NC farmer hoping to help save sharks with tobacco crop

Farmer works to save sharks
Published: Jul. 29, 2015 at 2:35 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 30, 2015 at 9:00 PM EDT
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GREENSBORO, NC (WBTV) - This is the summer of the shark at the Carolina coast. Many are frightened by sharks. Some want to fish them to extinction. But one farmer is attempting to save sharks. That's right - save sharks. Plus, he hopes to revitalize the tobacco industry all at the same time.

Farmer Pat Short has worked his fields on the outskirts of Greensboro all his life. So did his father, his grandfather and great grandfather. A century-old tobacco barn is testament to that family tradition.

But these days, big tobacco means small profits for farmers. It just doesn't seem to pay anymore.

"It does," said Short, "But you've got to grow it on such a huge amount of acreage, and we don't really have that kind of acreage here in the Piedmont."

Yet, farmer Short is raising a special strain of tobacco on only a half-acre of land this summer. His 15-hundred plants are all genetically modified for one particular purpose - to create something known as squalene - a chemical compound that is widely used in both cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

He says that, "Traditionally it comes from shark livers."

That's right, shark livers. In the Pacific, sharks are slaughtered for their fins and their livers. Squalene also comes from European olives, but those olives are currently diseased.

So, business entrepreneur Jason Ornstein saw a niche. He created a company called SynShark, working with scientists at Texas A&M University to develop these special plants.

"When we looked at it as a business, we saw this huge opportunity to directly synthesize squalene inside a tobacco leaf," said Ornstein.

Ornstein says his company is already breaking even monetarily by growing this strain in the lab.  But this is the first field test, and he's sending these North Carolina grown tobacco leaves to the scientists in Texas to see how well the real world experiment is doing.

Not many know about this venture yet.

"You often don't hear things that are inside of products," Ornstein said, "But the pharmaceutical companies and the cosmetic companies are quite aware of not only this project, but how they can find supply chains for squalene."

And are they knocking on his door? According to Ornstein, "They are."

Ornstein believes the demand for squalene will grow between 15% to 25% a year and could reach a half trillion dollar industry in the next ten years. An industry that could save sharks and put farmers and tobacco fields back to work.

"It will be a premium crop," said farmer Short. "We hope this product will produce possibly 3 or 4 times as much per acre income as regular tobacco."

SynShark estimates an eventual yield of $14,000 an acre for farmers - which compares to $3,300 an acre for regular tobacco growers.

"Possibly that much, but even if it's double that could help us in the Piedmont where we have less land," Short said.

It all sounds very promising, but there is an element of risk.

"Oh yes. It is a bit of a risk, but farming is risky," Short told WBTV. "It's always a risk when you put something out in the field and try to grow it.  This risk is really worth it because of the good that could come from it."

The company hopes to go to market with its synthetic squalene within two years.

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