Alternate crop finds uses in wide array of food products
By DAVE WILKINS
Chicory could one day become an alternative crop for Idaho farmers.
The crop has potential, but there are several hurdles to overcome before it could ever be grown commercially, industry officials said.
The Amalgamated Sugar Co. has experimented with the crop the past few years.
Weed control, storage and processing are just a few of the challenges that must be worked out.
"We are still in the research and development phase," said Rupert area farmer Duane Grant, chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co., the grower-owned cooperative that controls Amalgamated.
Chicory is a root crop like sugar beets. It's believed that Idaho farmers could grow and harvest it using their existing sugar beet equipment with some modifications.
Chicory is perhaps best known as a coffee substitute, but is increasingly used in other food products.
Chicory root extract is an ingredient in Fiber One snack bars, for example.
Chicory contains a natural prebiotic fiber compound called inulin, which has hundreds of uses in the food industry. The health benefits of inulin are similar to those of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to dietitians.
Extracting inulin from chicory roots is not a simple process, and Amalgamated is working on a proprietary method of extraction.
It could be years before the company completes its research and determines whether chicory is an economically viable crop for Idaho.
Commercial chicory production in the U.S. is limited to a small area in Western Nebraska where growers sell the end product as a pet food additive.
Amalgamated is investigating chicory for both food and feed applications, Grant said.
"We're in both the feed and food business. Any product stream has interest to us as long as the economics work out," he said.
Chicory could help diversify some Idaho farms, said Jeff Henry, a grower from Jerome, who is president of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association.
"I doubt that acreage would ever be huge, but it might help out in years when sugar prices are low," Henry said.
Chicory presents some tough weed control challenges, said UI Extension weed scientist Don Morishita, who has been working with the co-op on the project.
Only three herbicides are currently registered for use on chicory.
"Unfortunately none of these work real well," he said.
Morishita has been evaluating the use of some herbicides labeled for other crops. Like sugar beets, chicory does not compete well against weeds, Morishita said. It's even less competitive during the early development stages and doesn't form as dense a canopy as sugar beets, he said.
Volunteer chicory plants could pose another problem.
Chicory roots are smaller than sugar beet roots and can break off during harvest. The next year, the broken roots can send up shoots.
Morishita is researching herbicides that may be effective in controlling those volunteer chicory plants in crops such as wheat and corn.