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NMSU researchers test guar's viability as Southern New Mexico Crop

Guar is not a word most of us hear or use on a daily basis.

A man in a red shirt and an NMSU cap gestures as he talks about the plants in a field behind him.
Kulbhushan Grover, an assistant professor of sustainable crop production in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, discusses a test study on guar that he is running at the new Student-Centered Field Lab on the NMSU campus. Based on his experience with guar in India, he believes the crop could become a viable alternative for farmers in the Mesilla Valley. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
A guar plant stalk with robust bean pods and other plants in the background.
Guar bean pods are thick on the stalk of a plant at NMSU's new Student-Centered Field Lab. The field lab is the site of a study of the viability of guar as a rotational crop for farmers in the Mesilla Valley and beyond. Kulbhushan Grover, an assistant professor of sustainable crop production in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is heading up the study, which he hopes to see replicated in other parts of the state. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

If we are familiar with guar at all, it is probably because we see guar gum listed as an emulsifying or stabilizing ingredient in many commercially produced food items, including ice cream and baked goods, and in other products like shampoos and hand lotions.

Guar gum is actually the powdered endosperm from the seed kernel of the guar plant. A member of the pea family, it is also known as the cluster bean.

Guar gum has become a big player in the oil and natural gas industry. Its unique viscosity properties have proven effective in stabilizing the water and sand mixture used in the extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Kulbhushan Grover, an assistant professor of sustainable crop production in New Mexico State University's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, believes guar could become a viable crop for the Mesilla Valley and elsewhere in New Mexico. Given the tenfold price increase for guar gum over recent years, he says including it in the cropping system could help the bottom line of farmers looking for an alternative to crops traditionally grown here.

What are the potential benefits of growing guar?

For one thing, it is a legume, so its nitrogen-fixing properties are useful in maintaining soil health and reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers with the crops that follow. Grover believes guar could be effectively rotated with non-legume crops like cotton or sorghum or other grasses. Alfalfa currently plays a similar role in local cropping systems in the area.

Like alfalfa, guar is also a good forage crop. Grover mentioned that "guar" means "cow food" in the Hindi language and has a long tradition as a protein-rich feed crop for livestock in India.

The young seed pods are also edible by humans.

And of course the guar gum can be extracted as powder and incorporated into food - or used in fracking.

Why does Grover think guar would be well-suited to Southern New Mexico and beyond?

"It likes really hot and dry weather, thrives well on relatively sandy soil, it can grow well on saline soils or even alkaline soils, and it grows well anyplace where we receive less than 30 inches of rainfall," Grover said, adding that it can do well with only 3-6 inches of irrigated water or as few as two well-timed rains.

He went on to mention that it has relatively few insect or disease issues. That, coupled with its low reliance on fertilizer, means it is a relatively low-cost and sustainable crop to produce.

In fact, he thinks that much of New Mexico, as well as West Texas, Southwestern Oklahoma and Arizona, will prove to be viable for growing guar.

"I worked with guar in India before moving to the U.S.," Grover said. "I worked on designing cropping systems, and genotypes of guar that would fit in the local cropping systems and could provide a substitute for a high-input-intensive cotton crop."

"Guar is grown in very similar conditions in the northwest states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, where cotton is a big crop," Grover said of the expansion of guar cultivation in arid and semi-arid Indian states.

Guar production is already being explored in West Texas. So the immediate issue for Grover is how it will do locally - and which varieties will be the most productive.

Using germ plasm from 28 varieties originally collected from different parts of the world and supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture germplasm bank, he has planted a few rows of guar in a small preliminary study at the new Student-Centered Field Laboratory on the NMSU campus.

Bryce Richard, an undergraduate student in agricultural biology and manager of the new field lab, is working closely with Grover on this study, as well as another study on cover crops.

"We are evaluating what varieties can perform best here under local conditions and produce the maximum amount of seed, because we are focusing on seed yield, seed production potential for these varieties in this particular study," Grover said.

They will collect and weigh the seed from each plant and also evaluate the combined production of each separate line.

"One of the benefits of the Student-Centered Field Lab is being able to get hands-on research experience," Richard said. "I'm currently helping Dr. Grover collect data on all of his plots. In exchange for that, I'm going to be receiving credit. So you get a credit and hands-on experience.

"It's more than you would get just in a classroom. And it's something you can transfer if you're going to do research of your own. You can apply the methodology to many areas of work."

Grover said this is the first test of guar in this part of the state. He hopes to replicate the study elsewhere in New Mexico, since it is likely that different varieties will perform better in the different climate zones.

"Guar has a lot of potential to be developed as a new specialty crop for the state of New Mexico because of its multiple uses as a fresh vegetable for small farmers, or as an animal feed because it is rich in protein, as well as a seed crop because of its high value product that comes from the seed, the guar gum that could be used in the food industry as well as oil drilling."

Particularly due to guar gum's use in fracking, the U.S. is the world's largest importer, getting most of its supply from India and Pakistan, the world's largest producers.

With demand growing and the price relatively high, Grover would like to see guar grown more widely in this country. Producing it closer to where it is being used makes sense to Grover from both a sustainability angle and an economic angle.

Thinking back to his experience in India, he said, "It has helped the farmers back in those places to improve their sustainability and their economic bottom line."

"I think it can give a boost to the local economies here, too."