With a deadline to apply for a federal subsidy just days away, San Joaquin Valley farmers scratched their heads and put pencil to paper to figure out if it would make sense for them to grow a biofuel crop touted to fuel military and commercial aircraft.

The answer was mixed, with some looking to sign up thousands of acres to grow camelina, a weed in the mustard family and a promising producer of oilseed, and others saying it just didn’t pencil out when compared to other more conventional and proven crops.

Nearly 200 people, many of them growers, gathered near Coalinga, Calif., to hear a pitch from the federal government, from a company that sells camelina seed and is in the camelina biofuel oil business and from consumers of the end product including the U.S. Navy and commercial airlines.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in late July, announced the creation of four additional Biomass Crop Assistance Program project areas in six states to expand the availability of non-food crops to be used in the manufacturing of liquid biofuels. The deadline to enroll for assistance with the Farm Service Agency is Sept. 16.

Seventeen California counties are eligible for the program with a target of up to 25,000 acres. The counties include Fresno, which has thousands of acres of abandoned farmland in the Westlands Water District viewed as a potentially good home for growing of the crop that requires little water and fertilizer.

But the meeting also attracted considerable interest from the east side of the Valley, notably from the Kerman area.

The day after the meeting, Ben Georgeson, a diversified Kerman grower of cotton, alfalfa, almonds and grapes, along with dairy cows, was pondering whether it just might work on some land that he was considering subdividing before the real estate bust.

“I want to make sure there is no penalty before signing a five-year contract with the government in case I decide to pull out,” Georgeson said. “I figure the only money you can make on this crop is the government payment.”

Georgeson has a 90-acre block from which he removed almonds and pumping equipment in anticipation of subdividing. It has been idle for two years, he said, “and maybe I could do something with it.”

Terry Baker, who has a cow-calf operation in Woodlake, was also pondering putting in the new crop “if cattle can graze on the residue. I’m checking into that.”

A residue byproduct of the crop can be turned into livestock feed.

Randy Rodoicich, an associate with Emerald Energy in Fresno and a grower of raisin grapes in Madera County is bullish on energy crops. He already has “two or three acres” of camelina growing among vineyard rows. He plans to plant it as well among megaflora trees grown for biomass. He sees it as a potential cover crop, “another value-added crop.”

Value-added crop

Both he and Baker believe the greatest potential for the crop would be on open land in Westlands.

Roger Story, a Kerman alflafa grower and president of Fresno-based Investment Commercial Specialists Inc., said he spent a portion of the day after the meeting looking at land where the crop might be a fit.

“It’s an unproven product that might work on marginal land,” he said. “Typically, I buy good land. I’ll have to sit down and do a comparative analysis. It’s like blue chips compared to an IPO. I mostly want to go with something that’s proven.”

For now, Story is much more enamored with alfalfa selling at up to $280 a ton and having eight cuttings compared to one for camelina.

Story said, however, that learning of the crop triggered recollection of a parable from the Bible about a mustard seed likened to the kingdom of God and becoming a large tree.

Sustainable Oils, headquartered in Bozeman, Mont., and the presenter of the Coalinga program, hopes the parable has a more temporal side and that camelina acreage in California comes closer to 40,000 or more acres.

Sustainable Oils is offering contracts with growers that pay 11 cents per pound for camelina delivered to an oilseed crusher at J.G. Boswell in Corcoran. The contracts provide a $50 per acre shared risk commitment if total camelina production at harvest does not reach the $50 per acre levels. The contracts call for 200 acres of production.

The company has two seed distributors in the valley, The Wilbur Ellis Co. and Ag Seeds Unlimited.

“This is not a miracle crop,” said Scott Johnson, president of Sustainable Oils. But managed properly, he said, it can work to meet demand that is growing because of green initiatives from the federal and state government.

Johnson said growers who attended the meeting expressed a commitment to enroll at least 10,000 acres on which to grow the crop, a figure that is expected to grow after details are nailed down with Sustainable Oils and the federal government.

