Bad Boy Crop Deserves a Second Chance

Mention Jerusalem artichoke in some farming communities in the Midwest and there's a good chance you'll be run out of town on a rail. The tubers' reputation was tarnished in the early 1980s by scandal, but some people still believe in its potential as a biomass resource.
By Rona Johnson
The Jerusalem artichoke was sold to Midwestern farmers as a crop that thrives in dry soil conditions and could be used to make ethanol and for use in food products. The farmers initially grew it for seed to get the crop established. But the businessmen who were behind the effort turned out to be shady and eventually ended up in court, farmers already stricken by drought conditions were left with a crop they couldn't sell and "Jerusalem artichoke" became a dirty word.

The scandal is detailed in a book called "The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus: The Buying and Selling of the Rural American Dream" written by Joseph A. Amato and published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1993.

The scandal involving Jerusalem artichokes doesn't faze Larry Whetstone, who, for the past 10 years, has been sending out information about its potential as a biobutanol feedstock and its health benefits, in an effort to get it established in North America.

As the owner of Canuk Sales, an organic food ingredient company, he is particularly interested in the inulin or prebiotic soluble fiber produced by the tubers. "The opportunities for gut health are huge," Whetstone says. "The prebiotics feed the gut microflora of any single-stomach animal, whether it's an oyster, shrimp, chicken, pig, horse or a human. The probiotic thing has been pushed by major companies such as Dannon and anybody making probiotics are doing a big business now because they've indoctrinated mainly women to get their tummies in shape, and it's their digestive gut that's what they have to shape up."

New research from the Stanford University School of Medicine and Stanford Hospital and Clinics also suggests that probiotics can enhance weight-loss programs.

"Probiotics are bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in the intestines," according to WebMD. "The normal human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote a healthy digestive system." The Web site describes prebiotics as "nondigestible ingredients in foods that are used to spur the growth of probiotic bacteria in the body."

Most of the prebiotics used today come from the inulin extracted from chickory roots that are mostly grown in Europe. Jerusalem artichokes are also produced in Europe as well as in China and south Asia.

"It took over eight years in Canada before they allowed the inulin to be called a soluble fiber," Whetstone says. "If you start to look at labels on cereal boxes you're going to see lots of soluble fiber inulin addition. It's also in breads, cookies and dog food in particular. Animals improve when eating it because they have the same gut as we do."

Whetstone says that inulin added to milk helps the body absorb more minerals, calcium and iron, which is beneficial for people who suffer from osteoporosis and for children.

"I don't understand how so much of it can be used in North America and it's all being imported," he says. While people such as Whetstone believe in the benefits of prebiotics, which can range from helping in the treatment of hay fever, preventing asthma, reducing infections in athletes, reducing kidney stones and improving infant immune functions, there are some researchers who think more research needs to be done to determine its heath benefits.

Livestock Feed Market

While Whetstone is particularly interested in the Jerusalem artichoke's human health benefits, John Timmons, a hog producer in Moberly, Mo., believes its greatest potential is for livestock feed.

Timmons is growing plots of the crop and says he can easily produce 50 tons of the bulk tubers per acre, which would yield 8 to 10 tons of dry matter per acre.

"The production rate in this area is just absolutely incredible … you are going to have a higher production rate than corn or any other crop," he says. "The problem with it right now is we're looking at how to dry it."

Animal feed crops such as corn or soybeans are dried and then ground into a powder. A similar process has to be developed for the Jerusalem artichokes.

"I've got to develop a system where we can harvest this and dry it to a point where it can be stored," Timmons says. "The powder has to be lower than 20 percent moisture. Right now when you harvest it it's at 80 percent moisture so you have to chop it up into a product that can be air dried in the field and then it can be brought in and stored and then you can go into grinding it." Using dryers to dry the crop would require too much energy, he adds.

Timmons is also interested in the crop because often in his area it's too wet in the spring to plant. "With the ‘choke' there's no planting, it comes back every year," he says. "You can harvest the tubers and they will come back thicker than ever."

Although Timmons and Whetstone are convinced that the crop has potential they are unable to sell it to the academic world. "I've tried to get people from the University of Missouri interested and they're not really," he says. "We're out here on our own and that's all there is to it." Whetstone has also had a tough time getting researchers interested in the tubers. "It's going to take someone to say, ‘we need biomass that's not food related and what are we going to use?'" he says. "I come along and say look at this and then they say they are not interested in Jerusalem artichoke. I say, ‘Why not let me send you some information.' I don't understand."

