By Tim Leeds 

Camelina: The new gold rush?


Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson, file photo

Northern Agricultural Research Center agronomy research assistant Garen Pay takes camelina forage cuts June 26, 2009.

The federal government is offering to pay local farmers to try a different crop, that could tie into a hot button item — raising crops locally to produce alternative fuels.

"I think it could be the opportunity (for this region) to become the biofuels capital of the country, " Hill County Farm Service Agency Executive Director Mike Zook said in an interview Thursday. "I would like that. "

Numbers have come out to give some impact to the new Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP, Region 8 that includes Montana. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the creation of the new region July 26. USDA now is administering nine BCAP areas.

The concept is that the federal government will pay farmers for raising camelina to be used in fuel production. Similar to the Conservation Reserve Program, where the government makes a payment to rent the use of the land to plant native grasses and other vegetation to provide wildlife habitat and prevent erosion, the government will rent the use of the land for growing camelina — but it is the farmer who owns the land who plants, raises and sells the camelina.

In the program, producers are paid rental payments on the harvesting of crops — camelina for Region 8 — in exchange for entering a five-year contract to raise camelina for alternative energy production.

The issue is becoming of more and more interest in the nation, both as a way to revitalize rural economies and as a way to produce biofuels domestically, reducing the U. S. dependence on foreign oil and helping reduce greenhouse gases.

Zook said the program will help farmers offset the cost of trying out the new crop — a crop with already comparatively low input costs.

Farmers in the program will be paid a rental rate based on established Conservation Reserve Program rates for all counties in Montana. For Hill County, that works out to a base rate of $40.40 paid for each acre of camelina committed to the program.

The existing CRP rates translate to base BCAP rates of $42.90 an acre for Liberty County, $43.70 an acre for Blaine County, and $59.40 an acre for Chouteau County. A percentage of that is deducted based on the sale value of the crop, depending on for what the oil would be used.

In Region 8, the deduction of the base will be 10 percent, for oil used in advanced biofuels like biodiesel and jet fuel.

Zook's example was that, for a farmer who gets 800 pounds of camelina per acre and sells it for 18 cents a pound, the $144-per-acre gross would translate to a $14.40 deduction from the base.

That would give a $26-per-acre rental payment, making the gross $170-an-acre for the camelina crop.

The application period opened Aug. 6, and runs through Sept. 16, but producers may want to move fairly quickly. The Region 8 program allows farmers to enroll up to 50,000 acres in three states — California and Washington are included as well as Montana — but Montana's share is 15,000.

The applications will be processed on a first-come, first-serve basis, Zook said.

Daryl Sather, who farms north of Havre and has raised camelina, said he might be interested in joining, depending on the specifics. Those include knowing he will have a market, how long he would have to store it before shipping, and to where he would have to ship it, before he would consider replacing wheat with camelina.

Part of the problem is storing the product — if it displaces storage for wheat until the camelina can be shipped to the buyer, it could be hard to justify raising the crop.

Sather said another issue is to where it would be shipped — especially since local farmers tend to transport their crops themselves.

A main incentive would be if the fuel was marketed locally.

"I've raised it; I know I can do it. It can (have a good) return because the cost of inputs is lower, but I want to be able to use it in my vehicle, " Sather said.

Zook said he is hopeful that local markets could follow an expansion of camelina production.

With current testing of locally produced camelina biodiesel, including tests by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and North Central Montana Transit, the research on growing the crop at Northern Agricultural Research Center as well as making and using biodiesel at Montana State University-Northern's Bio-Energy Center, the USDA program could piggy-back onto them to create a supply, demand and market, he said.

"Once we're growing a crop, hopefully we will see a local crushing plant, " he said.

For more information on the BCAP Region 8 program, people can contact their county FSA office.


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