Crystal Chandler, a junior at Geraldine High School, isn’t afraid to buck trends or try new things.
Crystal is the vice president of the Geraldine Future Farmers of America Chapter, which her instructor, Ben Johnson, said was a male-dominated class. Her mother, Kristi Chandler, and her family have farmed for five generations, and her dad, Chris Chandler, raised 7 acres of watermelons to buy his first truck, a Mazda B2000.
While Crystal isn’t sure if she’ll become a full-time sixth-generation farmer, she does plan to pursue a field in agriculture, possibly as an agronomist. She said annual FFA projects are helping her prepare for the future.
“In ninth grade, I helped my grandfather [Larry Chandler] grow herbs and plants for his business [sandmountainherbs.com],” Crystal said. “He has about an acre of land. Then in 10th grade, I planted vegetables — squash, cucumbers, tomatoes. This year I wanted to do something bigger.”
Crystal turned to Johnson for ideas for a large-scale farming project for her junior year.
Johnson suggested something most people have never heard of — carinata.
“I was at an Alabama Farmers Federation Commodities Conference and there was a representative from Agrisoma there,” Johnson said. “Christine Bliss is an agronomist for Agrisoma, and they’ve been trying to find producers for carinata in north Alabama.”
Carinata isn’t a typical crop — it’s an oilseed crop, which stores oil in the seeds. The seeds are crushed to release the oil which is a renewable, sustainable source of oil that replaces petroleum-based oils. Carinata oil is used to make bio and jet fuel.
Chris said he’d done some research on carinata since his daughter planted and learned carinata fuel was used mostly in the European Union and one bag of 50-pound seeds could produce enough jet fuel to fly a plane from London to Paris five times. The plant will grow up to 6-feet tall and has bright yellow flowers.
Johnson said carinata could become an alternative crop from farmers in north Alabama.
“In farming it’s all about diversification,” Johnson said. “Carinata will produce about 30-35 bushels per acre with the potential to go higher. Farmers plant on a three-year rotation — corn, wheat and soybeans is what most farmers do. Carinata incorporates well into that rotation and it’s a good cover crop. Farmers can can corn, carinata and soybeans and make more money than wheat.”
Johnson said an additional benefit of carinata was there was no special equipment needed to harvest it. So, farmers can use combines to harvest the crop, just like wheat.
Once Crystal decided to plant carinata, she had to pitch the idea to her grandparents, John and Yvonne Hyde, in order to use the 50-acre family farm.
“He was skeptical at first,” Crystal said. “I put together a PowerPoint presentation explaining what carinata was and how it was used. Once he understood, he was all for it.”
Once she had some land to farm, it was time for Crystal to plant. Which was a learning experience for her.
“I didn’t know how to drive a tractor,” she said. “I learned how to drive a regular tractor and a GPS-enabled tractor.”
Johnson also planted carinata on his farm this year and said the weather had been a challenge. The carinata began to sprout and laid down a nice, vibrant green cover crop on both farms, but several days of below-freezing weather killed any growth.
Johnson said he called some carinata producers he’d been introduced to in the North and learned the crop would survive.
He said the growth above the soil’s surface will die in low temperatures, but the root system is protected by the soil. So, he said, when the weather warms up, the roots will start producing new growth.
“We’ve had local farmers show some interest in carinata after they saw the fields,” Johnson said. “We’re the first two farmers producing carinata in north Alabama, and Crystal is Agrisoma’s youngest producer.”