“We remain optimistic that all of the 25,000 acres will be enrolled by Sept. 16,” Johnson said. “The government program offsets a lot of the risks for a crop that a grower has never planted before.”

Paul Betancourt, a Kerman grower of almonds, Pima cotton and wheat, said he is keenly interested in the idea of “a crop that converts sunlight into energy,” but believes higher yielding varieties will be needed to make a camelina crop pencil out.

25,000 acres?

“They will have a hard time finding 25,000 acres; the numbers don’t work,” he said, citing costs of input and competition of other crops that include Pima cotton selling at $2 a pound and $300 per ton winter wheat, a fall seeded crop that can require only supplemental water if normal to heavy winter rains fall. For the past two seasons, several growers have rented abandoned Westlands land and successfully grown winter wheat on only rain moisture.

Sustainable Oils points out the crop can be grown with 8 to 10 inches of precipitation and 100 units of nitrogen.  In California, the crop is seeded in November or December and harvested in April. Limited small plot trials in the state have produced yields from 800 to 2,200 pounds per acre.

The federal subsidy amount ranges from $46.50 to $134.80 per acre depending on Soil Rental Rates, said Steve Sandroni, production and logistics manager for Sustainable Oils. He said the figure for Fresno, Kern and Kings Counties is about $90.

Sandroni said he has been pleased to learn of considerable interest well outside of the Westlands Water District, including in the Sacramento area. Growers elsewhere are also looking into camelina as part of a rotation with other crops in counties that include San Luis Obispo, Tulare, Merced and Madera.

Most planted commercial acreage is now in Montana where it is grown as a spring planted crop. In California, it is recommended as a winter crop.

Steve Kaffka, a University of California researcher, conceded that studies of camelina are just about two years under way in California and only small plots have been planted by UC at sites that include Davis and at the West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points.

“We don’t fully understand the behavior of this crop,” he said, while adding that it does require less water and fertilizer than many other crops.

Two crops have been harvested from the experimental sites, and there was some variability in yields. The second crop was lighter, and Kaffka speculated that might have been because of chilling in February when plants were “at a vulnerable stage.”

Kaffka said crusting of soil and plant emergence was an issue in some plots, but in the Valley’s Panoche soil it was less of a problem.

Other challenges include shattering of seed pods during harvest and lack of an herbicide registered for use in California on camelina. A key seems to be determining the best time to harvest the crop to avoid shattering.

Fernando Guillen-Portal, director of research and development for Sustainable Oils, said the company is working “to get registration for the tools you need for weed control.” The company also is working on varieties best suited for variable climates that range from Canada to Yuma, Ariz.

“It is widely adaptable,” he said.

Guillen-Portal recommended valley growers plant during October or November at 6 to 8 pounds per acre. “Plant early so it can out-compete seasonal weeds,” he said.

Military use

“We’re not looking to take food off someone’s plate to fuel an aircraft,” said Navy Lt. Damian Blazy in comparing the controversial use of corn to make ethanol to the non-food crop camelina. Blazy talked of ambitious goals for the Navy to dramatically reduce its dependence on conventional petroleum.

One reason: the vulnerability to attack against refueling systems. He showed a photograph of a tanker in flames after being attacked as it moved petroleum from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

The Navy has set a goal of acquiring 50 percent of its liquid fuel from alternative fuel blends derived from domestic sources by 2020.

Blazy showed pictures of aircraft powered by camelina and described how, just days before the Coalinga meeting, six F/A-18 Hornets in the Navy’s Blue Angels were powered during a fly-over by a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and camelina-based biofuel. It was the first time an entire unit had flown on a biofuel mix.

Other potential customers for the biofuel spoke at the Coalinga meeting, including Hortencia Barton, manager for the domestic fuel supply for American Airlines Purchasing, and Robert Schlingman, senior environmental manager for United Continental.

Barton said her company’s interest is driven by concerns over security and supply.

“Instability drives up costs,” she said.