The open spaces of West Texas are a long way from Washington, D.C. – but not far enough away to prevent politics and bureaucratic hurdles from putting a dark cloud of uncertainty in the blue skies over the Qualitas algae farm in the Pecos County town of Imperial.
Qualitas, like others in the algae industry, have been pushing for changes that would fully recognize algae farming as agriculture in the eyes of the federal government.
“We don’t want a handout. We want access,” said Rebecca White, Ph.D., Qualitias’ vice president of operations who oversees the Imperial site.
Despite the company currently producing two widely sold Omega 3 supplements, White said that because of algae not being recognized as a crop, it does not have access to many USDA programs like crop insurance and the channels needed to become a food product for people.
“This is nice (Omega 3), its revenue, but it’s not what we want to be doing as a company,” she said. “We want to feed people. In order to feed people, I need to be able to call somebody at NIFA (National Institute of Food and Agriculture) and say: ‘who do I call to get help for the development of this algae protein in baby formula?’”
“… The government system says this is how you get food into the market – and you are not part of the system.”
That needed recognition and access is currently in the hands of elected leaders in our national’s capitol.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have each passed versions of a farm bill, an omnibus piece of legislation that affects just about every level of agriculture in the country.
The bills head to a joint Senate-House committee in an attempt to reconcile each before the current Farm Bill expires on Sept. 30. It is hardly an easy task given the likely clash over the House bill’s tightening of work requirements for food stamp recipients.
The committee may start meeting after Labor Day.
The was no recognition of algae biomass in the soon-to-expire farm bill. The current Senate bill is more favorable to algae farming than the House version, White said.
“Sen. (John) Cornyn and Sen. (Tom) Udall had introduced an amendment on algae that was more detailed than the House version by Rep. (Neal) Dunn,” White said.
The offices of Sens. Ted Cruz and Cornyn and of Rep. Hurd did not respond to requests for comment on the farm bill reconciliation process by presstime.
Access to crop insurance is essential in obtaining financing. USDA recognition is key in working with universities on research.
“Let us in on the same programs as other farms get,” said Bart Reid, Qualitas’ Direcotr of Production at the Imperial site. “Universities are doing land grant research for them, we would like that. These guys (Congress) have it in front of them. (Rep. Mike) Conway was here. (Rep. Will) Hurd was here. I’m telling them: ‘we’re in your backyard! We’re not asking for anything special, we’re just asking for equal access to what the other guys are using.”
For Reid, it is important for people to understand that the algae farm is part of an international operation – and is a growing industry perfect for West Texas.
“You need three things to grow algae,” Reid said. “You need 300 plus days of sunshine, lots of salty water that no one else wants and lots of cheap land. West Texas perfect for this kind of farming.”
Reid also pointed specifically to Pecos County, which, due to the infrastructure already in place for the energy industry, as an area primed to compete for future algae operations.
“You didn’t see too many crops on the way in, did you?” he said. “We aren’t taking resources away from another crop. Because we harvest 30-35 per year, you get way more out of an acre of algae than you do with a traditional staple crop.”
He also said advances in using algae in waste water treatment opens up a whole other series of options.
“You treat wastewater with algae and get a usable product out in the end.,” Reid said. “It’s really effective.”
The Imperial site currently employs 11 people. It currently operated 19 ponds but has a lot of room ready to expand.
For White, a Texas native whose family raised cattle and grew cotton in the Panhandle, algae is a different type of farming.
“One of the things that makes algae different from terrestrial crops is the speed at which it grows,” White said. “For corn, you plant once a year and get a harvest once a year. But algae, it takes 10 days. And this time of year, you can harvest again in three days.”
Unlike traditional crops, rain is not a welcomed occurrence as the key to growing algae is maintain specific levels in the many ponds. Rain throughs off that balance.
Motorized paddles keep the algae and water moving around the pond. The churning prevents algae from being “starved” of sunlight at the bottom of the pond.
The ponds are constantly monitored for color. Green is the color that’s on the money while brown indicated less than optimal conditions.
The algae farm tries different strains of algae. Strains that can’t hold up under the scorching West Texas sun are eliminated.
A strain starts in a glass beaker. If successful, it can produce more than 11 tons of biomass per acre per year.
The algae grown in Imperial, along with a sister site in New Mexico, is transported in liquid form via refrigerated trucks for extraction and processing at a plant in Central Mexico.
“There’s a downstream process where it’s extracted, purified and mixed,” Reid said. “That’s another thing. On this farm here, the nirvana is that I need the best algae that can grow. That is what West Texas gives me. It produces the most Omega 3 I can get out of that algae.”
The goal, however, is to do more than produce Omega 3.
“But that is just the very beginning, that is just one of our verticals,” said Spanish entrepreneur and Qualitas CEO Miguel Calatayud in a recent interview in a trade publication. “What we are really excited about is the food thing, the protein. Our protein has all the essential amino acids, so it’s better than beef. It is the best vegan protein we’ve ever seen.”