Witness the latest entry in the high-stakes race for alternative sources of fuel: a tree that produces oil.
Not petroleum, that is, but an oil that can be used to make biodiesel.
And entrepreneurs see it as a future cash crop for Florida.
"Last year, soy oil was $1.50 a gallon and nobody was looking at us. Now, it's $3 a gallon and everyone is looking" at jatropha as a future biofuel source, said Paul Dalton, a Washington lawyer who is involved with growing the tree — jatropha curcas — in Florida, India and elsewhere.
Oil from this variety of jatropha has attracted more attention as prices for other biodiesel oils such as soy, palm and canola have skyrocketed.
Dalton, CEO of My Dream Fuel LLC, has planted 1.26-million jatropha seedlings from varieties specially selected and cloned for commercialization on 12 acres south of LaBelle. Last year, he sold out of 12,000 plants in four days.
Beginning May 15, this year's seedlings will go out to citrus growers looking for a replacement for groves ravaged by canker and greening diseases and others wanting to keep their agricultural exemption.
"It is not a get-rich-quick scheme," Dalton said. "It's five years before they get to 100 percent production. In two years, they will start making money. That is a lot faster than citrus.
"Any biodiesel refiner will purchase it in a heartbeat. At current price levels, growers will make over $2,000 an acre."
Biodiesel is made from natural sources such as vegetable oils and animal fats for use in diesel engines. It can be used at full strength or blended with diesel made from petroleum.
Jatropha curcas, or physic nut as it is sometimes called, is a poisonous small tree or shrub with a smooth gray bark grown for medicine and biodiesel in countries such as India, China and Brazil. Inside each of its golf-ball-size fruits are three pebble-size toxic, inedible seeds that can be pressed to make biodiesel.
Jatropha can be grown in poor soils and doesn't require heavy cultivation, fertilization or irrigation, Lee County extension agent Roy Beckford said.
Beckford, who is scheduled to speak at an international JatrophaWorld conference in June in Miami, said his job is to "sober up the hype and look at the agronomic requirements." "We need to know more before we do any kind of commercial stuff," he said.
Beckford, who is working with 1,500 seedlings that Dalton donated, said he's seen interest in jatropha increase and receives 50 to 60 phone calls a week about it. He knows of at least three citrus growers who are getting ready to plant 10-acre plots near Arcadia.
Wagner Vendrame, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Tropical Research and Education Center, also cautions that more research is needed before growers take the plunge into jatropha in Florida.
"Some companies are claiming they have seeds with tremendous yields such as 1,000 gallons an acre. We don't know what the production will be," Vendrame said, adding that there could be pest and disease problems that are as yet unknown.
One benefit that jatropha offers is that oil can be made from a plant that, unlike corn or sugar, is not part of the food supply, said George Philippidis, associate director of the Applied Research Center at Miami's Florida International University.
"Things are happening with jatropha around the world, primarily in developing countries. There, the idea is for farmers to make a living," Philippidis said. "The idea here would be to grow it and produce biodiesel for Florida."