Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Crowdfunding Coconut Cold Tolerance


Last week my uncle randomly visited me here in Southern California.  He lives in McAllen Texas.  Not too long ago, some guy gave my uncle and his friend around 10 acres to farm.  Knowing my uncle... it's probably a pretty informal arrangement.  Right now their plan is to grow beets.  Beets?  Beets are boring!  Plus... it doesn't seem like McAllen's hot and humid climate provides a comparative advantage in terms of beets.  I told my uncle that the best strategy is to hedge his bets.  So I gave him a bunch of Tillandsias, one Lemon Guava seedling, one small Apple Banana, one small Dwarf Brazilian Banana, four fresh Surinam Cherry seeds and two cuttings each of 5 different varieties of dragon fruit.  These are crops that you probably won't find in Minnesota (one of the states where beets are commercially grown).  I also told my uncle that he should grow coconuts as well!  Unfortunately, I didn't have any coconut seedlings to give him.  :(  

Here's an idea.  Feel free to let me know if it's too crazy.  Let's all chip in to buy coconuts for my uncle to grow!  Yay or nay?  

Sure, you could all chip in to buy coconuts for me to grow... but I don't even have an acre and the success rate would be way too low.  We could also chip in to buy coconuts for Cindy to grow in Puerto Rico.  She's got lots of land and the success rate would be very high.  Too high in fact!  

When it comes to making progress with discovering/selecting/creating more cold tolerant coconuts... there's a Goldilocks zone where the success rate is not too high and not too low but just right.  I should probably mention that I'm defining "success" as a coconut growing to maturity and producing coconuts.  What do you think the optimal success rate would be?  Maybe 5%?  Or 10%?  Or 25%?  Higher?  Generally speaking... around what latitude is the Goldilocks zone?  McAllen's latitude is just above 26 degrees.  Los Angeles, in comparison, is at 34 degrees.

I'd be surprised if my uncle's farm is exactly in the Goldilocks zone.  If somebody has, or knows of, plenty of available land that's closer to the Goldilocks zone... then please chime in.  But it isn't just a matter of available and optimally located land... there also needs to be somebody willing to do the work.  Although, in theory, we could all chip in to pay somebody to grow the coconuts.  That would be pretty neat!  Heck, we could even chip in to buy some land!  All the cool kids are doing it.  For example, members of the Orchid Conservation Alliance chip in to purchase land.  But perhaps, when it comes to growing/testing marginal crops, some training wheels would help.  

When I told my uncle that he should grow coconuts he said that he would try.  But I'm guessing that this doesn't equate to him going out and buying enough coconuts to fill up an entire acre with coconut palms.  How many coconut palms would fit on an acre of land anyways?  And how many coconuts would have to be purchased in order to fill up an entire acre with mature coconut palms in McAllen? 

The real tough question is... how many coconuts would you be willing to sponsor?  A coconut a year?  A coconut a month?  And, are there any plants that you'd be more willing to sponsor than coconuts?  Starfruit?  Lychee?  Pineapple?  Vanilla?  Durian?
When I told my friend about my uncle's farm he asked whether mangosteens would grow there.  I'm guessing that they probably wouldn't.  But I might be willing to chip in to buy a mangosteen for my uncle to try and grow.  Unless there's adequate evidence that they will not grow there.  

The problem with the mangosteen is that it doesn't reproduce sexually.  This means that there's not going to be much genetic variation/diversity.... which means negligible progress in terms of cold tolerance.  Buying more mangosteens or growing them from seed would closely match Einstein's definition of insanity... doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome.  The apple has to fall at least some distance from the tree in order for any progress to be made.  With this in mind, the best strategy for coconuts would be to try and grow the widest possible variety of coconuts.  Assuming cross-pollination... the result would be numerous different combinations of traits... which would increase the chances of discovering/creating combinations that are better suited for growing in Southern Texas.  

