Feeding a Need

Ample biodiesel feedstock is available to meet the short-term goals of RFS2, but researchers all around the country diligently work to build out the feedstock base
By Erin Voegele | April 21, 2011

Every few years it seems that a new “wonder crop” is poised for commercialization as the latest, greatest biodiesel feedstock. Whether it’s algae, camelina, jatropha or field pennycress, each crop is positioned as the solution to providing nearly unlimited quantities of feedstock more efficiently and economically than ever before. Inevitably, reality intervenes, demonstrating that while a particular feedstock may show great potential, it’s far from providing a nationwide, single solution to the biodiesel industry’s feedstock needs.

In other words, there is no silver bullet. Rather, research demonstrates that a wide range of regionally adapted feedstocks will characterize the future of the biodiesel industry.  We have to look at region-based systems and figure out which crops can produce the greatest amount of feedstock for the lowest input and cost, says Jeffrey Steiner, national program leader for biomass production systems at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

There are many promising crops on the horizon, but they need to be properly vetted scientifically. “Good scientific research is needed to show which oilseed crops grow best across different soil conditions and climates, and how they fit into existing production systems,” Steiner says. For example, there is evidence that camelina may be more heat tolerant than some of the other alternative oilseed crops, which might make it suited for cultivation in warmer climate regions.

While a vast number of public and private researchers are working to identify and develop new oilseed crops, Alan Weber, a senior advisor to the National Biodiesel Board, says it’s important to note that existing crops can more than meet feedstock needs in the near-term. “I always like to remind people that when we look at the next few years, don’t underestimate yield technology in terms of its short-term impact,” he says. “Also, don’t underestimate the synergies that exist with the biodiesel industry and the dry grind ethanol industry in terms of the ability to remove corn oil from distillers.” Steiner adds that it might also be possible to increase the quantity of vegetable oil entering the marketplace through the development of higher oil content soybeans and peanuts. 


Regional Solutions

Those crops cannot be grown in all regions, however. In order for the biodiesel industry to realize a more significant presence in areas where traditional feedstocks, such as soybeans, cannot be grown, regionally adapted oilseed crops will be necessary. Even in traditional soybean-producing regions, new oilseed crops can offer farmers important benefits in terms of winter cropping options and rotations. “Our perspective is that there will be a range of feedstocks that will be best suited for different parts of the country,” Steiner says.

For example, soybeans cannot be effectively grown in California. Stephen Kaffka, director of the California Biomass Collaborative at the University of California, Davis, is heading up a research project in the state that focuses on the development of alternative oilseed crops.

The study, funded by the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is evaluating the production of a wide variety of alternative oilseeds, from mustards, canola and camelina, to meadowfoam. “We think there might be an opportunity to grow these oilseeds, which for us are winter annuals, in a number of locations that are nontraditional,” Kaffka says. Plot work is currently ongoing, with larger trials expected to begin next year. According to Kaffka, the study entails crop variety trials, fertilizer rates and water use evaluations, as well as other agronomic research.

Rather than picking winners and losers, Kaffka says state agencies are interested in determining what consequences might result from growing these crops in terms of sustainability. The commission is also interested in learning how best to evaluate carbon intensity. 

According to Kaffka, another oilseed plant that can be used in California is safflower, a thistle-like annual. The crop is already being grown by famers to serve specialty food oil and lubricant markets. It also fits nicely into certain cropping systems, Kaffka says. While safflower may prove to be part of the feedstock solution in California, the crop isn’t adaptable to many other U.S. regions.

There may, however, be potential for winter safflower production in western Texas, and areas of New Mexico. According to Weber, researchers in this region are working to identify oilseed crops that could effectively be grown in high-salt content soils. Castor and winter safflower have shown promise in these regions, he says. The ability to leverage several hundred thousand underutilized acres in that region would not only benefit the rural economy, but also help support a local biodiesel industry.

A great deal of recent research in the Midwest has focused on another alternative, field pennycress. A primary benefit of the crop is that it can be grown as a winter annual, potentially providing farmers with a “bonus” crop that also serves as a cover crop to help avoid soil erosion.

One area of focus for researchers working to commercialize field pennycress is optimizing the harvest date, Weber says. Comparable winter crops, such as winter wheat and winter canola, are harvested in late June. If field pennycress can be optimized for harvest in May, it would allow farmers to plant a subsequent crop, such as soybeans, without yield drag, Weber says.

