Jojoba beans: the plant of the future, or an intriguing fad?

For centuries, the unassuming little jojoba bush lived quietly in the Sonoran desert. It grew where it grew. It sprouted seeds (or beans) when it liked, and worried not about size or amount. Each year, Indians harvested some of the beans for food, medicine, and hair oil. Bailey pocket mice also nibbled away at the beans; the rest scattered in the summer storms, some to germinate, some not. With stoic acceptance of unrelenting heat and unreliable rains, the hardy little plant survived, sometimes living for hundreds of years.

Then jojoba was discovered by big business. And while its ancestors still live their quiet lives among the saguaro cactus and mesquite trees, the jojoba of tomorrow is being civilized - pushed and prodded into neat rows of uniform size, uniform yield, and (plantation owners hope) uniform profits - into the arid lands' crop of the future.

''This is the birth of a crop,'' exulted William Howard O'Brien recently, plucking the first seeds from the 400 acres of jojoba he started planting three years ago on his ranch east of Phoenix. ''Every 'aggie' dreams of starting a new crop. I feel like the first Indian who gave corn to the settlers! This gives such a basic oil, which has so many uses. And this is its birthday.''

Corn, wheat, apples, and oranges didn't always grow on farms with supermarket-like regularity, either. It has taken hundreds of years of painstaking cultivation to produce crops which are as different from their wild ancestors as a Pekinese is from a coyote. And for jojoba (pronounced in the Spanish way, ho-HO-ba), the whole process is just starting.

In the past two to three years, about 25,000 acres of jojoba have been planted in Arizona, California, and Texas. Although the bushes weren't expected to produce beans for another year or two, from 5 to 10 percent flowered this spring - the first jojoba plantation harvest in the United States and only the second in the world (Mexican growers claimed the first last year).

These first beans are being snapped up by growers around the world who are willing to pay well ($15 a pound) in the hope the beans will produce early-flowering plants. Maybe they will, or maybe, agricultural scientists say, they are flukes. In the wild, bushes must be flexible to survive the caprices of nature - one year flowering early, another flowering late. But in the taming of the bean, every angle must be explored. Before jojoba can become a stable and profitable crop, growers must be confident (or as confident as any grower can be) that the beans they plant will grow into certain-size bushes with a certain number of certain-size beans sprouting on a certain schedule. Even the ease with which the beans fall from the bush when picked must be controlled eventually.

Why all this fuss over jojoba? Until the early 1970s interest in the approximately inch-long nutlike bean was limited to plant scientists, Indians, and Bailey pocket mice.

Since the 1950s it's been known that jojoba oil (actually a liquid wax) almost exactly duplicates sperm whale oil. The oil has a wide variety of potential uses, from a high-grade industrial lubricant to a scalp and skin conditioner. But the jojoba supply was so limited and production costs so high that it remained for the most part a fascinating anomaly, a research curiosity, a whale in the desert.

But several factors combined in the '70s to pique widespread interest. The US banned sperm whale oil imports in 1971, leaving a 55 million-gallon-a-year gap. Water supplies in the desert Southwest grew scarcer and more expensive. And the cosmetics industry discovered a good market for shampoos, hair conditioners, and creams that had ''jojoba'' written on the label.

By the end of the decade, the little bush in the desert was being tracked down and stripped bare by pickers making up to $9.50 a pound in exceptional years, with the oil selling for up to $200 a gallon. The jojoba industry grew 20 -fold in four years, and the National Academy of Sciences projected that by the end of the 1980s the US alone would need 127,000 metric tons of jojoba, or a 4, 233 percent increase over the 1981 wild harvest.

Obviously, anything that profitable would have to be harnessed and taught to grow on command. So several years ago, entrepreneurs in the US, Mexico, South America, South Africa, and Australia sowed large crops of wild seed from the Sonoran desert. This was the first major planting of jojoba, although there had been extensive experimental planting of one-acre crops for many years, especially in Israel.

