LIND, Wash. - Duane Johnson had made a nice life for himself as the go-to fellow for alternative crops at Montana State University. Then he began investigating camelina and his comfortable, secure future went right out the window.
Nowadays, the former director of the Montana Agricultural Innovation Center and the Institute for Biobased Products is likely to be found on the road, selling the crop he believed in enough to quit his university job for the private sector. In January, he became vice president for agriculture development for Great Plains Oil and Exploration, Big Fork, Mont.
When Washington State University agronomist Bill Schillinger introduced Johnson at the Lind Field Day as the man promoting and researching camelina, he was right on both counts. Like crops before it, camelina is being touted as the agronomic as well as the economic answer to many of agriculture's most vexing problems.
It's cold-hardy. So hardy, in fact, farmers in Canada plant it on the surface of frozen soil in January and it doesn't hurt the stands one bit, Johnson said.
It works well under direct seeding and also in the "recreational tillage" environment Johnson joked he had seen in Eastern Washington. It doesn't need much in the way of nutrients: 50 pounds of nitrogen an acre and 35 pounds of phosphorous.
It's a plant that works well in low-moisture conditions. Johnson said plots in Montana have yielded 1,800 pounds an acre on 10 inches of precipitation.
It outcompetes most weeds, and even though it doesn't have any chemicals registered for it now, some minor crop registrations should be available by next year. Insects aren't a problem.
When its tiny seed is crushed (there's about 350,000 of them in a pound) it yields an oil that is high in long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids. A particularly healthy oil, it is all the rage among aging baby boomers.
Don Wysocki of Pendleton is among those who take pills with Omega 3 oils to improve body functions. The Oregon State University extension soil scientist touted potential market opportunities for the crop during the Sherman Experiment Station field day. Standing before a plot planted to camelina, he brought along a carton of Omega 3 eggs as a visual aide. Coming from hens being fed flax seed, which is also high in Omega 3, the eggs in the carton are sold for $1.09 more a dozen than non-Omega 3 eggs.
Feeding the 3 million laying hens in Oregon a 15 percent ration of camelina would require 40,000 acres alone. And then there's the pet food market. A $29, 30-ounce bottle of 100 percent camelina oil is sold as a 1-tablespoon-a-day supplement for dogs and cats.
"Those markets exist today, and they're starting to expand. We'll have to see where it fits. High-value uses will bring the biofuel industry with it, and the oil that doesn't go into chicken feed and pet food will go into biofuels," Wysocki said.
For now, however, most of the health benefits are theoretical. Camelina does not have General Approved as Safe (GRAS) status from the Food and Drug Administration.
Johnson is running feeding trials in Havre, Mont., at 10-, 20- and 30-percent camelina in rations. He's hopeful government approval of the oil for human consumption and the feed for livestock will be secured within a year.
In the meantime, camelina is being grown almost exclusively as a biofuel feedstock. That's fine with Johnson, because that's what drew him to the crop in the first place.
The market for canola for growers in Montana, who planted about 40,000 acres this year, is about 9.5 cents a pound. Although that may not sound like much for growers who say they need 14 cents a pound for canola to make economic sense, Johnson said low input costs - about $50 an acre - must also be calculated.