OMAHA (DTN) -- Colorado farmer Roy Pfaltzgraff made a trip to Waco, Texas, last month when the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee held a farm bill listening session with producers, hoping to get a couple of minutes to talk to lawmakers about a new crop he's growing -- camelina.
His second year growing the small oilseed crop, Pfaltzgraff liked how camelina performed on some acreage last year when he first tried the crop. His camelina crop last year in northeast Colorado produced about 300 pounds an acre, which was about one-third of what was expected, but the drought last year was so bad the winter wheat pulled about one-tenth of its expected yield. Other crops such as millet were left in the field unharvested. By that measure, the camelina performed well, he said.
"They're estimating the yield on it will be around 1,000 pounds (per acre)," Pfaltzgraff said. "Last year, we got just under 300 pounds an acre; but it didn't rain. It was incredibly dry."
Pfaltzgraff's first experiences with camelina have been positive, but he wanted to share with Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., the House Ag chairman, that camelina can provide a dryland opportunity for producers such as him, but the crop needs USDA's Risk Management Agency (RMA) to accelerate approval of crop insurance for camelina on the High Plains.
"You've got this drought-tolerant crop that's producing better than other crops, but there is no insurance for it," Pfaltzgraff said.
That's a sticking point right now.
Pfaltzgraff pointed to the pilot program for camelina in Montana and North Dakota. Last year, RMA reported policies covering just under 4,300 acres in those states. The Farm Service Agency reported 10,929 total planted acreage of camelina nationally.
"You've already got this pilot project. Let's include some counties on the High Plains -- in Colorado and Kansas -- where we've been raising it for a couple of years already," Pfaltzgraff said.
THE RENEWABLE DIESEL PATHWAY
Camelina right now might have less acreage than hemp nationally, but it has a few aces in the hole -- renewable diesel and a low carbon intensity (CI) score.
It's taken time, but the drive for renewable diesel expansion and camelina's CI score is drawing more attention. Refiners are looking for feedstocks that will help meet some of the growth expectations for renewable diesel. In 2022, renewable diesel production was estimated at about 1.75 billion gallons. The Department of Energy project, if all proposed plants come online, estimates renewable diesel production could top 5.1 billion gallons by the end of 2024.
In 2015, the California Air Resources Board initially issued a first-of-its-kind low-carbon pathway for camelina to Sustainable Oils. When first announced, Sustainable Oils, a subsidiary of Global Clean Energy Holdings, said California regulators gave camelina-based biodiesel a carbon intensity score that was one-fifth of soy's carbon intensity, making it easier for refiners to meet emission reduction targets. Sustainable Oil's seed varieties remain the only camelina approved for California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
This past September, GCE and some partners were awarded up to $30 million under USDA's Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities to further develop camelina as an ultra-low carbon fuel feedstock. The goal for Global Clean Energy is to increase farmer adoption of camelina on idle acreage for renewable diesel production "and no land-use change while increasing carbon capture in the soil." USDA's climate-smart funding will boost incentives for producers to grow camelina for Sustainable Oils.
GCE is working feverishly to finish turning an idle oil refinery in Bakersfield, California, into a renewable diesel plant. The project is about a year behind schedule -- and was trying to hit a March 31 deadline. The delays on the renewable-diesel conversion could jeopardize a $125 million investment from ExxonMobil. The Bakersfield Californian newspaper last month reported ExxonMobil had filed a threat to pull out of the project if the facility wasn't operational this spring.
When the agreement with ExxonMobil was first announced, the companies touted that the partnership would help expand camelina production in parts of the U.S., as well as Europe and South America.
PROSPECTS IN FALLOW GROUND
While GCE works on the plant, its subsidiary Sustainable Oils has been working on the production front. Barney Bernstein, vice president of North American Operations for Sustainable Oils, told DTN in an interview that camelina right now will be blended with other feedstocks, such as soy oil.
