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Emerging oilseed crop fuels sustainable aviation – and southern opportunity

Camelina now grown primarily in the Kansas and the Northwest may soon be an option for Southern growers.

Pam Caraway, Farm Futures executive editor

September 15, 2023

5 Min Read
guy standing in field of camelina
Mike Karst, president of Sustainable Oils Inc., reported the company is developing camelina varieties to expand the oilseed crop production area into the south. Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc.

Fueled by the drive for alternative energy sources, an ancient oil seed is emerging as a profitable crop for farmers.  

Production of camelina sativa is expected to expand since Syngenta Seeds joined the flight of companies homed in on the aviation biofuel market. Sustainable Oils Inc., a subsidiary of Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc., recently signed an agreement for Syngenta to sell camelina sativa seed. Sustainable Oils is currently leading the market for breeding and production of camelina. An ultra-low carbon oilseed crop, interest in camelina has been building since the 2000s, when it was recognized as a low-carbon index crop that can be used to produce sustainable aviation fuel as well as animal feed.  

“The oil demand is going to dictate how quickly this market moves,” said Eric Boeck, regional director North America for Syngenta Seeds, in an interview with Delta Farm Press during the Farm Progress Show. Boeck, who admittedly is not an economist, expects quick expansion. “The demand for oil and protein is high.” 

Camelina as a cash cover crop 

Though camelina sativa production now is focused in Kansas, Colorado and the Northwest, southern growers can expect access in a few years. 

Sustainable Oils is developing a camelina sativa variety that is resistant to imazapic, a herbicide often used in peanut production, according to company President Mike Karst. 

With a growing season similar to canola, Karst said growers in the south could essentially plant camelina as a cash cover crop. 

“You can get camelina in there ahead of your soybean crop,” Karst said, noting that the oilseed would be harvested in May. 

One of the challenges to introducing a new crop is engaging processors. Planted acres and processing must come online in the same season for the crop to profitably reach end users. For that, Karst and Boeck said, their “closed loop” or vertically integrated grower program helps reduce the risk for farmers who plant the new crop. Through that program, the companies also contract with elevators to accept camelina.  

“Farmers who buy camelina seed will have a harvest purchase contract. There is no marketing risk for the farmer since there is already an integrated value chain model,” according to a news release from Syngenta. 

With 45,000 acres now in commercial production, Karst said, the company is “very hands on with our producers” from planting to combine calibration. Syngenta plans a similar program through its AgriPro dealer network. 

“This is a crop that’s going to need some attention to detail,” Karst said. From planting depth to harvest, camelina demands timeliness and precision. Producers, he said, do well to “follow the agronomic profile that said do this at this stage.” 

“It’s why we spend a lot of time with growers,” Karst said. “It’s a different crop than any of them have grown before.” 

Camelina also offers an opportunity to improve other crops in a rotation. For instance, Karst said, “this is a great crop to fight Johnson grass.” 

Because camelina is a broadleaf crop, Karst explained, farmers can use grass herbicides over the top. In a rotation, this helps curb the population of resistant species in other crops in the rotation. Additionally, adding camelina to the rotation will help farmers in the current geography fight resistant kochia. With new varieties and an expanded geography, he said camelina production could be a new tool for farmers fighting giant ragweed and water hemp. 

Another point for camelina consideration, Karst said, is camelina doesn’t require new equipment for farmers who set up to produce small grains. 

“They don’t need a new combine,” Karst said. “They just need to adjust the ones they have.” 

For producers who planted canola, one of the differences between camelina and its distant cousin is that its seed hulls are not prone to shatter.  

Overall, Boeck said, “it’s really a great opportunity for producers from a revenue producing standpoint.” 

Expanding farmer opportunities with camelina 

New crop opportunities have been known to spur acreage battles between commodities. With camelina, Boeck instead sees synergy. 

In the alternative fuel market, an acreage competition would likely be with soybean. To that, Boeck said, “There aren’t enough soybean acres to meet the demand. My belief is that this is an additive effect rather than a replacement.” 

Karst sees the demand for oil pushing acreage across all alternative fuel crops, including corn and soybeans. Considering federal support for alternative fuel production, some people look to the history of the ethanol market and question whether the camelina market could collapse with turbulent political winds. 

Should that happen, Karst said, “we’ll be able to produce oil that’s competitively priced with any other plant-based fuel.” 

Furthermore, Karst noted, the market for sustainable aviation fuel is not limited to the United States. “The demand is global,” Karst said, and “the demand right now is high.” 

About the Author(s)

Pam Caraway

Farm Futures executive editor

Pam Caraway became executive editor of Farm Futures in 2024. She has amassed a career in ag communications, including leadership roles in editorial, marketing and public relations. No stranger to the Farm Progress editorial team, she has served as editor of former publications Florida Farmer and Southern Farmer, and as a senior staff writer at Delta Farm Press.

She started her writing career at Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach. She also worked on agrochemical accounts at agencies Bader Rutter and Rhea + Kaiser.

Caraway says working as an ag communications professional is the closest she can get to farming – and still earn a paycheck. She’s been rewarded for that passion and drive with multiple writing and marketing awards, most notably: master writer from the Agricultural Communicators Network, a Plant Pathology Journalism Award from the American Phytopathological Society, and the Reuben Brigham Award from the Association for Communication Excellence.

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