India's guar seed output has almost tripled in the past three years to 3 million tonnes.
Sitting in his village in the desert state of Rajasthan, Sehdev Bishnoi worries that oil firms a world away in the United States will buy less of his guar in future, ending a short-lived boom that helped him and other Indian farmers out of poverty.
Food firms are also buyers and the sector is likely to take more this year as traders scout out new markets, but it will be hard to match the impact made by oil industry demand in recent years.
Drillers use the gum derived from guar, also known as cluster beans, for hydraulic fracturing and many poor farmers switched crops to ride the U.S. shale boom.
Guar gum exports had been ticking along at around 200,000 tonnes a year until 2009/10, but as U.S. frackers stocked up, shipments jumped to a record of about 700,000 tonnes in the financial year to March 2012. Prices jumped tenfold.
India was in an enviable position, with around 80 percent of the guar market. Its guar seed output has almost tripled in the past three years to 3 million tonnes.
However, its crop can be unreliable due to swings in monsoon rains, and oilfield service firms such as Halliburton started developing more reliable alternatives, with predictable results: guar seed prices have slumped 47 percent to 4,900 rupees ($79.112) per 100 kg since May 2013.
“I’ll make a loss at these prices because production costs have gone up but prices are so low,” said Bishnoi, whose state produces about 80 percent of India’s guar seed output.
A collapse in oil prices to four-year lows has added to the anguish.
“This is worrying everyone. Below $75 per barrel it’s not profitable for the fracking companies to continue operations,” said B.D. Agarwal, managing director of Vikas WSP, an exporter of guar gum in Rajasthan.
No wonder that Indian farmers and traders are scrambling to find other markets, with the food industry the best bet.
At the moment, about 60 percent of the flour-like gum obtained after milling guar is used in shale drilling to raise the viscosity of proppants, materials that are forced into shale fractures to enlarge them so that oil and gas can be extracted.
The food industry is already the second-biggest buyer. Guar gum acts as a stabiliser in sauces and noodles and prevents the formation of ice crystals in frozen desserts such as ice cream.
Guar is also used by the textile industry as a thickening agent for printing dyes and its by-products are used as high-protein cattle feed. It takes 3 kg of guar seeds to make 1 kg of guar gum.
Traders are hoping the drop in prices will encourage more food firms to pick up guar gum rather than alternatives such as locust bean gum, derived from the seeds of the carob tree.
“Demand from oil firms has come down due to rising use of alternatives such as slickwater and other things, but inquiries from food companies have improved at lower prices,” said Purshottam Hissaria, an exporter in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur city.
Guar gum consumption by food companies in the fiscal year to March is likely to rise 13 percent to 35,000 tonnes, said Sohan Jain, an exporter of food-grade gum mainly to Europe.
With the food industry taking up some of the slack from the oil sector, albeit at much lower prices, India’s guar gum exports this fiscal year may be slightly higher than the 475,000 tonnes shipped last year, Hissaria said.
Even so, farmers such as Bishnoi are considering their options.
“Guar has not remained as profitable as it was a few years ago,” he said. “Next year I will sow some other crop.”