The Evolution of Agriculture

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Healthy, mature pongamia trees grow in one of TerViva's St. Lucie County groves.


This is a story about a humble but wondrous tree that has the potential to feed the world, fuel the world, shade the world and replenish its depleted fields. It is the pongamia, an oilseed tree native to subtropical Asian countries including India, Japan and Thailand, along with Australia and several Pacific islands.

TerViva is an agricultural technology company that provides patented high-yielding pongamia trees to growers and offers proprietary bean processing to create sustainable food and fuel. TerViva buys back the beans produced by the trees and creates commercially viable products: biofuel, vegetable oil and food for both animals and humans. Its mission is simple but forceful: “to plant millions of trees to feed billions of people.”

In 2010, three partners founded TerViva: Naveen Sikka, Maggie Kavalaris and Joseph Andrew. That same year, the company won seed money of $100,000 through a contest of entrepreneurs sponsored by Village Capital. With the money, TerViva could be set up as a proper corporation with a company bank account for the first time. Kavalaris, as chief legal officer, handled the necessary legal procedures to launch TerViva. Sikka’s wife, Leena Mehta, who was in the business of naming products, came up with “Ter” (earth) and “Viva” (life).

Utilizing the underrated pongamia tree, the group established pilot projects on commercial-sized acreage in Florida, just south of Vero Beach, and in Hawaii. For over a decade, the team has been evaluating the tree’s potential by cataloging its various agronomic traits, such as growth, pest and disease resistance, seed yields and seed oil. The next step for the best trees was clonal propagation to create the proprietary high-yield trees.

The pongamia tree has been in Florida for over 100 years, hiding in plain sight as a street tree in the Miami area. Now it’s been brought into Central Florida to rescue hundreds of thousands of acres of depleted fields of former citrus groves.

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