Coconuts are pretty much the opposite of orchids in terms of seed quantities.  One orchid plant produces more seeds than 100 acres of coconuts.  Is that right?  A single orchid seed pod can contain around a million seeds... and a decent sized orchid can comfortably produce around 5 seed pods.  How many acres of coconut palms would it take to make 5 million coconuts?   Assuming 100 coconut palms on one acre... and assuming each coconut palm produces 100 coconuts per year.... that would be 10,000 coconuts per acre.  So it would take 500 acres to produce 5 million coconuts.  But it would only take a few square feet on a coconut palm for an orchid to produce 5 million seeds.  So how many orchid seeds would be produced if every coconut palm in 500 acres had one orchid on it?  

Progress is a numbers game.  The more combinations that are tested, the more progress that will be made.  So it's easier to make a lot more progress in a lot less time with orchids than with coconuts.  With this in mind... progress with coconuts could be increased, generally speaking, by also selecting for seed quantity in addition to cold tolerance.  Selecting for precociousness would also help more quickly increase the size of the gene pool.  A larger gene pool in McAllen would decrease the time necessary to develop a larger gene pool in a coconut orchard an hour or two to the north.
Of course there's no reason that cold/drought tolerant orchids and coconuts couldn't be selected at the same time!  A couple months ago I sent my uncle a few orchids.  One of the orchids I sent him, Laelia anceps, can be found naturally growing on trees only a couple hours drive across the border.  Why hasn't this orchid naturally crossed the border into Texas yet?  Where's the bottleneck?  Drought?  Cold?  Pollinator?  What other species would L. anceps have to be crossed with in order to eliminate the bottleneck?  

Brassavola nodosa naturally grows on coconut palms in nature.  Unlike coconut palms though, B. nodosa grows quite well in Southern California.  But I'm not quite sure how nodosa would do outdoors in McAllen.  It would definitely thrive in the heat... but would it survive an average winter?  I'd sure like to know!  

I really love the idea of a coconut plantation with orchids, Tillandsias and dragon fruit all growing on the trunks of all the coconut palms.  That's two ornamental crops plus two edible crops.  More crops in less space.  More bang for your buck.  More awesome for your acre.  Intercropping for the win!  Not only would there be greater productivity per acre... but there would also be more cold tolerance selection per acre.  
Out of curiosity I googled something about germinating a coconut... and found this video... How to Grow a Coconut Palm from a Dehusked Coconut.  I watched it and the follow-up videos... twothree and four.   Pretty neat! 

I do enjoy eating coconuts... but you can't eat your coconut and grow it too!   From now on I'm going to be thinking about the opportunity cost of eating coconuts.  Eating a coconut is a momentary pleasure.  Growing a coconut in Southern Texas could yield a future benefit.  Should we give up momentary pleasure for future benefit?  

Generally speaking, the higher your latitude/altitude... the longer it will take you to reap the reward of chipping in for tolerance selection.  If you live in Washington... then the benefit might be for your grandchildren... or great grandchildren.  Do you really care if your great grandkids can grow coconuts?  Maybe a few of you do.  But generally speaking, the further away the benefit... the less likely it is that somebody will chip in.  But the less people that chip in... the fewer coconuts that will be tested... and the longer it will take for the coconut belt to noticeably widen.  Progress... will... be... oh... so... painfully... slow.  I know that at least some of you out there would prefer faster, rather than slower, progress when it comes improving the cold tolerance of coconuts.  

Most crowdfunding campaigns involve some form of perks.  The more you chip in... the bigger the perk.  What could some perks be for crowdfunding coconut tolerance trials?
One idea I like is to offer advertising as a perk.  The more you donate...the more advertising you get on the PalmTalk.org website!  And the more traffic your website receives from the PalmTalk website... the more money that you'd be willing to donate.  Clearly this perk works better if you have a website that could benefit from having more visitors who are interested in plants.  So go ahead and start a garden blog if you haven't already done so!  

Coconuts could also be offered as a perk.  Imagine if my uncle received enough money to buy 100 coconuts... but only one grew to maturity and produced coconuts.  Clearly it would be a good idea for my uncle to grow most of these exceptional coconuts.... but perhaps a few of them could be offered to the biggest donors.  I'm guessing that most of the biggest donors who wanted the coconuts would probably prefer to grow, rather than eat, them.  So offering some coconuts as perks would also help us hedge our bets.  

