Due to cold spring temperatures, this year’s seeds for Duane Johnson’s camelina crop are still sitting in the office at his Bigfork farm. But last year’s harvest shows a lot of potential.
In less than a week, Johnson says a new processing plant in Washington State will begin crushing camelina seeds grown for his employer, Great Plains Oil and Exploration, and processing them into biodiesel.
Johnson, a former agronomist for Montana State University who now does camelina research and development for Great Plains Oil from his Bigfork office, says camelina—a flowering plant similar to flax—has many advantages over other crops grown as biodiesel “feed stocks” such as corn, soy, canola and safflower.
The main one: It’s cheap. Right now, he says, camelina can be processed into biodiesel and sold for about $3 a gallon. Biodiesel from other crops goes for about $6 per gallon (regular diesel currently averages $3.95 per gallon).
“It’s not very demanding in terms of soil fertility and water, it really has no insect pests that we know of, and virtually no diseases,” Johnson says, ticking off the plant’s other benefits. “Consequently, all you have is the cost to plant it and the cost to harvest it.”
As if this weren’t enough to win over the hearts of biodiesel fans, environmentalists and farmers, Johnson also points out that, unlike other biodiesel crops, camelina is not grown for food and therefore won’t increase food prices if grown for fuel.
Amber Thurlo Pearson, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board, says the board is also excited about camelina’s future. “It’s our priority to develop new feed stocks for biodiesel,” she says.
Johnson says his employer should have contracts to grow camelina on 1 million acres in Montana this season, enough to produce about 45 million gallons of biofuel. Getting camelina to this point has been difficult, Johnson says.
“We’re trying to push a rope uphill when we’re talking about converting from petroleum to a biofuel. Somebody has to step up and say, ‘Look, this technically feasible, we can do it cost effectively.’”