Thursday, July 19, 2007

Romancing the Velvet Bean -- Old Flame of Southern Farmers May Make a Comeback

Romancing the Velvet Bean -- Old Flame of Southern Farmers May Make a Comeback: "ROMANCING THE VELVET BEAN -- OLD FLAME OF SOUTHERN FARMERS MAY MAKE A COMEBACK

AUBURN, Ala.__-- An old romance between southeastern farmers and velvet beans may soon be rekindled, thanks to research underway at Auburn University.

Rodrigo Rodriguez-Kabana, professor of plant pathology in Auburn's College of Agriculture, has been exploring the use of velvet bean as a nematode control for Alabama's cash crops. His research has shown that velvet beans are highly effective, natural nematicides that provide multiple benefits to farmers and may have cash value of their own.

Rodriguez-Kabana explained that velvet bean is a tropical legume native to Southeast Asia and related to soybean and kudzu. Velvet beans were introduced into the southern United States in 1875, apparently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some southerners used the fast-growing vines for shade around their homes. Farmers also used velvet beans for a variety of purposes, especially after the discovery of a short-season velvet bean that became known as the 'Alabama' variety.

'Then, as now, nitrogen fertilizer was very expensive,' explained Rodriguez-Kabana. Because velvet beans are legumes, they can fix nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil, so many farmers used it in lieu of nitrogen fertilizers. Velvet beans also were used to control erosion, build soil organic matter and as a forage and feedstuff for cattle, said Rodriguez-Kabana. Southeastern farmers held the velvet bean in high esteem until the 1950s, when two occurrences displaced the crop. "After World War II, nitrogen fertilizer became much cheaper to buy and soybeans became the glamour crop," said Rodriguez-Kabana.

During the 1960s, farmers began to plant soybeans because they promised greater economic and nutritional value as a cash crop and feedstuff. Velvet beans rapidly vanished from the southern landscape. "At one time, there were about a million acres of velvet beans in the state. Now there are only a few," said Rodriguez-Kabana.


The AU plant pathologist is exploring the effectiveness of various plants that may be natural nematicides, including velvet and other beans, indigo, sesame and various grass crops. Rodriguez-Kabana's management strategy is to rotate acreage planted in traditional cash crops with one of these rotation crops when it is profitable to do so. While several of these crops control some nematodes, velvet beans effectively control a wide range of these diverse pests.

"Velvet beans control most types of nematodes. There is no other plant I know of that can deal with all these, and there are no nematicides that can do that," stated Rodriguez-Kabana.

Velvet beans may also suppress weeds, diseases and insects and they have potential as a cash crop, which means velvet beans can be viewed as an organic, sustainable pesticide crop."

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