Coming up with good perks is important if we want faster progress.  Incentives really do matter!  I'm sure though that those of you who already live in the coconut belt would be more than happy to regularly send my uncle sprouted coconuts in exchange for nothing more than the warm glow feeling you get when you contribute to a good cause!  :D

Hmmm... now I'm wondering whether it's better to send my uncle money or coconuts.  My first thought was that money was obviously better.  Then my uncle could simply go out and buy coconuts.  Why would we needlessly pay for costly shipping?  But if we all sent my uncle enough money to buy 100 coconuts.... then where would he get 100 coconuts from?  From the same source?  That would be a problem because progress depends on difference.  

But if, on the other hand, 100 of us each send one coconut to my uncle... then chances are good that they'd be from a greater variety of sources.  Which would mean more progress.  

Also, I kinda struggle seeing my uncle going through the process outlined in the coconut germination Youtube videos with a 100 coconuts.  Maybe it would make more sense for each of us to germinate a coconut and send it to him once the threat of frost has passed.  Then he would simply have to plant 100 germinated coconuts.  And it's not like they would arrive all at once.  

Or, rather than germinating the coconuts ourselves, we could simply purchase coconut seedlings... 

Florida-Coconuts.com - $5 dollars
Amazon.com - $17 dollars

It's also a really great idea for my uncle to try and grow any coconuts that are locally produced.  Fortunately for us, Southern Texas has somebody who is very knowledgeable, experienced and enthusiastic about selecting coconuts for cold tolerance.... Mr. Coconut Palm!  A couple years back I sent John an e-mail and we brainstormed a bit about finding a suitable space in Southern Texas to grow and test lots of coconuts and epiphytes.  So this really isn't a new idea for either of us!  And now, thanks to my uncle acquiring 10 acres and randomly visiting me, the idea has become a lot more tangible.  

Hopefully John can get his hands on some locally grown coconuts... and then he could work with my uncle to try and provide them, and all the other coconuts that we send, with the best possible care. 

According to John.... Corpus Christi, where he lives, isn't as suitable an area as McAllen... which isn't as suitable as Brownsville.  So Brownsville is perhaps the closest we get to the Goldilocks zone in Texas.  But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!  If somebody does happen to have a few acres in Brownsville that they'd be happy to dedicate to coconut palms and companion crops then please let us know.  

I'm sure there's a better analogy... but what comes to mind are train stations.  Brownsville could be a station in Texas where coconuts might grow the best.  This is where the success rate might be the highest.  Some of the coconuts produced at the Brownsville station could board the train and head to the next best station... McAllen.  After they grew and produced coconuts there... then some of the coconuts would take the train to the Corpus Christi station.  In this way the coconuts could systematically and quickly spread across the country.   And of course there'd be room on the train for other tropical plants... such as exotic fruit trees, Anthuriums, orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and so on.  This would hopefully generate broader interest and more support in the tropical tolerance project.  Tropical tolerance project?  I'm sure there's a better name!  

Now, to be clear, this process already kinda occurs.  We've all purchased plants, and been given plants, and raised plants from seed... that we've selected for cold and/or drought tolerance.  Personally I've spent lots of money and time testing orchids and other epiphytes for tolerance.  Given how much money and time that I've spent... and how many plants were sacrificed in the testing process... I sure like to think that I've made some progress!  And I also like to think that others will be able to benefit from my progress just like I've benefited from the progress made by countless other people.  But I'm pretty sure that we could make a lot more progress in a lot less time if we, as a crowd, offered a lot more support to growers/testers in Goldilocks zones.  The more coconuts we send to my uncle, or whoever, in McAllen or Brownsville or in equivalently marginal locations in Florida... then the more cold tolerance progress we'll make with coconuts. 

To put it more succinctly... the main difference is a matter of scale.  Rather than one or two coconuts growing in a few scattered and anonymous yards in Southern Texas... let's see if we can manage to fill up one entire acre in McAllen and/or Brownsville with coconut palms.  If we're successful... then we can help establish similar farms in Goldilocks zones around the world... Chile, Argentina, Australia, China, India, South Africa, Spain and so on. 

So what do you think?  Is crowdfunding coconut cold tolerance a crazy idea?  Or is it crazy that we haven't already tried it?  If our grandparents had tried it... would most of us be growing coconut palms right now?  

I used a Google chart app to create a few climate diagrams...