Groups Fight Over Castor Bean Plan
Red Rock is miniscule even for typical small town Oklahoma: no general store, no real downtown, only a couple hundred residents. But two prominent groups are squaring off in a battle over farmland there. The Otoe Missouria tribe wants to plant thousands of acres of castor beans, and most local farmers are trying to put up roadblocks…
Castor beans are billed as a piece of the renewable energy puzzle. Oil from the beans can be converted to fuel, and they’re practically drought resistant. So the tribe’s plan first looked like a surefire win. Yet there’s an ugly side too.
“What is also distinct about castor is the ricin,” said Calvin Trostel, agronomist with Texas AgriLife in Lubbock.
He and most scientists say ricin is one of the most poisonous organic compounds in the world.
Opposition to the plan comes from farmers groups in the state.
“If they were trying to produce this way out in Timbuktu where there was no elevators and nothing else was grown that’s a different story,” said Joe Neal Hampton, President of the Oklahoma Seed and Grain Association. “But they’re proposing to produce this in the heart of Oklahoma’s grain producing areas.”
There’s that same level of concern coming from Oklahoma City. Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese has met with the tribe.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to really comfortable with it. I think that growing a product with ricin is a concern.”
Yet coming into fatal contact with ricin takes some work. As Calvin Trostel told me, he and his workers touch the castor beans every day.
“It’s just common sense that we would say ‘Well, okay we were working in the lab’ or somebody walked in the field and didn’t know it was castor plants. I think that really is very minimal in terms of risk.”
The real concern? That by some fluke accident, a couple castor beans somehow slip into a pile of wheat or sorghum, ruining the whole batch. Oklahoma House Majority Leader Dale DeWitt has proposed legislation banning production and transportation of the beans.
“We cannot afford that contamination and get a load turned down. I think it just creates a tremendous marketing problem for us here in Oklahoma,” said DeWitt.
DeWitt says the state’s agricultural industry could be in danger if that happened, with a lack of confidence in its products.
On the other side, the Otoe Missouria Tribe is largely silent about the project. They acknowledge the plan exists, and say they’re taking all the necessary regulations and safety concerns into consideration.
Someone was willing to talk, just not on tape. Christian Fleisher’s taking a behind the scenes role in the tribe’s proposal. He says as owner of Red Rock Bioenergy he will supervise the operation. He says equipment will only get used on castor beans.
Another castor bean farmer would talk. Mike Fothergill is in charge of thousands of acres in Florida.
“There is seed people and other lobbyists are trying to squelch castor as a crop yet they’re going to keep it as an ornamental where it grows along the streets where children can simply pick it up off the ground next to an elementary school.”
But there’s a certain stigma about the crop. Every castor bean proponent I talked to held back in some way. Fothergill would only give me the name of one company he works with, another family rushed me off the phone, and Fleisher wouldn’t go on tape.
With the proposed legislation, there’s a potential roadblock for the tribe. According to Majority Leader Dewitt, he hasn’t spoken with the Otoe about their plan. Still, they say they’re developing a plan to move forward.