Federal program seeks biofuel supplies for California base
By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- The USDA Farm Service Agency's top California official says he's hopeful camelina can grow in the state even though it's largely unproven here.
The government is offering to sign up 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 amount of camelina grown in California now is statistically insignificant, acknowledged Val Dolcini, the FSA's state director.
"It's a crop of first impression out here," Dolcini said. "I think there's a lot of natural curiosity and natural skepticism about how successful it will be. It's a crop that can be grown on relatively marginal soils, and I think it's a crop that doesn't require quite as much water as other crops do."
Stephen Kaffka, a University of California-Davis plant sciences specialist and director of the California Biomass Collaborative, said he believes camelina could fill a winter niche in the Golden State. But he hasn't gathered enough information yet to recommend it to growers, he said.
"I'm not going to advise farmers now," said Kaffka, who has grown camelina on test plots in western Fresno County and at UC-Davis. "I'm supposed to be somewhat confident of my information. It's my job. When I stand up as an extension specialist for UC, I want to have more data than I currently do."
Created in the 2008 Farm Bill, BCAP helps farmers and forest landowners with startup and ongoing costs of planting nonfood energy crops for conversion to heat, power, biofuels and other resources.
The USDA started taking signups Aug. 8 for the camelina project, one of a trio of biofuels projects for Western farmers that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on July 26 as part of a $45 million effort to produce renewable energy.
As many as 25,000 acres in California, along with land in Washington and Montana, would be used to grow camelina as a jet fuel feedstock. Contract growers will provide materials for conversion plants in Bakersfield, Calif., and Tacoma, Wash.
One potential customer could be the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, Calif., Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said last month.
A flowering plant with origins in Central Europe, camelina is largely grown in Montana and the northern Great Plains and has a variety of uses, including as a cattle feed supplement and an ingredient in broiler chicken and laying hen feed. It is sometimes a rotation crop for wheat, according to the USDA.
In California, camelina could be grown in the winter and double-cropped with wheat or other oilseeds, Dolcini said.
From what he's seen so far, Kaffka said camelina "grows well" with no particular diseases or pests showing up, but said he doesn't yet understand the relationship between "the needs of the crop and our climate."
Signups for the project will run through Sept. 16. Dolcini said he didn't know how many farmers had enrolled as of Aug. 19.
"This project is going to be a good opportunity to see if we can make it (camelina) work in California," he said. "If it works and we can do it ... it might be another option for California farmers."
Biomass Crop Assistance Program: www.fsa.usda.gov/bcap