"Soybean oil is always going to be a significant feedstock for renewable diesel and what camelina can do is continue as part of the fuel mix or feedstock mix to continue to bring down the CI score of the fuels that the transport business needs," Bernstein said.
Sticking with that USDA climate-smart goal to reach idle acreage, there were about 8.9 million acres of fallow ground in 2022, according to the Farm Service Agency acreage reports. A large percentage of that fallow acreage falls in those wheat-fallow rotation regions. Camelina was developed mainly in arid parts of Montana where the average rainfall might be 12 inches and a big chunk of that area largely has a wheat-fallow rotation.
"Camelina fits really well to replace that fallow because it doesn't take a lot of water to grow," Bernstein said. "We've seen camelina grown in the last three years in some significant drought situations in Montana where they have been getting between two to five inches of rain a year. Last year, camelina was one of the few crops that farmers could harvest."
Bernstein said the crop has been hardy enough for fall planting in Kansas and Colorado, giving the crop a little earlier growth in the spring and allowing those producers to harvest the crop in early summer.
While one arm of USDA has provided funding to increase acreage, RMA isn't ready to commit to expanded crop insurance coverage just yet.
Camelina has been part of an RMA pilot program since 2010, but the crop disappeared from the market for several years. Sustainable Oils brought back the crop in 2019 and began testing its viability again with about 500 acres. The company's proprietary seed variety performed well enough that Sustainable Oils began looking to expand more acres. The pandemic slowed that down initially.
"And despite the drought, we've had good interest and uptake. We had reasonable yields. 2022 was a little better. In 2023, now that we have had a little more moisture, things have really taken off."
In a comment to DTN, USDA stated RMA is working with Sustainable Oils on expanding the canola policy. Due to the program's pilot status, the expansion request will go through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation Board process for approval later this year. While participation in the current pilot program area has been very limited, RMA continues to work with Sustainable Oils to provide producers with potential crop insurance options.
"So what we're trying to do with RMA is build enough yield experience that they feel comfortable either expanding that pilot or providing risk management to growers in general for camelina," Bernstein said.
Having the insurance pilot helps in areas where Sustainable Oils has marketed the crop to farmers. "I would say it makes the Montana growers a little more comfortable," Bernstein said.
ANTICIPATING A GOOD CROP
While producers can plant camelina in the late fall, it doesn't emerge until early spring. After a good winter for moisture, Pfaltzgraff is expecting a better yield, closer to 1,000 pounds or more per acre, though his county in eastern Colorado remains in a moderate drought.
"The camelina is just starting to emerge and I'd like to get a little shot of water on it just to soften things up," Pfaltzgraff said.
Sustainable Oils is working with CHS, which has a regional seed and production handling agreement for camelina in Colorado and Montana. CHS stated to DTN that the cooperative distributes the seed and transloads onto rail cars once harvested. "In those regions, we are locally working to expand acres as an agronomic and business diversity strategy for our farmer-owners," CHS stated.
The camelina, once harvested, will be railed to a crush facility in Corcoran, California. After the oil is crushed, the meal is sold as livestock feed, which also helps bring down the CI score.
First year growers who raise up to 160 acres can receive a $350 payment for growing camelina. Sustainable Oils pays more by the pound for larger acreage, including 40 cents a pound for producers who grow 640 acres or more.
Pfaltzgraff noted a few area producers who did see some rain last year got yields closer to 900 pounds an acre. "So the 1,000-pound mark doesn't seem that outrageous. And if you have a half-decent year on dryland, 1,500 pounds isn't out of the realm of possibility. At 40 cents a pound, that's a pretty good little paycheck for dryland crops on the High Plains."
Pfaltzgraff added, "Its relatives are weeds in this area, so you think it would fit our climate well."
Sustainable Oils https://susoils.com/…
Also see, "Likely Protected in Next Farm Bill, Federal Crop Insurance Still Has Some Critics," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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