''I wanted something new and exciting that I could get into on the ground floor, with a fantastic future and unlimited potential,'' said Arne Belsby, a former grower of potted Christmas trees. Mr. Belsby bought 960 acres of raw desert land in Desert Center, Calif., in 1977 and planted it all with jojoba. His first harvest, about 160 acres' worth, came in this June and he plans to sell the seed to foreign growers. Desert land around his plantation has shot up from $400 to $2,000 an acre because of its suitability for jojoba growing, and 6 ,000 acres have been planted with the bean, primarily by limited-liability partnerships.

But jojoba's ''fantastic future and unlimited potential'' depend entirely on the success of these pioneer plantations. Beans picked in the wild are too expensive and too unreliable in terms of year-to-year supply to entice industry to fully exploit their many potential uses. Growers are taking a gamble: more produce, more products. They may be the founding fathers of a highly profitable crop, or they may merely be cultivating an extremely interesting fad.

The difference between success and failure is price. If the bean, projected to sell from $6 to $8 a pound this year, can be brought down to $1.50 a pound by large-scale planting and mechanical harvesting, then it will be competitive with the other oils now filling the bill commercially.

For example, a few drops of jojoba oil added to transmission fluid has been found to reduce internal temperature 20 degrees, which in turn can double the life of the transmission. But with last year's wild harvest selling for up to $ 200 a gallon, major motor oil companies shy away from developing the transmission additive as a viable product.

Although jojoba is an excellent high-pressure, high-temperature industrial lubricant, its price compared with other lubricants has relegated its entire use to the cosmetics industry. And they would use more, too, if it were cheaper and more readily available.

Even with domestic plantations, the price will probably remain high until the end of the decade, experts predict. But one marketer notes that ''companies may not use it until the price goes down, but they're buying up all the patents now.'' Among the varied proposed uses: cutting oil for silicon chips, a high-protein cattle feed, and a high-pressure lubricant for deep oil drilling.

If successful, jojoba may prove to be a sound crop for third-world countries with low-grade desert lands and minimal water supplies. Assuming 12-foot row spacings, jojoba sips a dainty six to nine inches of water per acre, as compared with five to six feet per acre for cotton. No natural pests have yet been identified. And the oil has an unlimited shelf life, putting sellers above the vagaries of the marketplace. Private landowners in Brazil, Argentina, Chili, Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, Costa Rica, South Africa, India, and the Sudan are experimenting with crops of varying sizes.

Environmentalists are also touting domestic cultivation, having watched in dismay in recent years as hordes of pickers, lured by high prices, have stripped the desert of every seed in sight. ''Unemployment is high this year, so the desert should be full of pickers,'' sighed Dr. David Palzkill of the University of Arizona Plant Sciences Department. Some of the pickers lay tarps under the bushes and beat them with sticks to shake off the seeds. This results in a lot of broken branches. Tracks from the pickers' vehicles will take years and years to disappear in the arid desert, not to mention the loss of food and habitat for rodents.

Mechanical harvesting and lower seed prices will effectively eliminate an important seasonal income for some low-income people in the Southwest, but it will also help protect the fragile desert ecology. And, as the oil becomes more price competitive, countries that are still importing sperm whale oil, such as many in Europe, may be more easily persuaded to switch to jojoba.

But these optimistic predictions are still at least 10 years down the line, even the most ardent promoters admit. The birth of the American jojoba crop signals the start of even more intensive experimentation than has gone before: what weed killers work best, how far apart the bushes should be planted, which plants should be cloned, and which ones should be culled out.

''Other perennial crops have 50 to 100 years of study behind them, but it's not there for jojoba,'' Dr. Palzkill noted. ''For example, you tend to get more male plants than you need in jojoba planting - about a 50-50 ratio of male to female. We know that the right male-female balance is something less than one to one, but what is it?''

A successful venture capitalist, William Howard O'Brien has already seen his hunches come true in wool and alpaca, tennis resorts and real estate, so in spite of the difficulties ahead, he is confident he's picked another winner with jojoba. ''And if it flops, I'd hate to have to be the one to pull all of it up, '' he grins. ''That's one tough little plant.''

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