Crawford County farmers growing camelina for biofuel

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In most places in the East, they’re still talking about the coming biofuels revolution. But in Crawford County, Pennsylvania — thanks largely to Penn State Cooperative Extension — farmers already are involved in it.

The local extension office has taken the lead in organizing a group of growers into a co-op that will produce a promising biofuel feedstock.

There are about 300 acres of the oilseed camelina planted on a dozen Crawford County farms, according to Joel Hunter, extension educator based in Meadville.

“This is a right-here, right-now thing,” Hunter said. “We have a huge new market for vegetable oil for biodiesel.”

Willing buyer

The co-op will be selling the oil to the Lake Erie Biofuels plant just to the north in Erie.

The plant, which opened in the fall of 2007, has a capacity to make 45 million gallons of biodiesel a year from vegetable oils and other fat sources.

“They will buy all the oil we can give them,” Hunter said. “It’s a huge operation, and plant officials would love to develop a local supplier. Right now they have to bring in oil from out of the region.”

“This is a right-here, right-now thing. We have a huge new
market for vegetable oil for biodiesel.”

Joel Hunter
Penn State Cooperative Extension, Crawford County

‘Can it be grown’?

Hunter said Lake Erie Biofuels executives asked extension specialists if camelina could be grown in northwest Pennsylvania, and the answer was found in studies recently conducted by the University of Montana.

“Once we were sure we could grow it, we were pretty aggressive, because it looked like a real opportunity,” he said.

“We brought it up with growers at meetings last fall and winter and urged them to try it. There was so much interest, we actually turned people down.”

Cooperative Extension purchased 1,000 pounds of camelina seed for farmers to grow.

“We went out on a limb to make this happen, but we knew that even if we didn’t get grants to cover the cost, we were willing to invest that much to get the effort off to a running start because it is such a good idea,” said Hunter.

Lots of benefits

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in developing agronomic systems with low requirements for fertilizer, pesticides and energy, and that provide better soil-erosion control than conventional systems.

Hunter said camelina could play a key role in a no-till system approach based on cover crops and rotations.

With a growing season of just 85 to 105 days, the climate in northwestern Pennsylvania limits farmers’ ability to “double-crop” in most cases, Hunter explained.

“We liked camelina because it fits into our crop rotation, and it can be no-till planted, planted early and then followed by another crop,” he said. “It seems to integrate well into our primarily dairy agriculture here.”

About the crop

Camelina originated in the Mediterranean region. The annual plant attains heights of 1 to 3 feet and has branched stems that become woody at maturity. Leaves are arrow-shaped, sharp-pointed and about 3 inches long with smooth edges.

The plant produces prolific small, pale- yellow or greenish-yellow flowers with four petals. Seed pods are the size and shape of a small pea.

The camelina will be harvested with combines when it is mature. The seeds are very small, amounting to about 400,000 seeds per pound, and they are 40 percent oil, compared to 20 percent with soybeans.

More to do

Extension is working with the owners of a crush plant in Union City to extract the oil and is making arrangements with various partners on other details, such as transportation of the crop.

“Handling seeds this small is really a challenge, but a key partner, Ernst Seeds in Meadville, has the expertise and equipment to handle it,” Hunter said.

Looking ahead

He hopes the program grows 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.”

A few details still need to be worked out, but everything is looking good, Hunter said. One of those details is what to do with the remaining meal after the oil is pressed out of the camelina seeds.

Like the camelina oil, the meal is high in omega-3 fatty acid, which means the nutritional value of the meal is high. That should make it attractive to farmers feeding livestock.

“The potential is there to do value-added ag products from the meal,” said Hunter. “We are hoping we can feed it to poultry for production of high Omega-3 eggs. But at this point, we would settle for just feeding it to livestock.”

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