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Harvesting jet fuel

SLO County farms could grow camelina sativa, a promising biofuel crop

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An ancient plant whose crushed seeds yielded oil to light the lamps of Rome may grow on SLO County farmland this winter for a more modern purpose: to power jets.

Known as camelina sativa, the mustard-like plant has already been successfully tested in Navy and Air Force jet fighters and in airline passenger jets, and the federal government wants to see more cropland devoted to growing it.

- BOMBS, NOT FOOD? :  Camelina sativa can be dry-farmed on former wheat fields and used to make jet fuel for the military and commercial airlines. Its seed pods (inset) hold tiny seeds that can be crushed for oil. -  - PHOTO COURTESY OF ALTAIR FUELS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF ALTAIR FUELS
  • BOMBS, NOT FOOD? : Camelina sativa can be dry-farmed on former wheat fields and used to make jet fuel for the military and commercial airlines. Its seed pods (inset) hold tiny seeds that can be crushed for oil.

San Luis Obispo County is one of the areas targeted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture where farmers can receive cash payments for growing camelina for conversion to aviation biofuel. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, established in the 2008 Farm Bill, will reimburse farmers for the majority of the cost of their camelina crops for five years, with the hope of reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil and reducing carbon pollution.

“This is a novel crop for California,” said Steve Kaffka, a UC Davis plant science specialist who’s grown camelina on test plots. “There’s no question you can turn camelina into diesel, jet, or other fuels.”

Grown as a non-irrigated annual on land previously dry-farmed for wheat or safflower, the three-foot-tall flowering plants make seed pods filled with tiny seeds containing around 35 percent oil. Residue left after crushing the seeds to extract the oil can be used as meal to feed to livestock and poultry.

About 30 local farmers and ranchers turned up for a meeting in Templeton last month to hear Kaffka talk about growing camelina. Stacy Alcorn of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Templeton presented details of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program for camelina.

Some 200 growers from Westlands Irrigation District in the San Joaquin Valley attended a similar meeting Sept. 6, Kaffka said.

“Everybody’s wondering about camelina,” he told New Times. “Farmers are always looking for another crop, for more arrows in the quiver.”

Still, no SLO County farmers signed up for the federal crop assistance program by the original deadline of Sept. 16. The USDA recently announced that the deadline has been extended to Sept. 23.

“A lot of people showed up [in Templeton] with great interest, but they left, I think, a little downhearted,” explained Royce Larsen, a local adviser with UC Cooperative Extension. “With the Biomass Crop Assistance program, you have to sign a five-year contract and grow camelina every year.

“The bottom line is it’s too new, with too many unknowns for people to want to jump on board and give this a try,” Larsen added.

Kaffka is hoping some local growers will work with him to set up some trial plantings this winter to see how camelina fares under local weather and soil conditions. As the director of the California Biomass Collaborative—an association of government, industry, environmental groups, and education representatives working on sustainable biomass for renewable energy and biofuels—he sees opportunities in energy crops.

Along with camelina, Kaffka has been test-growing other potential biofuel crops—canola and meadowfoam—although not yet in SLO County.

So far, most camelina grown in the United States is in Montana, where climate conditions are much different. There, it’s planted in spring rather than winter.

“It hasn’t been adapted specifically for California. We’re trying to figure out what conditions it likes, the range of rainfall and soil types where it might be suitable in San Luis Obispo County,” Kaffka said. “Farmers are being asked to make a decision [about signing up for the federal crop assistance program] on incomplete knowledge.”

One concern of local growers, Larsen said, is the potential for weeds, especially yellow star thistle, an invasive and particularly troublesome plant pest in some parts of the county. No chemical herbicides have been approved yet for use with camelina.

The federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires annual production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels for the national fuel supply by 2022. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program “addresses a classic chicken-or-egg challenge around the start up of commercial-scale bioenergy activities,” according to a USDA fact sheet. Along with camelina in California, that program also pays farmers in other states for growing additional new energy crops such as jatropha, giant miscanthus, and hybrid poplars.

California is interested in fuels that release less carbon than gasoline. A state objective also calls for 20 percent of the fuel for California engines to be grown in California by 2020, and camelina may be emerging as the front-runner.

Seattle-based AltAir Fuels, LLC, is aiming to produce camelina biofuel as a low-carbon drop-in substitute for traditional jet fuels, with production beginning in late 2012 in Bakersfield, according to media reports.

John Williams, a spokesman for AltAir, said that in 2009 the company announced a memorandum of understanding with 14 commercial airlines to supply up to 750 million gallons of biofuel over 10 years. But progress on that ambitious target was delayed by the lack of approved specifications for crop-based jet fuel. In July this year, a federal standard for the fuel was finally adopted.

“Now we can be sure [camelina biofuel] meets the standards,” Williams said.

AltAir Fuels is a partner with the USDA on the Biomass Crop Assistance Program for camelina, and has already sold more than 500,000 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel.

U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets used a 50/50 blend of camelina and petroleum jet fuel at an air expo in Maryland on Labor Day weekend. Two Boeing commercial jets used camelina biofuel to fly across the Atlantic to this summer’s Paris Air Show, and it’s also been successfully tested in a variety of Air Force fighter jets.

AltAir Fuels plans to buy camelina oil to make jet fuel from another Seattle-based company, Sustainable Oils, which is contracting with growers throughout the West. Sustainable Oils is reaching out to growers in the western San Joaquin Valley, where thousands of acres no longer receiving irrigation water could be suitable for growing camelina crops. If any SLO County growers decide to try camelina, Sustainable Oils would likely be willing to contract with them, too.

As with other crop-based biofuels, camelina raises the food-versus-fuel debate, especially since the federal crop assistance program expects it to be grown on land where wheat has previously been grown.

AltAir spokesman Williams said camelina wouldn’t displace wheat, but would be grown as a profitable crop in rotation with wheat.

As Alcorn of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Templeton waited to see if any local farmers will sign up for federal assistance for growing camelina, she said, “Camelina has been around a long time, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. It’s a learning process for us.”

Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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