Farm Service Agency says it fell short of goal, will release data in coming weeks
By TIM HEARDEN
DAVIS, Calif. -- Officials from the USDA Farm Service Agency here consider their camelina biomass project a success although signups fell short of their goal of 25,000 acres.
Signups were extended a week through Sept. 23. The FSA sought farmers in 17 counties to grow the oilseed as part of a Biomass Crop Assistance Program project to convert it into fuel for U.S. Navy jets.
The FSA would not release the total acreage enrolled in the project on Sept. 26. Larry Plumb, the agency's state conservation specialist, said an announcement could come later this week or next week.
However, some farmers did agree to grow the crop as a winter cover while others were likely inhibited because camelina's viability is largely unproven in California, Plumb said.
"I think it went pretty well," he said of the sign-up period. "Camelina's a new crop with not a lot known about its planting and amount of fertilizer, things like that. ... I think probably as more is known about how to grow it, I think we would have more and more people participating."
The government had envisioned 51,000 acres of camelina growing in California, Washington and Montana under the BCAP program, which was created in the 2008 Farm Bill to help growers and forest landowners with startup and ongoing costs of planting nonfood energy crops.
However, acreage in camelina -- a flowering plant with origins in Central Europe -- has been centered primarily in Montana and the northern Great Plains and is statistically insignificant in California. Stephen Kaffka, a University of California-Davis plant sciences specialist, has studied it in test plots but said last month he hadn't gathered enough information yet to recommend it to growers.
A project sponsor, Bozeman, Mont.-based Sustainable Oils, hoped the biomass crop would become an established rotation crop in California's Central Valley. Growers who contract for more than 200 acres of camelina will receive 11 cents a pound for their crop, and Sustainable Oils also had a clause that would reimburse growers $50 an acre if the crop failed to yield through no fault of the grower.
However, camelina "is not a miracle crop," company general manager Scott Johnson told growers during a Sept. 6 presentation in Coalinga, Calif.
"This is an opportunity for another rotation crop on marginal land," Johnson said.
Indeed, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the project just as camelina acreage has been in decline even in Montana, where the crop has been most abundant.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that last year Montana farmers planted 9,400 acres of camelina, less than half the acres planted two years ago, as high prices for wheat have edged out less profitable crops.
With the authorization for this project expiring at the end of September, more signups aren't on the horizon unless Congress approves them, Plumb said.
However, the UC's Cooperative Extension will monitor the farms that did sign up, and officials hope the more that is known about how well the crop grows in California, the more popular it will become, he said.
"I think a lot of it is just an understanding of what camelina is and what it can be used for," Plumb said. "This is one of our first experiences with the biocrop. Camelina is kind of blazing the way on that."
Biomass Crop Assistance Program: www.fsa.usda.gov/bcap