Timmons says using Jerusalem artichoke in cattle feed can reduce the cow's methane production, which is a source of greenhouse gases. "I think it has tremendous potential for solving a lot of environmental problems, health problems, as far as livestock goes, and it produces more per acre [than other feed crops]," he says. "As an energy source, you can break it down into ethanol. But I think it's going to be much more valuable as a feedstock for cattle or hogs or any kind of livestock. But you have to overcome the problem of being able to harvest, dry and get the tubers to the point where you can grind them into a powder. Until you have that, you are not going to be able to bring it in as a commercial crop."

A study conducted by University of Minnesota concluded that feeding Jerusalem artichokes to hogs improved their diets and made their manure smell sweeter (see sidebar on page 43).

Timmons came across information about the Jerusalem artichoke when he was studying energy producing crops. He is well aware of the scam and read Amato's book. "Several farmers in this area grew this with the hopes that it would be a savior as an energy crop," he says. "It's really too bad because the crop did have potential. It was just the way it was handled. It's just a shame."

First-Hand Knowledge

Chuck Gode, a semi-retired consulting engineer, also believes the crop deserves another chance despite its reputation and his own experience with the Jerusalem artichoke schemers.

In 1982 when he was living in Salem, Ore., Gode, who had an engineering consulting business called CRG Co. LLC, received a midnight phone call from a man named Bill Hawkey wondering if he could design a machine for him to harvest Jerusalem artichokes.

The conversation resulted in Hawkey buying him a plane ticket to Salt Lake City, where they met just two days later. "He met me there with a twin-engine airplane and we flew over Idaho and all over the West to visit artichoke fields and to show me the processes they were trying to use for harvesting," says Gode, who currently resides in Portland, Ore. In Idaho they were successful using potato harvesters, but soil conditions in Wyoming were hard on the potato harvesters. "We flew to Gillete, Wyo., and about halfway between Gillete and Sheridan-no mans land-they had three or four 40-acre plots of artichokes growing and doing just fine," Gode says. "They tried for three years to harvest them with potato harvesters and the potato harvester builders, and as soon as they hit the soil-I think one got about 12 feet-they bent and didn't work anymore."

Hawkey hired Gode to design a harvester that would work in "junk" or marginal soils, and gave him 90 days to produce the machine. "I designed it in modules and [Hawkey] fabricated it; he was an excellent fabricator because I had virtually no tools to work with just what he brought," Gode says. "Ninety days later the machine is on its way to Wyoming. We get there and it takes about two weeks of debugging and tweaking this and that and by golly it started working."

After debugging the machine his job was over but he was still owed $17,000. When he tried to collect it, Hawkey was nowhere to be found. The next time he saw him was in a Los Angeles courtroom.

Although Gode wasn't happy about not being paid, he was impressed with the Jerusalem artichoke. He has no idea what happened to the machine that he and Hawkey built, but he kept all of his drawings and photos. "My involvement with the artichoke machine at that time was strictly focused on harvesting in what I've termed junk soil," Gode says. "I figure what a great place to grow energy crops if we can get this harvested in soil with only antelope, jackrabbits and sagebrush on it." BIO

Rona Johnson is the editor of Biomass Magazine. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 738-4940.

Jerusalem Artichoke Improves Pig Diets

According to a study "Economic Evaluation of Nutritional Strategies that Affect Manure Volume, Nutrient Content, and Odor Emissions" conducted by the University of Minnesota's Department of Animal Science, Jerusalem artichoke would be a great addition to pig diets. The following are comments the authors made regarding the tuber: Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.) is a native North American plant having a tuber that grows underground. The tubers are high in inulin, which can be broken down to fructooligosaccharide, a carbohydrate. Adding Jerusalem artichoke to growing pig diets has resulted in faster growth and improved feed conversion. In addition, inulin appears to increase growth of bifidobacteria in the pig, reducing diarrhea and swine manure odor. Farnworth et al., 1995, conducted a sensory evaluation study to characterize the smell of fresh (less than 4 hours) swine manure obtained from pigs fed 0 percent, 3 percent and 6 percent Jerusalem artichoke. As shown in table 1, swine manure from pigs fed Jerusalem artichoke smelled sweeter, less sharp and pungent, and had less skatole than pigs fed the control diet. The observed changes in pig manure and subsequent odor are most likely due to the positive influence of Jerusalem artichoke on bifidobacteria in the intestinal microflora.