Crazy for Camelina

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has referred to camelina as his new girlfriend. Although he can't put his arm around her, he believes that Camelina Sativa, a plant known primarily in North America as a weed, has potential as a feedstock for biodiesel production could be just the ticket to revive the economy in eastern Montana.
By Nicholas Zeman | January 24, 2007
Recently a crop has surfaced for Montana growers that responds well to northerly climes, can be grown on marginal lands and is high in oil content, which may help the state break into biodiesel production. Its appearance seems to have been so magical, in fact, that it's been referred to as a "fairy tale" in the state press. Among those with high hopes for camelina is Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is also an agronomist.

Camelina originates from an area ranging from central Europe to Turkey, and has been produced there and used as cooking oil. Although it has been researched for the past two years as a biodiesel feedstock, it has essentially no cultivation history in North America. Often called "gold of pleasure," the crop has high potential for the "Big Sky" country, the governor says. Less than 18 months ago, most people (outside of researchers) weren't even aware of the existence of camelina, he says. "What we do know is that when everything clicks, you can make out some nice yields with the stuff," Schweitzer says.

Farm subsidy programs supporting commodity crops throughout the world have severely reduced camelina production, Schweitzer says. In particular, he blames U.S. trade practices that provide economic incentives for certain crops like wheat. The crops are then exported at prices so low that it puts overseas farmers out of business. Schweitzer believes this practice is wrong, especially when there are crops available that can contribute to the nation's energy-efficiency and environmental conservation. It's time for the United States to start making different choices and to start growing different crops, says Schweitzer, who was described in a Denver Post article as "a 6-foot-2-inch back-slapping, bear-hugging guy's guy, who gave his wife a revolver for her birthday and takes his dog to the office-every day." The article also called Schweitzer an expert on renewable resources.

"I run a car on only biodiesel, not biodiesel mixed with petroleum" Schweitzer says. "I'm off oil. All the people that we have fighting to protect the dictator's oil could be home making our own fuels right now."

Camelina's Characteristics
Camelina has been grown since ancient times and was commonly cultivated in Europe during the Iron Age for its oil-supplying characteristics, according to Great Northern Growers, a food producing cooperative based in Montana. The seeds were collected, crushed and boiled in water, and the oil was used for lamp fuel and ointment among other things. It was cultivated in antiquity from Rome to southeastern Europe and the southwestern Asian steppes.

Considering its history and the fact that camelina is higher in oil content than canola or soybeans, it seems strange that the crop is basically unknown to commercial farming in the United States. Other than the subsidization of some commodity crops, it is suggested that camelina, with its high content of unsaturated fatty acids, was more difficult and expensive to hydrogenate than canola and rapeseed, which may have been another factor that led to its dismissal.

Duane Johnson, superintendent of the Northwestern Agricultural Research Center in Havre, Mont., learned of camelina when he was looking for an oilseed crop with reduced input requirements that was capable of growing on marginal land. "The advantage with camelina is that it's a superior product for lubricants," Schweitzer says. "For health purposes, its level of omega-3 is as high as fish oil."

This low-input, high-yielding oilseed contains about 34 percent to 36 percent omega-3 oil and is also high in gamma tocopherol, a superior vitamin E that acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants give oils a longer shelf life, which should make it a superior feedstock for the biodiesel industry.

The plant appears to be able to adapt to different climates and soil types. The arrow-shaped leaves have smooth edges and are five to eight centimeters long. Johnson considers camelina a replacement for fallow, and a crop that could be used in rotation with spring wheat, which can only be grown on the same ground every other year. Supporting research confirms that following small grains in a rotation is ideal for this oilseed.

Production expenses vary, but based on Montana data, variable and fixed costs are $45 to $68 per acre-between one-third and one-fourth the cost of growing canola, another feedstock that's gaining in popularity in the biodiesel industry. "This is a low-input crop that doesn't have to compete with the food industry, and could add about 4 million acres of production to Montana agriculture," Johnson says. "So we're really excited."

Camelina yields average 1,200 to 1,400 pounds per acre. However, the minuscule size of the seed could cause problems with handling. It takes 345,000 to 465,000 seeds to make a pound, but the seed is dense and weighs 50 pounds a bushel. "Camelina looks like canola," Schweitzer says. "It's a brassica, which is the same family, and it's a little smaller seed, but you crush it the same way."

The crop can be grown at a variety of elevations, which is an important quality for Montana producers. Also, there are millions of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres and fallowed land in the state that could support camelina production. CRP landholders currently receive a $40 payment for each acre, Johnson says, but the program is winding down.

Necessity and Invention
Schweitzer earned a bachelor's degree in international agronomy from Colorado State University, and later a master's degree in soil science from Montana State University. He has owned and operated farms in several Montana counties and has been involved in successful agricultural business projects on five continents. He has also provided the encouragement that's necessary to overcome the risks involved in agricultural experimentation.

"I think we certainly have the support of the governor," Johnson says. "He wants to revive the economy in the eastern part of the state, and we see oilseeds as a crop for biodiesel production." There are efforts underway and funds available to acquire the resources necessary to jump-start biodiesel production. "We already have a place in Culbertson where we can crush, but we're putting together additional plants," Schweitzer says. "There's an 8 million-gallon plant being built in Havre, and there's a company that plans on operating mobile plants and contracting with farmers to grow and crush all over Montana."

The Montola Growers Inc. oilseed processing plant in Culbertson, Mont., now operated by Sustainable Systems LLC, has a storage capacity of 1.2 million bushels. It is located on the Burlington Northern-Sante Fe Railway main line and has a crushing capacity of about 600 pounds per hour, according to Montola's Web site. "They've been struggling for years," Johnson says. "But they're putting in a biodiesel plant there, and that should help them."

There could be as many as four other companies locating biodiesel operations in Montana, Johnson says. Montana is building administrative and political support to help these plants get started. "We got a $15 million grant from the labor department that we've called the Montana 'agri-energy project map,'" Schweitzer says. Johnson adds, "We will distribute those dollars all over Montana to help farmers start their own biodiesel plants." These plants would be small, allowing farmers to crush the crops that they grow, make their own biodiesel and use it in their tractors. "We don't need Exxon-Mobil," Johnson says. "We can do it ourselves," he says.

The need for new crops in Montana to stimulate the economy is what drove Johnson's prolific series of experiments. "People say he discovered camelina," Schweitzer says. "They don't know the work that went into it because they haven't been to his experiment station. You name it, he's tried it." No matter how much research is conducted camelina production won't catch on until farmers are convinced to convert acreage away from traditional crops-a tough obstacle. "Farmers don't respond to 'new' and 'different' very well," Johnson says. But there is less risk in this situation considering the experience that Johnson and Great Northern Growers have gained, which can be shared with others. "There's less to be afraid of," Johnson says.

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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