Blackeye beans without the black eyes.

That might be something in the future for the southern San Joaquin Valley if trials with experimental varieties continue to show market promise, says a legume breeder at the University of California, Riverside.

Jeff Ehlers showed his test plots of three all-white and 16 green-colored blackeye selections during a recent dry bean field day at the UC field station at Shafter. Similar trials are planted at the Kearney Ag Center at Parlier.

Ehlers explained that a major breakfast cereal manufacturer recently expressed interest in using all-white cowpea flours to boost fiber and protein content of its products. The absence of eyes would prevent undesirable black specks in the products.

“These flours would be blended into their products for some advantage that is not available by using soybeans. We’ve been working on this idea for 15 years, and we think we have the genetics right. If it can be marketed successfully, this might provide our growers with another option,” he said. Selection 07-11-557 is the most promising of the all-white group.

The same food company has shown interest in the green blackeyes previously developed by Ehlers for re-hydrated frozen use.

Meanwhile, movement toward commercial production for improved conventional blackeyes continues with the release of Shafter 50 this year after three seasons of performance scrutiny. It is now in certified seed production at Wasco, and availability of about 12,000 pounds is anticipated for planting in the 2009 season.

Shafter 50 has a complex pedigree of African cowpeas and has resistance to rootknot nematode, as well as to Race 3 and Race 4 Fusarium. It produces a vigorous canopy that resists stresses, and it is well-suited to the long-season, double-flush production systems of the SJV.

Possessing a brighter white seed coat and larger seed than CB46, the standard California variety, Shafter 50 is particularly attractive for the export market and dry package trade, Ehlers said.

Three other new breeding lines, developed from crosses of CB46 and Shafter 50, have strong production and superior traits, including resistance to rootknot nematode and both races of Fusarium. None, however, has as large a seed as Shafter 50.

Evaluation in Shafter and Parlier plots continues among about 300 new selections that are from other crosses of CB46 and Shafter 50. Among those are 27 selections at Parlier having promising resistance to lygus.

Each of the new selections is planted near rows of CB46 and Shafter 50 for easy visual comparisons. The top performers will advance to replicated trials.

Tim Close, a geneticist at the Agricultural Experiment Station at UC, Riverside, is working with Ehlers on rapid screening and selection of experimental blackeyes to preserve their California blackeye genetic background.

According to Ehlers, Close, using sophisticated genetic marker methods, accelerates backcrossing of cowpeas by tracing desired traits during about three years instead of the ten years typically needed with traditional methods. Each experimental plant shows a genetic “fingerprint,” which provides a safeguard against unauthorized use.

“For example,” Ehlers said, “all the genes that are positive in CB46 can basically be tagged, in a molecular sense. When we go through our selections, we can identify the individuals that have the California blackeye genes and in addition have the genes for the seed type. It makes our job much more efficient and rapid.”

Ehlers stressed that the research does not include genetic engineering that alarms some groups, but is a way to speed up evaluation of results from classical breeding.

He is also informally observing pigeon peas, the chief grain legume crop in India, planted as borders for his blackeye plots at Shafter. About the same size as a standard garden pea, pigeon peas can be eaten raw, canned, or dried and split and prepared for Indian and Caribbean dishes.

Direct combined, the large, hardy, drought-resistant plants are ratooned as a perennial crop as a source of forage and/or fuel in developing nations in tropic and sub-tropic climates. In some areas it is used as a green manure crop to provide nitrogen.

Ehlers said pigeon peas, which have a strong taproot, might have some application as a rotational crop to break up soil compaction in the southern SJV. His immediate interest is to learn which of about 70 selections are best suited to the region before proceeding with more extensive trials.

Ehler’s priorities for new blackeye candidates include resistance to both races of Fusarium, improved resistance to both Meloidogyne incognita and M. javanica nematodes, lygus resistance, as well as desired plant traits, higher yield, and quality.

Blake Sanden, Kern County farm advisor, reviewed principles of measuring soil moisture in various soil textures. After driving a push probe and extracting a column of soil, he demonstrated a simple method to make a rough estimate of percentage of available moisture in the soil.

The probe contents are rolled in the hand and extruded between the thumb and index finger. If the sample “ribbons” easily, the moisture content is 90 percent to 100 percent. If it remains a pliable ball, it is 70 percent to 80 percent; as a hard ball, 50 percent to 60 percent; and if it crumbles, moisture content is less than 50 percent and the crop will begin to stress.

Sanden also presented the case for having a tail water return system, especially in a water-short year like this one. Although systems are common around Shafter, considerable acreage in the Buttownwillow and Semitropic areas is not equipped with them.

“Without a tail water return system, you have to run the water more slowly to keep from losing it at the tail end. That means you saturate the head end and the tail end is a little drier,” he said.

Developing costs for an 80-acre pistachio orchard with a crop ET of 45 inches as an example, assuming a 20-year depreciation of a system costing $25,600 and a field distribution uniformity level of 85 percent, he said the tail water captured calculates to an annual water cost of $20 per acre foot.

“When you are paying $60 to $200 per acre foot, this is an issue you should revisit.” Sanden said with the water table expected to be even lower next year, growers need to be getting all they can out of their pumps and wells. Details on the Agricultural Pumping Efficiency Program are available at www.pumpefficiency.org.