Northwest Pa. farmers grow camelina for biofuel with PSU help

June 05, 2008

University Park, Pa. — Northwestern Pennsylvania farmers are forming a co-op with the help of Penn State Cooperative Extension to produce a promising biofuel raw material -- camelina, a Mediterranean  native plant whose seeds are 40 percent oil and can be used in manufacturing biodiesel.

The annual plant with prolific small, pale- yellow flowers with four petals, attains heights of 1 to 3 feet and has branched stems that become woody at maturity. Leaves are arrow-shaped, sharp-pointed and about 3 inches long with smooth edges. Seed pods are the size and shape of a small pea. The camelina will be harvested with combines when it is mature. The seeds are very small, amounting to about 400,000 seeds per pound, and they are 40 percent oil, compared to 20 percent with soybeans. 

"We have about 300 acres of the oilseed camelina planted on a dozen farms here," says Joel Hunter, extension educator based in Meadville. "This is a  right-here, right-now thing. We have a huge new market for vegetable oil for biodiesel, and we will be selling the oil to the Lake Erie Biofuels plant just to the north in Erie."
The plant, which opened in late 2007, has a capacity to make 45 million gallons of biodiesel a year from vegetable oils and other fat sources, according to Hunter. "They will buy all the oil we can give them," he says. "It's a huge operation, and plant officials would love to develop a local supplier. Right now they have to bring in oil from out of the region."

Executives with Lake Erie Biofuels asked Penn State extension specialists if camelina could be grown in northwest Pennsylvania, and the answer was found in studies recently conducted by the University of Montana.

"Once we were sure we could grow it, we were pretty aggressive because it looked like a real opportunity," Hunter says. "We brought it up with growers at meetings last fall and winter and urged them to try it. There was so much interest, we actually turned people down."

Penn State Cooperative Extension purchased 1,000 pounds of camelina seed for farmers to grow. "We went out on a limb to make this happen, but we knew that even if we didn't get grants to cover the cost, we were willing to invest that much to get the effort off to a running start because it is such a good idea," says Hunter.

"In recent years, there has been increasing interest in developing agronomic systems with low requirements for fertilizer, pesticides and energy, and that provide better soil-erosion control than conventional systems. Camelina could play a key complimentary role in a no-till system approach based on cover crops and rotations."

With a growing season of just 85 to 105 days, the climate in northwestern Pennsylvania limits farmers' ability to "double-crop" in most cases, Hunter notes. "We liked camelina because it fits into our crop rotation, and it can be no-till planted, planted early and then followed by another crop. It seems to integrate well into our primarily dairy agriculture here."

Penn State Extension is working with the owners of a crush plant in Union City to extract the oil and is making arrangements with various partners on other details, such as transportation of the crop.

"Handling seeds this small is really a challenge, but a key partner, Ernst Seeds in Meadville, has the expertise and equipment to handle it," Hunter says. "We want to make the program bigger in 2009, adding acres and growers. We want to convince more people to get involved, and in a few years, Extension will step away and let capitalism take over."

A few details still need to be worked out, but everything is looking good, Hunter says. One of those details is what to do with the remaining meal after the oil is pressed out of the camelina seeds. Like the camelina oil, the meal is high in omega-3 fatty acid, which means the nutritional value of the meal is high. That should make it attractive to farmers feeding livestock.

"The potential is there to do value-added ag products from the meal," says Hunter. "We are hoping we can feed it to poultry for production of high Omega-3 eggs. But at this point, we would settle for just feeding it to livestock."

  • Camelina plants (middle)

    IMAGE: Joel Hunter

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010