California canola, mustard trials show promise

By Erin Voegele | September 07, 2011

An ongoing project in California is researching the feasibility of growing canola and mustard crops in areas that feature poor-quality soils and water. The trials are led by USDA Agricultural Research Service plant soil scientist Gary Bañuelos.

According to Bañuelos, for biofuel production using oilseeds to have a chance of taking off in California, the feedstock crops must be capable of growing on marginal lands. This is because the cost of land is so high within the state. “I grow these crops in poor-quality soils so that we aren’t taking any good land out of production,” said Bañuelos. “I use poor quality waters since we’re starving for water here in California, so that I don’t compete for good quality water.”

Bañuelos has been working with canola and mustard crops for approximately 20 years. However, his initial interest had nothing to with biofuel production. Rather, he says he was focused on the ability of these crops to survive in low-quality soils without the irrigation of high-quality water. I was also interested in removing selenium from the soils, Branuelos said. “The biofuel component entered my perspective about five or six years ago,” he said. “Because we were seeing that I may be cleaning the soils with the brassica crops, but if the farmer or the grower wasn’t able to really earn anything from it, it wasn’t going to be a crop that they would be planting.”

According to Bañuelos, his trials for canola and mustard are in the 100- to 200-acre range. The plots utilize poor-quality soils and irrigation with poor-quality waters. To date, the two oilseed crops have produced about 2 tons of seed per acre, which Bañuelos notes is comparable to the yields seen in other regions of the U.S. and Canada.

Oilseeds harvested from the test plots are crushed, with the resulting oil supplied to a local biodiesel producer for conversion into fuel. Bañuelos said he has his own oil press for use in the project, which can crush approximately 20 tons per day of seeds. The oil is then supplied to Santa Barbara-based Biodiesel Industries Inc. A portion of the resulting fuel is blended into a B20 and used to power the irrigation pumps and some of the tractors on the field site, said Bañuelos.

One potential benefit of large-scale cultivation of canola and mustard in California is that the leftover seed meal from crushing could have high selenium levels. “Selenium is essential for human and animal nutrition,” Bañuelos said. “If I can produce plant products that are able to survive in the soil [and] remove some of the selenium, and then produce these two products—biofuel and selenium-enriched seed meal,” then this, he added, would help create an economically feasible biodiesel industry in California.


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