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Montana farmers planting less camelina for biofuel


BILLINGS — Camelina, the biofuel that five years ago Gov. Brian Schweitzer called his new girlfriend, now struggles for a planting date with Montana farmers.

"The biggest challenge of all is the price of wheat," Schweitzer said Thursday. With wheat prices historically high, there's no incentive to mess with an oilseed still relatively unproven as a cash crop.

"I'm not going to wish for cheap wheat to get the camelina acres up, but that's what it's going to take," the governor said.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that last year Montana farmers planted 9,400 acres of camelina, less than half the acres planted just two years ago.

The oilseed has graded well as biofuel for the airline industry. The Air Force last month broke the speed of sound in an F-22 burning a 50-50 blend of camelina and regular jet fuel. But on the farm camelina is going nowhere fast.

"It's price," said Logan Fisher, of Earl Fisher Biofuels in Chester. "Whatever a farmer can use his acres for to get the best price, that's what he's going to do."

Earl Fisher produces camelina fuel for Golden Triangle farms as well as train tests by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Twice in the past four years, oil has crossed the $100 a barrel mark, prompting interest in alternative fuels, but both in 2008 and now, payments for other crops also increased. Corn, the nation's biggest and most subsidized ethanol source, is in short supply and at a record high price. Wheat, which becomes a corn substitute in animal feedlots when corn demand is high, is paying well. That leaves little incentive for growing camelina.

But there are other problems for the crop. Scott Johnson of Sustainable Oils said his company has been waiting for camelina to become certified as a jet fuel for commercial airlines. The fuel has been proven in commercial airline tests for a couple of years and has powered four types of Air Force jets, but certification has been slow coming.

Sustainable Oils, which has offices in Bozeman, delivered 100,000 gallons to the Air Force for testing.

Official approval would make it easier to get loans to develop camelina refining. It would also assure farmers that the crop has a future. Certification could come this summer when the American Society for Testing and Materials meets to consider standardizing biofuels for commercial airlines.

There's price turbulence surrounding camelina fuel, though. Per gallon, the Air Force paid nearly $67 for its camelina fuel. In January, the RAND Corporation issued a report requested by Congress that concluded that biofuels weren't worth the military's trouble. The report cited limited production potential, greenhouse gas emissions worse than petroleum and displacement of food crops.

Sustainable Oils asserts that the report is inaccurate, citing other reports that supported camelina's development as a jet fuel.

Johnson said camelina production in terms of acres planted will probably be down again this year, but the National Agricultural Statistics Service report issued Wednesday indicated yields per acre were up, which indicates that the crop is becoming more viable. Sustainable Oils, which first opened shop announcing intentions for 100,000 camelina acres in Montana, isn't giving up.

"My acres will actually be down a bit from last year because I'm getting to the end of my military contracts," Johnson said. "I think out of that report the good news is the per-acre yield is going up significantly. That's a little gem of good news. We certainly haven't cut our commitment to our breeding program. We've continued our support on variety trials at Montana State University."


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