While in Argentina at one of research facilities of Sustainable Oils, LLC, Mike Karst, president of Sustainable Oils, said the company has globally bred and developed many new camelina varieties.
“Looking globally, we have 23 new camelina varieties that we have bred and tested,” Karst said. “We have a research facility here in Argentina and farmers here also grow camelina for us. In fact, this is our planting season right now because camelina is a winter crop in Argentina. It will harvest in October.”
Sustainable Oils is a global camelina seedstock company, part of a vertically-integrated camelina to renewable diesel company.
Its North American headquarters is located in Great Falls, Mont., and all its camelina in North America will go to its parent company’s refinery in California, where it will be processed into renewable diesel.
“We’re building this global breeding program, but it all starts right here in Great Falls,” Karst said at the grand opening of their North American headquarters.
Montana farmers who have wheat/fallow rotations have an opportunity to generate revenue off those fallow acres with camelina.
“We have committed to growing camelina on non-crop acreage, and Montana farmers who have wheat/fallow rotations would benefit economically from planting camelina on fallow acres,” he said.
Sustainable Oils offers contracts to farmers for camelina grown in their fallow acres, where otherwise they would not make money while the acres sit idle.
Camelina protects fallow land as all cover crops do, feeding the soil biology and creating healthy soil.
“Camelina is a crop that farmers can feel good about growing. It protects the soil while it is growing in their fields, but it also creates benefits for the environment throughout its entire lifecycle,” Karst said.
Camelina is a short, cool-season oilseed crop, maturing in about 85-110 days, with high oil content of around 30 percent.
In 2019, Karst started working with their new camelina varieties in the Great Falls area.
He said they hold field days annually in July, demonstrating to farmers how their camelina varieties develop well in the arid Golden Triangle.
“We’re getting good interest from farmers in Montana who want to grow camelina for us now. We started off in 2019 with three or four farmers who wanted to try growing a quarter section, and now we are seeing a lot more interest in camelina from farmers,” he said.
Sustainable Oils believes in working alongside its farmer growers, showing them the best way to manage the crop on mostly dryland acres.
“We’re hands-on with farmers out in the field, working with them on crop management many times during the growing season,” Karst said.
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The first year in Montana, Karst was out in the farm fields seven times with farmers during the growing season.
“It’s really about letting them know that we will be here for them. There is never any doubt about that – we will never leave them in a lurch, and we want them to have the technical support they need,” he said.
“We want farmers to know when they bring their camelina to the elevator, they are going to be paid in a timely manner. We try to treat our growers like neighbors who we would invite to our kitchen table and talk to them about trying something new,” he added
In Montana, camelina can be planted in April and harvested at the end of July/first week of August. If they like, farmers can come back in and plant winter wheat in behind the camelina that same year and have a winter wheat crop through the next winter season.
The company has tested all their proprietary camelina varieties extensively.
“Our camelina variety that we have had the most success with in Montana is SO-50. It is our workhorse variety and has been yielding well regardless of soil type,” he said. “It tends to be our number one variety on yield.”
Down in Kansas, SO-50 has yielded as high as 2,050 pounds per acre. In their commercial seed production fields of 1,500 acres and higher, the yields have been even higher, up to 2,400 pounds per acre.
“Seed production fields are near perfect conditions,” he said.
During 2021, with drought conditions in north central Montana, SO-50 yields were around 750 pounds, which demonstrates it is a drought-tolerant crop. Its roots make efficient use of available soil moisture, and it is also a frost-tolerant crop.
While camelina can be grown under irrigation, dryland is often the best acreage for the oil feedstock crop.
“One of the challenges we really face is making sure growers stop the water under irrigation because if camelina stays cool and you keep putting water to it, it will keep growing and growing,” he said. “If it is cool and wet, we’ll dessicate it.”
A few years ago,Brett Allen, research agronomist at USDA-ARS Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney, Mont., conducted a three-year study evaluating feedstock and other oilseeds with other ARS labs in the western U.S.
After three years, Allen found a winter camelina variety was the only oilseed to survive two winters in a row.
All the oilseeds, however, had high oil content.
“Companies that are interested in producing jet fuel or renewable diesel are interested in the quantity of extractable seed oil per acre,” Allen said.
For farmers that have contracted with Sustainable Oils, Karst said Sustainable Oils vice president Barney Bernstein partnered with CHS for farmers to purchase seed in Glendive and Wolf Point.
“We have heard the camelina crop looks quite good out there this year,” Karst said. “We’re looking forward to a great crop.”
For Montana farmers interested in learning more about camelina and contracting with Sustainable Oils, see https://susoils.com.