On The Land

21 April, 2022

Vigorous velvet bean set to reappear across region

SPECIALISED Tropical Seedsman and hobby plant breeder, Justin Loccisano, is on the verge of releasing a new legume which could play a very important role in tropical cropping systems across North Queensland.

By Sally Turley

Richard Standen and Justin Loccisano are pleased with the growth rate of their trial velvet bean crop, a new tropical legume that will be ready for harvest in August.
Richard Standen and Justin Loccisano are pleased with the growth rate of their trial velvet bean crop, a new tropical legume that will be ready for harvest in August.

Mucuna is grown extensively as a cover crop throughout South Africa, Brazil and south-eastern United States and for most of the past decade, Mr Loccisano has been breeding a new strain of Mucuna pruriens var. utilis called Terraforma Velvet Bean 

This legume was once widely used throughout Queensland in the 1930s, 40s and 50s because of its drought resistance, and its ability to produce large amounts of biomass that suppressed weeds and reduced soil erosion. 

However, its late maturing characteristics saw it gradually phased out by cousin legumes, cowpea and lablab, from the late 1950s on, and by the 1980s, it was impossible to fi nd velvet bean in Queensland. 

Mr Loccisano believes this rediscovered bean has much to off er farmers. With exceptional vigour and a long growing season, the deep-rooted bean produces a dense mass of leafy vines and a huge amount of biomass, boosting soil carbon levels and improving soil health. 

It offers excellent drought tolerance and a strong capacity to fi x nitrogen through its many Rhizobium nodules. The abundant biomass gives it the capacity to smother weeds and suppress them for most of its eight-month lifespan, providing a generous ground cover which becomes a rich mulch as leaves fall and decompose. 

Velvet bean is resistant to root-knot and root-lesion nematode, minute parasites with a wide host range, problematic in many annual and perennial crops, in all growing areas. 

With much to offer, the bean has particular benefits for degraded sugarcane soils that have been depleted after a century of cultivation. Its leguminous properties reduce the need for inorganic nitrogen applications in following crops and, its biofumigant properties help combat nematodes. 

Mr Loccisano said this year's crop, planted on 24 January, was flowering now and would set pods in the next few weeks. 

“It was a tough year, but we harvested nearly four tonnes of seed last year off our 6-ha plot near Tolga and I am confident with good conditions, it will yield 14- 15 tonne, or around 2.5 tonne per hectare,” he said. 

Third generation corn, peanut and grass seed producer, Richard Standen has provided the land and much of the farming expertise for the trial work. Having harvested a few kilos of seed in his back yard, Justin said he approached Richard for help and the first patch was hand planted and hand harvested. 

“The velvet bean has completely different properties to lablab and cowpea during harvest. The bean is a much softer plant so timing is critical for successful harvesting. The pods take about three months to ripen, so we will be picking in August,” he said. 

“The plant is very insect resistant to pests like bean fly and fall army worm and while it may not be necessary to spray, this year we will spray on flowering to ensure a good pod-set.” 

A late maturing habit and susceptibility to conventional weed control, means return by the bean is a minimal risk, making it an attractive alternative for the cane industry, whereas cowpea and lablab seed reshooting can become a problem. 

“We would like to make seed available to early adopters, but trials have shown that the seeds can be a bit large for some planters, so we have secured a simpler plate planter that has been working very well and will be available for growers to use,” Mr Standen said. 

He said it had been very interesting being involved in growing the legume and has worked to achieve increased yields each year, qualifying him to advise on planting rates recommended at 33,500 seeds or around 40kg per hectare with one seed every 30cm in 1m rows. 

“We are concentrating on getting the seed out there this year for people to trial. The next step will be exploring the feed potential of the variety,” he said. 

“The plant also has many traditional medicinal applications, from treatment for Parkinson's disease to treating infertility in men, but that is a much more complex line of enquiry. 

“This crop literally leaps out of the ground, and we hope farmers will be willing to try the variety now that it is available." 

Mr Loccisano has also been developing another variety, a self-pollinating Sunn Hemp strain, which he believes, used in combination with velvet bean, would give farmers access to the ultimate fallow and biofumigant crop. 

Over 15 years’ involvement in the tropical seed industry, Justin has amassed a collection of little-known tropical species including velvet bean. He began growing velvet bean in his back yard as a curiosity before realizing the potential of the species. 

“I made 30 cross pollinations that first year and around half went on to set seed. I was a little unsure what lines to select. But my contacts in the sugar cane industry provided some industry feedback and helped gain access to some very old varieties to compare with, that helped guide the selection process. 

“It took some time to refine the line and two years to complete the application for Plant Breeders Rights. But protection was finally granted on 16 March this year.” 

Many wild Mucuna species have stinging properties like the infamous Gympie-Gympie tree found in Far North Queensland forests. 

“It is my aim to create the largest collection of Mucuna species in the southern hemisphere, to study and breed them. 

“The potential of this genus is enormous, but it requires someone to take up the challenge of working with potentially dangerous plants and to fi nd ways of rendering them safe for commercial production, as has been done with M. pruriens var. utilis.”


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