Another issue with field pennycress is that high glucosinolate levels may limit its meal from being used as a source of feed. Agronomic research could help negate this problem. Weber notes that some researchers are also investigating the possibility of employing the resulting meal in bioenergy applications.

Jatropha seems to be showing less promise as an oilseed crop in the U.S. than elsewhere. “There are several breeding goals that would have to be achieved in order for jatropha to become a serious contender as a U.S. grown biodiesel feedstock,” Weber says. This includes the fact that the tree is not frost tolerant. In addition, its undetermined potential for producing blooms and ripe fruit makes designing mechanical harvesting equipment difficult.

Beyond Agronomics

While agronomic work is an important first step in the development of any new crop, for new oilseeds to reach commercialization, several other factors need to be addressed. “With any of these crops, whether camelina, pennycress or others, there is definitely an education curve for producers to be able to understand how it fits into their rotation,” Weber says. Risk management concerns must also be addressed.

“In this day and age, there is a fairly hefty outflow of working capital required to be able to put a crop in,” Weber says. “From a risk management standpoint, producers want to be able to have options such as crop insurance and hedging opportunities in terms of futures markets. Those are all issues that must be addressed when you are working to develop these specialty crops.”

Steiner agrees, noting that a great deal of work also needs to be done to ensure that various pesticides and herbicides are registered for use with a particular crop. Regarding insurance, Steiner says that even though a particular crop, such as canola, might be eligible for crop insurance in several regions of the U.S., it may not be covered in other areas of the country. “That is an issue,” he says.

The USDA’s Risk Management Agency ultimately determines which crops are insurable on a county-by-county basis, says Nic Prothero, owner of Minnesota-based Wild Rice Seed & Insurance LLC. It’s a tough process to get a completely new crop cleared for coverage, he says. This is, in part, because coverage levels are largely based on crop history, yields and price. The process of obtaining local coverage for a new crop, however, should become easier as the RMA approves initial coverage areas.

For a farmer wanting coverage for a new crop that is already insured in an adjacent county, that process does get easier, Prothero notes.

Grower experience also plays an important role in a farmer’s decision to plant a new crop. “If a grower has not grown an oilseed crop before, there is a learning curve that they have to go off of,” Steiner says. “There is a risk associated with that. One of the nice things about oilseed crops is that the infrastructure is similar,” including the harvesting equipment, transportation and processing of the seeds. This means that a farmer with experience growing one type of oilseed crop may be more willing to try his hand at a new one.

Beyond risk management, the potential for profit clearly plays a role in the farming community’s decision to grow new crops. If there were demand for oilseed crops at a price that is attractive to growers, they would grow the crops, Kaffka says, noting that California farmers have a strong history of swiftly shifting production when a promising opportunity arises.

When it comes to feedstock production for biodiesel, Kaffka says the inherent issue is that growers want to receive the highest price possible for their crops, while biofuel producers want to pay the lowest possible price for feedstock. “These requirements work against each other,” he says. “There may be a sweet spot that we can find. If we can’t, then it won’t be done,” unless there are other benefits associated with a given crop that will benefit farmers.

“It’s not a simple thing because all these crops have multiple costs and benefits in cropping systems,” Kaffka says. In other words, the costs and benefits of a crop cannot be solely determined by directly comparing costs and profits. Secondary benefits, or costs of introducing a new oilseed crop into an existing cropping system, might shift the balance either way. “There might be some reasons you would grow a less profitable crop, because it helps you control weeds or it has rotational benefits,” Kaffka adds. “People have tended to grow wheat [in California] even when they didn’t make much money because it was one of the few winter options. So, something like canola could be another winter option,” especially, he notes, when wheat prices are depressed.

The biodiesel industry itself will also play an important role in spurring grower interest in new crops. You need to have a market outlet for the oilseeds, Steiner says. Unless there is an existing market ready to utilize the oils produced by these new crops, growers won’t be interested in cultivating them.
While some in the biodiesel industry may see alternative biofuels production technologies as competitors in the fuel and feedstock markets, Steiner notes those industries are actually likely to help expedite development of alternative oilseed crops. “I would anticipate that there is going to be more demand for oilseeds, not only going to biodiesel but also into the technology that can covert those agricultural oils into products such as jet fuel,” he says. “One of the really cool things is [biojet fuels and non-ester renewable diesels] are all new market opportunities being created, which helps to send market signals all the way up the supply chain to the agricultural producers.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 540-6986

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