. The initial harvest seemed to bear out his doubts. "I was kind of disgusted," the father recalled, his face puckering at the sour memory. The crambe ripened at the same time as the wheat, still the backbone of the business, and the experiment just didn't seem worth the trouble.

Nevertheless, Gardner had persuaded National Sun to pay 7 to 10.5 cents a pound for crambe. Roger Gussiaas actually turned a small profit on the new commodity. A new believer was born.

The next year, crambe seemed even more attractive. American troops were battling in the Persian Gulf. Petroleum prices were high. At North Dakota State University and the University of Nebraska, chemists created a form of nylon from crambe oil. At the University of Minnesota, a researcher thought crambe could form the base for a potent insecticide.

Gardner listened to a Procter & Gamble official ramble happily about needing 100,000 acres of crambe just for low-fat chocolate.

And the farmers were beginning to figure out which methods worked best: when to harvest to keep the wind from damaging the pellets, how to work the soil to minimize weeds, how to set the combine to get the most crambe from the field into the hopper.

In the southwest portion of the state, Lee Mayer pored over journals and read farm trade magazines. This crambe sounded interesting. He asked the county agent how to get some seed.

Wheat obviously was not much of a lifeline anymore. His home territory needed help. Hettinger County, where Mott is located, had lost 10% of its population between 1980 and 1988; another 10% since 1990. "There are no neighbors anymore," said Ryan Mayer, another nephew, sighing, on a visit from his new home in St. Paul.

But crambe flourished. By 1994, the Mayers' third year, seven others were raising it too.

One of them, Milt Hertz, had returned after running the Washington agency setting farm price supports during the Ronald Reagan Administration. He'd seen firsthand where the federal deficit was heading and knew crop subsidies were in political trouble.

Crambe, he believed, could be a good backstop. "The others literally reaped the world last year. They got $100 an acre for wheat and $250 an acre for crambe," Hertz said. "Your eyes open up. You say, 'I want some.' "

Unfortunately, however, at the same time more farmers were becoming crambe converts, new obstacles surfaced.

The new nylon, it turned out, could also be made with cheaper ingredients.

Crambe meal didn't taste any better to cattle than it did to flea beetles, and its chemical composition blocked iodine absorption, which could lead to thyroid malfunctions.

Those problems were solved, researchers believed, by positioning the meal as an inexpensive stretcher in a blend of feeds. But a Carrington veterinarian warned the locals against crambe.

Then "Milky Way 2" was introduced, to rousing apathy, in market tests termed "disastrous" by the Chemical Marketing Reporter. And National Sun decided to stop the crush.

Still, Chemical Marketing Reporter concluded three months ago, "all is not lost for crambe." Other food companies may find another way to use caprenin's low-fat chocolate flavoring. Several firms reportedly were interested in even more new crambe-oil applications.

Before the ground thaws, growers also plan to meet with executives of at least 10 companies that use the oil, seeking their help in pressuring processors for a crush in 1996.

Said Mayer: "That's what we should have done a long time ago. We got the cart in front of the horse."

Time, though, is passing. The forces emptying the Plains continue their work. Mayer himself bought a house in Fargo and moved to the city last month.

He doesn't have to argue crambe's merits with the partners he left behind. On the Mayer Farm stands a tangible expression of faith: a grain bin filled with one ton of crambe seed.

The family wants to be ready to put crambe in the ground as soon as the crush is back on. They know it will happen. Storage "costs money," Lee Mayer pointed out. "We're serious."

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