Guayule

History of attempts to commercialize Guayule in South Australia as a source of natural rubber

A F Tideman

Guayule, a member of the daisy family, is a native of the northern Mexican desert. When South Australia first became interested in developing guayule as a source of natural rubber the plant had already had a long history of development in the United States of America without a permanent profitable industry being established.

In 1910 guayule was the source of 50% of natural rubber consumed in the United States but the industry failed in 1912 due to the exploitation of the wild plants and the Mexican Revolution.

Britain’s control of the Malaysian natural rubber supplies in the 1920s increased rubber prices threefold, prompting renewed guayule development in the United States of America which failed during the depression only to be restarted with a $30M development fund during World War II. Eleven thousand ha were established on high quality farming land, only to the abandoned after the war due to renewed availability of cheap rubber from Asia and the development of completely synthetic polyisoprene rubber.

Interestingly, a wave of revival occurred in Western Australia in 1959 when that State Government exchanged a 'series of understanding' with the Pacific Rubber Company. The agreement stated that when the economics of rubber from guayule had been proven the Government would make available 600,000 acres at four sites for the Company to grow the crop and adequate water and infrastructure would be provided.

Fortunately the government agreed that it would conduct initial experimental trials on one acre sites. These failed and the 'understanding' lapsed.

In the late 1930s, with rubber prices increasing rapidly and knowing the limitations of synthetic rubber for high performance needs such as radial automotive and aeroplane tyres, CSIRO had maintained an agronomic interest in guayule. In NSW yields of 1 200 kg/ha had been achieved.

In July 1942, at the request of CSIRO, trials began in South Australia under the direction of Dr. HC Trumble, Professor of Agronomy at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute to determine if guayule could be grown in South Australia. (See press cuttings below).

These trials were promoted by the Federal Minister of Supply (Mr Beasley) who warned that scrap rubber supplies in Australia were limited. ‘From the former sources of supply, reserves were not sufficient to meet the supplies of war’.

Starting with 1000 seedlings air-freighted from CSIRO in Canberra, plots were established at Roseworthy Agricultural College, at Morphett Vale, in the mallee and under irrigation at Barmera.These plots showed that guayule could be grown successfully in South Australia and valuable germination and planting needs were established but because it is a relatively slow growing plant (a desert plant) weed competition, without the availability of selective herbicides, proved a serious problem.

For the same reasons that the industry failed to persist in America, interest was lost in South Australia until 1979 when a symposium, conducted by the South Australian Branch of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, drew attention to guayule as a potential source of natural rubber then made more feasible by the introduction of new cultivars, the importance of resins as a byproduct and the availability of selective herbicides.

At around this time serious renewed interest was also growing in Canberra. The Federal Department of National Development And Energy became interested with the result that a National Guayule Working Party was formed, chaired by Mr. G Stewart (CSIRO), to reinvigorated development work.

With this background the South Australian Department Of Agriculture became directly involved, taking a leading role, by establishing the South Australian Advisory Committee on Guayule Commercialization, chaired by Mr. A Tideman, Chief of the Plant Industry Division. The first meeting was held on 22nd April 1981. The Committee had wide ranging representation from the departments of Mines and Energy and Trade and Industry, the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, Roseworthy Agricultural College, the Institute of Technology, CSIRO, Division of Horticulture, Bridgestone Aust Pty Ltd and the State Development Office.

Cabinet approval was subsequently given for Tideman to visit the United States of America in June of that year to assess the current guayule developments. In Washington DC he obtained a detailed overview of research and funding in America from senior USDA plant scientists. He then proceeded to review breeding programs at the Davis campus of the University of California and their field trials at Bakersville before visiting the Arizona Universities’ field work at Tucson. The Los Angeles Arboretum offered access to their germ plasm collections, hybridization technology, cytogenetic studies, pathological studies and rubber analysis techniques.

Most importantly, Tideman was able to obtain small supplies of seed of cultivars bred for environments and soil types similar to those in South Australia. And so trials commenced, organized by the Technical Secretary of the Advisory Committee, Mr. D Ragless, They were mainly developed at Roseworthy College.

Prompted by Tideman's contacts, the United States Joint Commission on Guayule Commercialization led by Dr. Richard Wheaton, visited the state projects in April 1982 and cemented research relationships.

But unfortunately, despite these very promising foundations, progress rapidly came to a halt. The South Australian Government, rightly, would not continue to supply funding without processing and marketing commitments from the rubber industry. This was never forthcoming despite repeated personal attempts by Tideman to influence the Bridgestone management. While the local management was interested the Company had no research and development staff at its plant at Edwardstown and the parent company in Japan was not interested.

Today it can safely be said that guayule can be successfully grown in South Australia. Suitable high rubber producing cultivars are available to suit our climate and soils. The agronomy, disease and weed control technology is known. If the resources required for the production of synthetic rubber continued to increase or tree rubber supplies from Malaysia decrease, then guayule could become a profitable desert plant crop to comfortably fill the gaps created in some of our traditional cropping areas by climate change.

References

Agriculture and Renewable Resources Commission on Natural Resources, 1977, Guayule: An Alternative Source of Natural Rubber. National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC.

Owens, L.W. 1981, Report on Guayule Potential and Research in South Australia (PDF 2.8 MB). Dept of Agriculture, South Australia.

The Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, 1979, The Energy Crisis in Agriculture (PDF 9.3 MB). Public Symposium, Charles Hawker Conference Centre, Waite Agricultural Research Centre.

Tideman, A.F. 1982, The Progress Towards Commercialization of the Guayule Plant (Parthenium argentatum) as a Source of Rubber in the United States of America (PDF 4.2 MB). Plant Industry Division Report Number 9. Department of Agriculture South Australia.

The News, 1942, South Australia is going to grow rubber (PDF 2.4 MB). Article, The News, Adelaide, South Australia.