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.

Air Force fuel

Camelina is fueling a U.S Air Force goal of acquiring 50 percent of its domestic aviation fuel via alternative fuel blends derived from domestic sources by 2016.

That got a big boost in March when a F-22 Raptor fighter jet test flew at speeds of up to Mach 1.5 on a 50/50 fuel blend of conventional petroleum-based JP-8 (Jet Propellant 8) and biofuel derived from camelina. The flight capped off a series of ground and flight tests carried out earlier for the Raptor using the biofuel blend to evaluate its suitability in the F-22 weapons system.

The F-22 Raptor test flight performed several maneuvers, including a super cruise at 40,000 feet reaching speeds of Mach 1.5.

"The F-22 performed flawlessly on the biofuel blend citing no noticeable differences from traditional JP-8," said Jeff Braun, director of the Air Force's alternative fuels certification division.

Studies have shown that camelina-based jet fuel reduces carbon emissions by around 80 percent. Additionally, its meal – what is left after oil has been extracted from the seed – has been approved by the USDA for livestock and poultry feed.

Camelina-derived synthetic fuel has been used to power a variety of other military and commercial aircraft, including Europe's first biofuel-powered passenger flight in 2009. Certification of this fuel by the airlines would represent a major boon to the camelina industry.

In February, Air Force officials certified its entire C-17 Globemaster III fleet for unrestricted flight operations using the HRJ biofuel blend.

Duane Johnson, superintendent of the Northwestern Agricultural Research Center in Havre, Mont., learned of camelina when he was looking for an oilseed crop with reduced input requirements that was capable of growing on marginal land. "The advantage with camelina is that it's a superior product for lubricants," Schweitzer says. "For health purposes, its level of omega-3 is as high as fish oil."

According to Johnson, this oilseed contains about 34 percent to 36 percent omega-3 oil and is also high in gamma tocopherol, a superior vitamin E that acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants give oils a longer shelf life, which should make it a superior feedstock for the biodiesel industry.

Shatter-resistant

Oil content of the 12 camelina varieties tested by Kaffka was even higher, 35.9 percent to 38.6 percent at the UC Five Points, Calif., research station. Unlike canola, camelina is resistant to shatter.

“That is what makes camelina more attractive than canola, which shatters like crazy at harvest,” said UC agronomist Bob Hutmacher, who is working with Kaffka.

Kaffka has recorded camelina yields up to 2,500 pounds per acre. He is testing it with limited irrigation and nitrogen.

Tranquility, Calif., grower Keith Eubanks was all ears at the field day.

“I have some dryland acreage near Coalinga where I want to plant 20 acres of camelina this fall,” he said.

Eubanks said, however, the challenge for anyone promoting fall-planted oilseed crops — irrigated or dryland — is the return for competing crops.

“Barley got up to $250 per ton; wheat to $290; and even safflower reached $550 per ton,” noted Eubanks. It is difficult for a new, untried crop to compete against those prices. Nevertheless, he wants to give camelina a try.

Kaffka’s research is funded by the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. At WREC he is also evaluating canola, as well as meadowfoam as a potential biofuel oilseed crops.

“The demand for biofuel is in California. It would be good, if we could figure out how to grow these crops here,” he said.

Westlands’ abandoned ground seems to be ideal for these low-water use crops as well as to develop wind, solar and even nuclear energy. Companies are looking at all three within the sprawling 600,000-acre irrigation district.

Sandroni said he has also talked with agricultural retailers about supporting camelina production.

“We will probably focus on larger West Side growers to get our initial production,” he said. “If it works for them, we can expand it.” There are small existing commercial plots already in California, he said.

It is simple to plant. Sandroni said growers need to drill in 8 pounds of seed per acre in a prepared seedbed. It will sprout with rainfall.

“It will grow where other crops will not,” he said.

Camelina plants are heavily branched, growing from 1 to 3 feet tall, producing seed pods containing many small, tiny oily seeds.

Sustainable Oils is working with crop protection companies to give growers more herbicide options. Poast, a post emergent grass control product, is labeled for the crop. Even with the availability of Poast, farmers should apply glyphosate in the fall and perhaps even again before the camelina emerges to ensure the crop gets off to a good start. Camelina competes well against weeds once a crop is established, but it isn’t a miracle crop. Manage it right and it works.

After milling, according to Sandroni, the remaining meal is a protein-rich feed source for cattle, poultry or swine. Sustainable Oils has led an industry coalition that has secured approvals for feeding in rations for broilers, laying chickens, feedlot beef cattle and swine, and is working to secure camelina meal approvals for all animal uses.