WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — A rather low-budget, low-input crop may be a boon to northwest Pennsylvania farmers.
Camelina sativa, an oilseed from the Brassica family, is a valuable crop for biofuel production. Already in production in Crawford County, with a demanding market in place nearby, camelina is poised to be a real moneymaker.
There’s room and opportunity for more farmers to get involved in growing camelina, according to Joel Hunter, a Penn State Extension agronomist. Hunter shared details of the crop’s coming to Crawford County during the recent Tri-State No-Till Conference.
It’s no secret the U.S. biofuels industry is still developing. Hunter cited statistics that pointed to 75 percent of the cost of that development is based on soy biodiesel, and 25 percent is absorbed in processing.
“Camelina looks like it will have a much lower input cost [than soybeans],” Hunter said. “If it turns out to be the low input crop we think it is, it will reduce that 75 percent figure and get this stuff out there.”
The crop is said to be low input because there are currently no herbicides labeled to be used on it, making that cost obsolete; seed can be broadcast or no-tilled inexpensively; and seedlings are extremely tolerant to cold temperatures.
“I’ve seen the stuff encased in ice, and it’s freezing out there, and it survived,” Hunter said.
In addition, at 3 pounds of seed per acre, the crop is described by Hunter as “a cheap date.”
The oilseed is particularly in demand in northwest Pennsylvania thanks to the Lake Erie Biofuels plant in Erie.
The facility — the largest biofuels plant east of the Mississippi River, producing 45 million gallons of biodiesel per year — has capacity to burn 1 million pounds of feedstock each day. The plant opened in late 2007 and is currently bringing inputs from outside the region.
There’s also a crush plant in operation near Union City, southeast of Erie, that supplies oil from the seeds to the biofuel plant. The camelina meal, a byproduct from processing, is expected to be approved to be fed to meat animals soon, Hunter said.
Crawford County commissioners have gotten behind the plan, too, opening some 100 acres of county-owned property to allow Extension and local farmers to start their experiment.
The project took off last year, after Lake Erie Biofuels approached project organizers seeking a seedstock for their factory. With a grant from Penn State University, Hunter and his colleagues purchased 1,000 pounds of seed and handed it out to anyone interested in growing the crop.
“We had more interest and demand than that 1,000 pounds could accommodate,” he reported.
Last March, those farmers no-tilled the seeds for the crop into soybean stubble on county ground and on their own properties and waited for harvest in late July. Their acreage yielded about 36 tons, Hunter said.
Seeds are slightly smaller than small grain farmers may be set up for, but Hunter said his team was able to use a regular auger and bin with window screens on the perforated floor to prevent the crop from falling through. On the harvest end, combine operators used the typical small grain platform at a slower reel and ground speed.
Though initial numbers weren’t exactly outstanding, yield potential is great, with western figures pegging it at a ton per acre.
“It’s been done in Montana, but not yet here,” Hunter said.
What’s more, a small amount of seed lost during harvest turned volunteer and germinated with the first rain, giving a free second seeding of the crop.
“We figured on yields that we lost about 3 pounds per acre, and then though ‘Hmm, 3 pounds. We just planted again!'” Hunter said.
Camelina originated in the Mediterranean region. The plant grows about 1 to 3 feet tall, with branched stems that become woody at maturity. Leaves are arrow-shaped, sharp-pointed and about 3 inches long with smooth edges.
Seeds are 40 percent oil, compared to 20 percent with soybeans, giving a bigger bang for the buck to growers and buyers.
Project organizers hope more farmers and landowners will take a look at their properties and find parcels to grow the new cash crop.
“We want to make the program bigger in 2009, adding acres and growers. We want to convince more people to get involved, and in a few years Extension will step away and let capitalism take over.”
The Union City crush plant will require about 30 tons of seed per shift to run at full speed, Hunter said. Though there is potential to run three shifts, simply running the expeller and extruder for a single shift will require 9,000 acres of local camelina production per year, Hunter said.
“Looking at the counties in northwest Pennsylvania, I don’t think it’s asking a whole lot to find 9,000 acres for camelina,” he said.