As South Dakota farmers hop into their combines and head into the field, one Aurora County farmer has just harvested what could become the state's most unlikely cash crop. This summer, he grew a test plot of tobacco; not for smoking or chewing, but for fuel.
"It's nothing that you'd expect driving down a South Dakota road and seeing tobacco growing out in the fields," tobacco farmer John Mayclin said.
John Mayclin grew the tobacco in an acre-and-a-half test plot near Plankinton. He's baled 3,000 pounds of the plants that are on the way to Virginia.
"It was actually quite a beautiful plot, with all the flowers," Mayclin said.
Mayclin grew the tobacco for a Virginia research lab called Tyton BioSciences. The organization wants to see how far north this warm weather plant will grow.
"I don't know if you'll see it on the scale of soybeans and corn ever, but I suppose it's foreseeable that there could be some tobacco grown here eventually,' Mayclin said.
Researchers at Tyton BioSciences are working to get tobacco to power your car engines, both as ethanol and biodiesel.
"It's very high in oil, very high in sugars and it actually requires less enzymes in the process of converting to ethanol. And it's a low-water usage plant, so it's pretty sturdy," Mayclin said
Tyton BioSciences sent Mayclin 14,000 tobacco transplants that he placed into the ground by hand.
"If you had any tobacco addiction, after doing that, you probably wouldn't want to see tobacco again for a while, that was very labor-intensive and pretty hard work," Mayclin said.
But, Mayclin's crop won't be going up in smoke.
"We did have some actual Virginia smoking tobacco out here, a small amount. But they will also go for biofuel production," Mayclin said.
The crop thrived during an ideal growing season. But Mayclin worried the harsh South Dakota elements would take a toll on his tobacco.
"These plants get six to eight feet tall, so a good strong wind could lay them over so we're also concerned about that. But they're pretty hardy and they stood up well," Mayclin said.
The tobacco was genetically altered to produce more seeds to make it more fuel-friendly than a typical plant.
"The amount of seed pods on this hybrid was just incredible, 70 to 80 pounds a plant," Mayclin said.
After he finishes harvesting his corn and soybeans, Mayclin plans to meet with the Virginia researchers to talk about ways of growing an even bigger and better crop next year.
"We'll see how it turns out in the next couple of years. Maybe we'll entertain a few more plots in the years to come," Mayclin said.
Mayclin hired several workers to tend his tobacco plot this summer. Their duties included pulling weeds by hand.
To learn more about the research into turning tobacco into biofuel, click here.