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By Tim Leeds 

Aid offered in growing biofuels crop


A crop that is already a hot topic could become more prevalent in north-central Montana, with the U. S. Department of Agriculture adding the state as a region eligible for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.

The program would help producers with the startup costs for growing camelina, a crop under increasing scrutiny as a domestically grown source for biodiesel and alternative jet fuels.

Greg Kegel, dean of Montana State University-Northern's College of Technical Sciences, said one problem Northern's Bio-Energy Center has had has been finding agricultural producers willing to raise enough camelina for use in the center.

"That is good news to the project, not just the project, good news to the industry itself. It might get it kickstarted …, " Kegel said this morning. "This could be one of the first steps to help those producers get the seeds in the ground. "

Part of Northern's research on alternative fuel production has targeted camelina, both in producing biodiesel and in tests on producing jet fuels.

"We're finding in our research center it's one of the best jet fuels, " Kegel said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday that USDA is creating four additional Biomass Crop Assistance Program project areas in six states to expand the availability of non-food crops to be used in the manufacturing of liquid biofuels.

The press release announcing the creation of the areas said estimates show the new areas eventually could create more than 3,400 jobs in the biorefinery, agriculture and supporting sectors, and provide the feedstocks to produce more than 2 million gallons of biofuels annually.

"The Obama Administration is committed to providing financial opportunities to rural communities, farmers and ranchers to produce biomass which will be converted to renewable fuels and increase America's energy independence, " Vilsack said in the release. "The selection of these project areas is another step in the effort to assist the nation's advanced biofuel industry to produce energy in commercial quantities from sustainable rural resources. This effort will create jobs and stimulate rural economies across the nation. "

The announcement of these projects coincides with the first anniversary of a joint announcement by USDA, the Boeing Corporation and the Air Transportation Association on an initiative to bring sustainable and renewable aviation fuels to the marketplace.

The program, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, helps farmers with startup costs in raising the crop. Up to 15,000 acres of camelina production will be eligible for the program in Montana.

U. S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who helped write the 2008 Farm Bill, applauded the announcement.

"There's no reason why Montana shouldn't be leading the way in reducing our reliance on foreign oil while opening up new opportunities for Montana's farmers, " he said in a release Tuesday. "This is a great step forward in securing Montana's rightful spot in providing homegrown fuel that provides good-paying jobs and energy security down the road. " Baucus urged Montana ag producers to contact their local FSA office about applying for the program, for which signup will run Aug. 8 to Sept. 16.

Kegel said the crop, along with being a prime source for jet fuel and other biofuels, is a good match for north-central Montana. It grows well in arid climates and requires little fertilizer, he said. That allows it to grow in marginal land not well-suited for many crops, such as wheat.

The crop also is a good rotation crop, improving the soil.

"You put it in as a rotation and get a better crop the next year. It's good for the soils …, " Kegel said. "It is a win-win, and we're not competing directly with land for food crops. "


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