Today, the world gross domestic product is rising by 3.6% annually and some experts estimate that world energy use will grow 56% by 2040. Despite efforts to increase forms of cleaner energy, fossil fuels will likely continue to supply up to 80% of the world’s energy in the foreseeable future. Of those fossil fuels, natural gas is the fastest growing, as increasing supplies of shale gas are being exploited through hydraulic fracturing. And guar gum, a natural gelling agent, is one of the few green products used in fracturing operations.
Guar is a drought-resistant industrial crop mainly grown in the Thar Desert of India and Pakistan. The U.S. consumes 65%–70% of guar produced worldwide, importing the product from South Asia. Conventional wisdom tells us that guar requires the hot and arid climate of specific regions of India and Pakistan, and that a place like South Dakota would be too cold for the crop. However, the state can be an ideal place for guar cultivation due to the low cost of land, the dry climate, sandy soil, and a precipitation pattern matching guar’s needs. South Dakota has the potential to become a hub for homegrown and processed guar.
The Rosebud Indian Reservation covers 5,000 square miles in south-central South Dakota. It is the home of the Sicangu Lakota, or Rosebud Sioux. Sinte Gleska University (SGU) is located on the reservation in the community of Antelope and is the tribe’s chartered institution of higher education. The area encompassed by the Rosebud reservation has historically been one of the most impoverished in the nation. For the Sicangu Lakota, who live on one of the larger reservations in the U.S., access to economic opportunities that improve quality of life is among the greatest challenges. A century and a half of concerted efforts to destroy tribal cultures has led to poverty and social conditions that contribute to the distressed environment of the Sicangu and the entire Lakota Nation.
The Rosebud reservation also lacks immediate or easy access to commercial centers. South Dakota’s two largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, are located on the eastern and western edges of the state, and Pierre, the capital, is 100 miles to the north. Agriculture and tourism are the two leading industries in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the Sicangu Lakota have struggled to develop meaningful industries that can employ large numbers of workers, particularly those requiring a background in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Such industries typically attract a highly skilled or knowledgeable workforce by offering greater pay and opportunities for research and collaboration with governments and private industries that usually help build the local economy.
SGU has served as a conduit for providing an educated workforce for local and tribal programs—a response to the great need for educators, service providers, and business leaders on the reservation. And the university seeks to train tribal members in STEM careers by offering programs in computer technology, nursing, and teaching, among others. This includes strengthening its mission so that current and future generations of students are engaged in programs that truly enhance the autonomy and well-being of the tribal community. Today, SGU finds itself in a position to define the next generation of jobs, skills, and opportunities that must be developed in tribal communities and on tribal lands if the progress, stability, and security of the Lakota Nation is to be maintained and enhanced.
The vast land area owned by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe hardly contributes to the revenue generation for the tribal community because of the very low returns from conventional use of the land. Providing quality education and developing the reservation economically remains a main objective of SGU. One approach to achieve economic self-sufficiency may be to develop the reservation for guar cultivation and processing. Development of a homegrown guar industry has the potential to provide high-paying employment to tribal members, add billions of dollars to the local economy, save foreign exchange for the U.S., and, most importantly, return pride to Rosebud residents.
Guar gum is used in food, pharmaceuticals, paper, mining, and in the oil and gas industry. With the development of fracturing technology and the boom in shale gas exploitation, it became the most expensive agricultural crop in 2012. It became such an important crop that the Journal of Petroleum Technology published an entire issue on guar (December 2012), and a leading oil field service provider company reported a significant drop in its profit due to the exceptionally high prices of guar. A handful of speculators raised guar prices tenfold in 2012, keeping the industry hostage. By cultivating guar outside of India and Pakistan, the guar industry can be freed from the speculators’ grip.
I have researched guar cultivation in South Dakota, testing four varieties of the crop. Guar sowed in the first week of June without any inoculation, fertilizers, or pesticides—100% organic—performed very well in terms of germination, plant growth, fruiting its seed-bearing pods, and, most importantly, in seed development. Since guar belongs to the legume family, it enriches the soil with nitrogen. Therefore it has potential to be grown as a rotating crop each year. Guar is growing successfully in all conditions. It grows through droughts and in continuous rain. It has survived hail, extreme heat, and even a most unusual snowstorm in the first week of October. The guar is doing great, with more than normal fruit and good-quality seed development.
As an estimated $10–$15 billion per year industry, guar will grow at a rate to match the expansion of shale gas development. In South Dakota, where millions of acres of land are used for low-return hay farming, one of the most expensive crops in the world can be grown successfully. And due to the availability of vast tracks of inexpensive land in South Dakota and beyond, there is great potential for the region to become a guar cultivation and processing hub with homegrown guar.
Come witness it happening right here.
Subodh K. Singh, Ph.D., is faculty at Sinte Gleska University.