Camelina oil can be used as jet fuel, proponents say


For the Capital Press

A Montana company trying to convince California growers to plant camelina will not know for several weeks how many acres will be put under contract.

Sustainable Oils, of Bozeman, Mont., hopes the biomass crop will become an established rotation crop in California for the production of aviation fuel. There is the added incentive of the USDA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program, but the signup deadline is today, Sept 16.

"This is not a miracle crop," Scott Johnson, president and general manager of Sustainable Oils told growers Sept. 6. "This is an opportunity for another rotation crop on marginal land."

Camelina, also known as "false flax," is a drought tolerant member of the mustard family. The plant produces tiny seeds that are 35 to 38 percent oil. The oil can be used as a replacement for petroleum-based aviation jet fuel and has been tested by the U.S. Navy.

Jet fuel is the most promising potential market for camelina oil, but supply will have to be in place. Up until this year, camelina production was limited to Montana, Idaho and Oregon and some Midwestern states. The BCAP program, which is part of the 2008 Farm Bill, has a target of 51,000 acres with 25,000 in California.

In the Pacific Northwest the crop is planted in the spring. In California, Johnson said, camelina would be a fall-planted dryland crop, with rainfall the primary water source. The crop would be harvested in May.

"We feel there is a production fit as a winter crop in California," Johnson said.

Growers who contract for more than 200 acres of camelina receive 11 cents a pound for their crop. Sustainable Oils also has a clause that reimburses growers $50 per acre if the crop fails to yield to that level due to no fault of the grower.

Sustainable Oils is looking at California production as mainly dryland production with minimum inputs. However, Johnson and University of California researcher Steve Kaffka, who is director of the California Biomass Collaborative, admitted they have limited production information for camelina in the Central Valley.

Kaffka's field trials at UC-Davis and the West Side Research Center are evaluating water and nitrogen use as well as yields. Limited plot-size trials have produced yields from 800 to 2,200 pounds per acre.

There are significant issues with this new crop, Kaffka said.

Soil and climate can vary from farm to farm, so growers should be aware of conditions that could compromise a viable crop. In heavy soils, crusting can be a problem for emerging camelina seedlings. Weed control can also be an issue as there are no products registered for use on camelina.

Shattering during harvest has also been a problem, with losses up to 40 percent reported.

On the plus side, insect pressure is minimal. Camelina can produce 1,300 pounds per acre on less than 8 inches of water. As it is fall seeded, winter rains could supply adequate moisture in many Central Valley areas.

The crop can also come off early in May, allowing for double cropping.

Sustainable Oils has also been conducting field trials for new camelina varieties in both Montana and Yuma, Arizona. They have released two varieties they believe will be adaptable in California.

Fields with low weed pressure, nitrogen applications at 100 pounds per acre and 8 to 10 inches of moisture will yield a commercial crop, Johnson told growers. Field preparation can vary with higher seeding rates on no-till fields. Planting time is critical, he said, with late October the optimum time.

Growers were advised to choose fields with an eye on limited weed pressure and review the herbicide use because camelina is sensitive to residual herbicides. It should not be planted following canola or other brassica crops.

The seeds are harvested in May at about 8 percent moisture, when the seed pods are brown and stems are dry. Combine settings are critical due to the small size of the seed. Ground speed, fan speed and concave width have to be considered when harvesting camelina.

Growers who contract with Sustainable Oils will have their crops delivered to a crushing plant in Corcoran. From there it will go to a Bakersfield refinery.

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