Camelina, a weed in the mustard and distant relative to canola, may be emerging as the front runner in California agriculture’s continuing search for a biofuel crop.

It captured the most attention at a field day at the University of California Westside Research and Extension Center near Five Points, Calif., where UC agronomist Steve Kaffka is evaluating several oilseed crops for biofuel.

Not only is camelina the most promising of the three oilseed crops Kaffka is testing, but a Seattle-based company is looking to contract for 40,000 to 60,000 acres of camelina to be planted this fall on abandoned dryland acreage, primarily in the Westlands Water District in Western Fresno County, Calif., where there are thousands of acres of abandoned irrigated farmland.

More than 100,000 acres of once-irrigated land in Westlands has been idled over the past few years due to a lack of water deliveries and salt buildup from a lack of drain water disposal. Some of this land is now dry farmed for cereal grains with limited success due to hit or miss winter rains.

Steve Sandroni, production and logistics manager for Sustainable Oils, believes camelina may be a better crop fit than grain because it will produce 1,500 to 1,600 pounds of camelina per acre on 4-6 inches of winter rainfall. It would be a challenge to produce wheat or barley on so little rainfall. Fresno’s average rainfall is about 11 inches annually; most coming in winter and early spring. Sustainable Oils will contract the oil for 14 cents per pound. Sustainable Oils seems to be the most aggressive in promoting and contracting for the crop in California.

Sustainable Oils is one of two companies in the camelina oil business in the United States. The other is Great Plains Oil and Exploration, which claims to contract for 85 percent of the camelina acreage in the U.S.

Most U.S. camelina acreage is now in Montana where 9,900 acres were grown there last year as a spring planted crop. That is down sharply from the 21,000 acres grown in 2009 and the 22,500 acres seeded in 2007. This decline in camelina is related to increasing returns for cereal grains.

One of the issues with biofuel oil crops in California is a lack of commercial oil crushing facilities. There are only two commercial oil mills in the state: one at J.G. Boswell in Corcoran, Calif., where Boswell crushes primarily cottonseed for oil; and the other at Adams Grain in Arbuckle, Calif., which has crushed, among other crops, soybeans for oil for biodiesel. Safflower is a commonly grown California oilseed crop also crushed at these mills.

Sustainable Oils will ship in 800 tons of the camelina to Boswell for crushing in late May to evaluate the quality of the oil that the plant can deliver, according to Sandroni. Sustainable Oils also is talking with Adams about crushing camelina there, he added.

Sustainable Oils has developed a network of field trials with a number of universities, including Texas A&M, University of Tennessee, University of Nebraska, Montana State University, Oregon State University, and University of New Mexico. Sandroni says the company has a breeding program based in Bozeman, Mont.

Camelina is a tiny-seeded annual that originated in northern Europe. It was virtually unknown in the U.S. until companies started looking at it for biofuel. It has many names: gold-of-pleasure, false flax, wild flax, linseed dodder, German sesame and Siberian oilseed. The oil is used for lamp fuel and ointment among other things. It was cultivated in antiquity from Rome to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia.

By itself, California uses more gasoline than any country in the world, except the U.S. as a whole.  California’s 20 billion-gallon gasoline and diesel habit makes it ground zero for low-carbon and renewable fuel development, since there is a state objective that calls for 20 percent of the fuel for California engines be grown in state by 2020.

However, camelina may give wings to a new oilseed crop industry, especially if the desert-loving crop can succeed.