Los Angeles — They call it the jojoba craze. On paper, this Southwest real estate stampede -- all in the name of a little oil-rich bean -- sounds tantalizing. Snap up a few otherwise-useless arid acres; start a jojoba farm; and in about seven years, when the beans can be harvested and pressed for oil that currently fetches $60 to $125 a gallon, you pocket as much as $20,000 an acre.
But before joining the swelling ranks of investors leaping on the bean bandwagon, jojoba experts suggest that people consider one item often overlooked in the rush: Not a single bean has been grown on a commercial basis. This means that all the tempting estimates of dollar-rich crops are nothing more than that -- estimates.
"Twenty years ago, few people knew how to spell it," says Dr. D. M. Yermanos, an internationally known jojoba authority and professor of agronomy at the University of California, Riverside.
"Now we're trying to cool down jojoba fever," he continues. "There's a state of euphoria about jojoba. A lot of it is true, but a lot of it is not -- at least not today."
Jojoba (pronounced ho-HO-bah) has grown wild across the Southwest for decades. It was first seriously eyed as a commercial substitute for sperm whale oil approximately 10 years ago, when the "save the whale" campaign began in earnest.
Today, jojoba oil -- obtained from wild crops -- is widely used in the cosmetic industry. In addition to pharmaceutical uses, the oil also is considered to be one of the best lubricants available.
Combine these potentially high-return commercial markets with the low cost of desert acreage, and the fact that jojoba appears to be an ideal arid lands crop (it requires less water than most agricultural crops and has a life span of some 100 years), and you have the makings of an attractive, highly publicized -- but risky -- venture, say experts.
"Unfortunately, a lot of popular articles have been written about many energy crops, particularly jojoba," says Claude Sweet, editor of Petroculture Journal. "And it gets repeated. If it's in print, people think it must be true -- and more people keep saying it. . . . I don't know where it ends."
Already, prices for desert acreage have spiraled. Land that sold for $500 an acre two years ago now sells for $1,000 to $1,500. Commonly repeated projections envision plantations that will yield 10 to 15 pounds of seed per plant at $20 per pound. A more realistic expectation, say jojoba researchers, will be three pounds of seed per plant at $2 per pound.
"There are a lot of people out there hyping this up," says Jay McKenzie, general manager of Sunland, Jojoba Company, an Arizona-based jojoba developer. "It's risky. This is a crop nobody really knows anything about.
"Everything wants to get rich quick, and everybody wants to get rich the easy way," he continues. "But if you know anything about farming, you know it isn't easy.
"People are guaranteeing 9 to 10 pounds of seed per bush within 10 years," he says. "But how can they do that [when nothing is known about commercial yields] ? What will they do at the end of 10 years if it isn't producing that much? Dig it up and give you a new plant? The guy will be in Bermuda by then."
Currently, there are an estimated 15,000 acres of jojoba planted across California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Because the plant takes several years to mature, the first commercial crop to be harvested will be this summer, when approximately 1,000 acres in Mexico and the Southwest will be ready for picking.
As more of these pioneer crops are harvested in 1983 and 1984, and as scientists continue research on experimental plantings, jojoba experts hope to find answers to many of the current crop unknowns, such as yield, water and fertilizer needs, and possible plant diseases and pests.
Researchers and developers are certain jojoba has a financially promising future. But because of the unknowns, they warn would-be investors to look before they leap. Before investing in a jojoba plantation, say experts, talk to an attorney or accountant.Find out if the developer is an individual with experience in agriculture management. Ask lots of questions. Many reputable, experienced growers are offering jojoba deals. But, says one major jojoba developer, there are also "a lot of flaky deals." Most important, they say, don't spend money that you can't afford to lose.
"My recommendation is if you're going to invest, invest risk capital and be willing and able to lose it," says Gene Wright, a research associate with the Office of Arid Land Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Because this isn't a crop that's a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. The risks are the same as with any agricultural crop.
"You're fooling around with Mother Nature," he says, "and she doesn't always go along with you.
"I do think jojoba has a future," he continues. "But it's not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that e verybody says it is."