Blood donors often wear a sticker on clothing that says, ‘I donated blood today.’ California farmers may soon sport a cap that boasts, ‘My farm fuels jet airplanes.’

Uncle Sam is looking for innovative farmers in California, Washington, and Montana to grow the annual oilseed crop camelina in rotation with cereal grains. Camelina oil converted to liquid biofuels is a high-quality renewable replacement for jet fuel.

Camelina sativa, also known as gold of pleasure and false flax, is a member of the mustard family and a distant relative of canola. In California, camelina is a prime candidate for marginally productive land with limited water.

Camelina is a non-food crop developed specifically for industrial uses including transportation fuels, renewable lubricants, and renewable basic chemicals. The ancient crop was used by the Romans as a massage oil.

The goal of USDA’s Camelina Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) is for California farmers to grow camelina as a winter crop on up to 25,000 acres, or about half of the camelina acreage in the three-state BCAP area (51,000 acres total).

In California, camelina contracts are available in 17 counties including Butte, Colusa, Fresno, Glenn, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Riverside, Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Solano, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tulare, and Yolo.

A prime target California growing location is the Westlands Water District in western Fresno County where more than 100,000 acres of once irrigated land have been idled due to reductions in water deliveries and salt buildup issues. The water-miser camelina plant produces a crop with 6 inches of water.

The tri-state camelina project is part of the USDA Region 8 BCAP initiative unveiled by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in late July.

The overall national BCAP, created by the 2008 farm bill, helps farmers and land owners cover the start up costs of planting non-food energy crops to produce advanced biofuels, bio-based products, power, and heat.

BCAP is administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). Farmers interested in camelina production will sign two contracts – one between FSA and the grower to gain financial reimbursement. Farmers with FSA camelina contracts are eligible for rental payments based on the farm’s weighted soil rental rate plus an additional incentive of 50 percent per acre.

The FSA-grower contract sign-up period began Aug. 8 and ends Sept. 16, 2011. FSA-BCAP information is available online at www.fsa.usda.gov/bcap

The BCAP project announcement comes one year after a joint announcement from USDA, Boeing Corporation, and the Air Transportation Association to bring sustainable and renewable fuels to market.

3,400 new jobs

Industry estimates suggest the nationwide BCAP program, including camelina and other renewable crops, could generate 3,400 new jobs in the biorefinery, agriculture, and supporting sectors with more than two million gallons of biofuels produced annually at full production.

In California, the BCAP-camelina project sponsor is AltAir Fuels which will crush the camelina oil and refine it into jet fuel. AltAir Fuels will provide the fuel to the jet fuel market with a blending mixture similar to most ethanol-based fuel – in this case a mixture of about 90 percent petroleum-based jet fuel and about 10 percent camelina fuel.

“The (BCAP) program will dramatically expand camelina acres (in the U.S.) by reducing risk for farmers, facilitating production of lower cost feedstock, and therefore a commercially viable path to domestic, sustainable fuels that are price competitive with petroleum fuel,” said Tom Todaro, AltAir Fuels chief executive officer.

The second contract California camelina growers will sign is with Sustainable Oils, based in Bozeman, Mont., and a contracted supplier to AltAir Fuels. Sustainable Oils is the sole company offering grower contracts under the BCAP program.

“This is an exciting development for camelina production,” said Scott Johnson, Sustainable Oils president. “We’re seeing strong demand for biofuel produced from camelina, and the BCAP program will help boost production in order to meet that demand.”

Johnson told Western Farm Press that one acre of California-grown camelina will produce 80 to 100 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel. Farmer contracts with Sustainable Fuels will require a five-year camelina production commitment.

“I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting 25,000 acres for camelina production in California,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a native Californian, owns an almond ranch with his brothers in Turlock, Calif. He graduated from the University of California, Davis with an entomology degree.

Farmers with Sustainable Oils contracts will plant the company’s certified non-GMO seed. The company is researching GMO varieties for possible future release.

Sustainable Oils’ seed will be distributed through Wilbur Ellis and Ag-Seeds Unlimited Lima’s Division. Farmers with production contract questions can contact Bill Cox at Wilbur Ellis at (559) 909-0668 or Scot Goble at Ag-Seeds Unlimited at (559) 730-8400.

Sustainable Oils has conducted crop trials in California for the last three years with good results. The company also provided seed for energy crop trials conducted by University of California agronomist Steve Kaffka.

Cereal production complement

Camelina is a stress-resistant plant which fits well in dryland areas as part of a broadleaf crop rotation, including wheat, barley, and oats. Johnson says camelina complements cereal production – not necessarily replaces it.

“We’re confident with average rainfall between 6 to 8 inches a farmer can make a commercial (camelina) crop - which is somewhat less water than required for most cereals,” Johnson said. “It fits well in a state with a rainy season that gets at least 6 inches of rain (annually).”

Sustainable Oils trials in the Central Valley did not require supplemental irrigation.

Camelina is a 100-day crop with high seed production and less stubble and residue than most cereal crops. Camelina grows 1-3 feet tall producing seed pods with small seeds containing 35 percent to 38 percent oil high in omega-3 fatty acid.

Expected camelina yields in California are likely to range from 1,100 to 1,300 pounds.

Johnson suggests planting seed into a weed-free bed into the first quarter inch of soil. A soil fertility test is recommended. The crop requires about 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre and about 15 pounds per acre of phosphorus.

The seed germinates quickly and shades out most weeds. Poast is the only herbicide currently registered for camelina in the Golden State.

Johnson has never seen a significant yield loss from disease based on camelina production in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and western Canada. Aphid and flea beetle populations can occur at low levels. Migrating cutworms have been treated with insecticide sprays on the field perimeter; not in the actual crop.

Johnson says the same equipment used in cereal grain production also works for camelina with a few adjustments. Commercial growers in other camelina-growing regions either straight cut with a combine or run a swather before the combine. Both methods provide good results.

One risk with camelina and other energy crops is the unavailability of commodity-specific insurance coverage through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. Johnson says a camelina crop loss would fall under the farmer’s existing overall catastrophic insurance plan.

High-quality biomass from the crushing process is fed to livestock. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved camelina biomass for laying hens, poultry broilers, and feedlot beef with approved ratio caps. The FDA is weighing camelina biomass use in dairy rations with a decision expected next year.

Sustainable Oils will contract with existing California oilseed crushing facilities to covert the seed into oil. Contracts with several existing California crushers were under final development at press time. The camelina oil will be transported to AltAir Fuels for refining.

Sustainable Oils will hold a grower meeting on Sept. 6. The meeting details when finalized will be available at www.susoils.com.

While camelina is a cropping option for farmers, the oilseed crop is another way farmers can grow renewable fuels and reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“When a farmer produces camelina, the oil replaces foreign petroleum,” Johnson said. “The camelina is grown and refined locally and sold domestically. The farmer is contributing to U.S. energy security.”

cblake@farmpress.com