Camelina is the crop of jet fuels and cleaner waters. But will farmers grow it?

Christopher Vondracek, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHATFIELD, Minn. – A small crowd has gathered on this caramel-brown tangle of a field stretching across a small town subdivision to watch as a red, Case IH combine pulls up the street. On the edge of the Driftless Area in southeastern Minnesota, an experiment is taking place.

The star of these few acres is winter-planted camelina. The potential miracle crop might power tomorrow's jet engines and clean up waterways in the karst-rich hill country of the Upper Midwest. But before the sustainable possibilities can flourish, farmers need to know if the muscular, intermediate oilseed can actually grow during the region's notoriously cold winters and mild springs.

That starts with a field outside Chatfield.

"Camelina is extremely winter-hardy," said Anna Teeter, novel oilseed program manager for Minnetonka-based Cargill, the global commodity trader that has partnered with farmers this year to grow 2,000 acres of camelina across Minnesota and North Dakota. "Most farmers never learn how to do a new crop."

Growers in the fields around Chatfield, like those across the Upper Midwest, grow mainly corn and soybeans. They're staples for animal feed and biofuels and very profitable. But the dual-cropping system has led to polluted waterways and greenhouse gas emissions, as well.

In the global push to build sustainable farming, advocates are looking toward better crops that keep the soil covered from November to April, the groundwater in place, carbon out of the atmosphere and nutrients within the soil.

Farmers said they need markets more than programs, a refrain officials at Cargill hear loud and clear.

"We're trying to sneak that third crop into a two-year cycle," said Lyle DePauw, crop innovation director for Cargill. "I wouldn't call it a commodity yet."

Just under 3% of Minnesota's 26 million acres of cropland has an environmentally sound cover crop during the winter. Often the protestation from farmers is the region is too cold. Some might also begrudge growing something they won't take to market. They have to remove many cover crops — such as hairy vetch — in the summer.

Last fall, Cargill launched the pilot with a couple dozen growers. In February, the commodities giant announced a $2.5 million investment with the University of Minnesota's world-renowned Forever Green Initiative — an incubator for developing farming's future crops — to develop novel oilseeds.

And Wednesday, Cargill announced a new research partnership with Forever Green, leaning on technical expertise — including a laboratory in Fort Collins — to more quickly develop regenerative crops like camelina.

It's all part of a carefully orchestrated dance to stand up a cropping system for camelina, from growers to processors to buyers.

Mitch Hunter, associate director of Forever Green, said demand for Camelina has turbocharged as industry and governments are looking toward sustainable aviation.


"You can't overnight grow a million acres," Hunter said. "But our partnership with Cargill is letting us grow the acres pretty darn fast."

For more than a decade, the U.S. Navy has tested blending camelina-derived fuel stocks into fuel for fighter jets. Beginning in 2016, Forever Green started breeding oilseeds — including camelina, which is a member of the mustard family and native to the Mediterranean — for use in a relay-cropping system with soybeans.

One concern has been the seed's size. A camelina seed is far smaller than a soybean. One task for researchers, Hunter said, will be breeding a bigger seed that can work with established farm equipment. For now, a crush plant in West Fargo will process this summer's harvest.

The batch of farmers who stepped forward are among the first to see the crop with big potential growing on their fields. Cargill said they want to grow the number of camelina acres tenfold. A second round of the pilot opens for growers in Minnesota and the Dakotas in August.

Paul Novotny, a farmer in southeastern Minnesota who also serves on the Chatfield City Council, has old stands of Kernza along the edges of his field. He tried the perennial wheatgrass, another wonder crop with lineage through Forever Green, in this plot of land he farms near the elementary school.

"Where it started is water quality," Novotny said. "We have great water. But they call it 'young water.' When it lands on the surface, in 15 years, we could be drinking it. Whereas a lot of places, it's 30 or 40 years old."

This year, Novotny's fields atop a hillock in Chatfield are one of the test plots for camelina. He hopped back in the red combine and turned the vehicle into the field, lowering the thresher.

Soon, Novotny's red combine rolls smoothly over the fields, like a lawnmower gobbling up grass. Out the back, seeds spit. Novotny stops the machine, and Cargill and Forever Green staff kneel down to inspect the crop.

"This doesn't look too bad," Teeter said.

From the distance, a mother and three children watch behind the fence. It's unusual to see harvesting in the middle of summer. But the plant might be the future and could protect the water, long into the kids' old age.


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