LACROSSE, Wash. – When LaCrosse area farmer Steve Camp takes stock of his harvest later this year, he’ll measure at least part of it in gallons instead of bushels.
For the past three years, the fifth generation wheat and barley farmer has dedicated part of his operation to camelina, an oilseed crop as old as the pharaohs and one of the newest possibilities for sustainable biofuels production.
Last year, he grew camelina, had it crushed commercially and used it to run his Kubota tractor and Dodge pick-up. This past winter, he pressed some more of what he’d grown using a press from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. That oil is now in storage waiting to be processed into fuel.
Working with Washington State University scientists like Scott Hulbert and Bill Pan on refining camelina varieties, cropping practices, economics and marketing, Camp is optimistic about the future of the “new old” crop. “I feel good about the possibilities for camelina,” he said. “I am excited about this endeavor. I really see potential. I’ve got enough experience now to know that it does work.”
A member of the same plant family as broccoli and canola, camelina has been grown as a crop since ancient Egyptian times, where it was used in a variety of ways, including for massage and lamp oil, Camp said. It is loaded with healthy Omega-3s, and byproducts include use of the meal after crushing as feed for cattle and other livestock.
Most importantly, though, camelina has hit the headlines in the past several years as a strong candidate for use in the production of biofuels, including aviation fuel. WSU just recently announced a major initiative called the “Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest” project; the first of its kind in the U.S. In partnership with Alaska Airlines, Boeing, the Port of Seattle, the Port of Portland, and Spokane International Airport, the project will look at biomass options, including camelina, within a four-state region as possible sources for creating renewable jet fuel.
Camp put in his first camelina crop in the spring of 2007 after visiting with a representative of an oilseed company canvassing the area for potential growers. The rep provided basic planting instructions and guidelines for what was then considered a spring crop.
“When you start something new, you have to attribute a lot of what happens to luck, and that first year I was about as lucky as you can get,” Camp says, laughing. “I did just about everything wrong, but still ended up with really a pretty good crop. That impressed me. If I can do everything wrong, and still end up with something salvageable, this crop has some benefit.”
The second year, the oilseed company provided incentives to farmers willing to try camelina as a winter-seeded crop. “I firmly believe that camelina is every bit as good a winter crop as wheat, and we got a better yield,” Camp said.
He has expanded his camelina production from 50 acres at the start to a high of 200 acres last year. On average, he yields between 1,100 to 1,200 pounds per acre, compared to only 900 pounds per acre of mustard or canola. “And the inputs are a whole lot less,” he said.
Camp considers camelina perfect for the dryland farming of eastern Washington. “It doesn’t need a lot of water or fertilizer,” he said.
In fact, he said, “In watching it grow, it’s very much like a weed. It’s a survivor. If you get a good stand, it tends to cover the ground and can crowd out weeds.
“Camelina is a slow emerging and growing crop,” Camp explained. “For the first 45 days, you just want to remember you planted it and go fishing. The second 45 days, it takes right off. It starts growing. It’ll bolt, head out, and in 90 total growing days, you should have yourself a harvestable crop.”
Every 100 pounds of seed produces about 40 pounds, or between 5 and 6 gallons, of oil, according to Camp. In ballpark numbers, he figures he gets about 64 gallons of fuel per acre of camelina.
The economic benefits of the crop are still being analyzed, which is another reason Camp supports partnering with WSU. Still, he says, growing camelina provides value beyond monetary profit.
“We need to look at more than just the bottom line,” he said. “It has to pay, yes, but even if you broke even, you’d be able to guarantee yourself your own fuel every year. You’d be your own supplier.”
Camp considers that a giant step toward sustainability. “I’ve been interested in alternative energy, and been toying with especially biodiesel, and at this particular point, I am firmly convinced and am embarking on a venture to be 100 percent sustainable by growing my own oilseed crop and making my own biodiesel,” he said. “This year, I’m embarking, using this year’s crop and what I had left from last year, on developing my own fuel station, if you will.”
Camp also sees growing camelina and producing his own fuel as a matter of national security. As he argues, disrupting transportation and agricultural production by disrupting traditional fuel suppliers would be a lot more difficult if more people — especially farmers — are producing their own fuel in smaller batches throughout the United States. “Those terrorists are going to get real tired of running around trying to disrupt the fuel supply 5000 gallons at a time,” he said. “I see it as a real security advantage.”
And, don’t forget the sense of independence and satisfaction that comes from being self-sustaining, Camp said.
“By handling my own product,” he said, “I’m my own middle man; I’m my own end-user; I’m my own producer. So, all of the pluses that come from that crop belong to me; I don’t pay anybody else to do it. It’s feasible. It’s workable. If we can make the infrastructure work, camelina is set to run.”