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Researchers want farmers to know about camelina, a crop with many uses

Camelina at flowering. 1 / 3
Camelina close to harvest. 2 / 3
Augustine Obour, assistant professor of soil science at Kansas State Univeristy (Submitted photo)3 / 3

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Augustine Obour first learned of camelina in 2010 when he joined the University of Wyoming as a research scientist.

"I just got interested in it and wanted to work on it," he says.

Now Obour, assistant professor of soil science at Kansas State University, wants farmers across the Great Plains to learn about the crop, too. He participated in a research project that provides more information on growing camelina in Kansas in particular and the central Great Plains in general, an area where the crop is largely unknown.

Many farmers on the Northern Plains, in contrast, have heard of the crop. Some, especially those in cooler sections of the region, grow it now or have raised it in the past.

Similar to flax, canola and mustard, camelina is a short-season crop that tolerates cold conditions, which partially explains why it's grown on the Northern Plains. Camelina can be grown on marginal land and with the same equipment that producers use for other crops they raise.

As Obour notes, the crop has drawn particular attention for potential use in biodiesel and jet fuel production. But camelina is an extremely versatile crop and can be used in many other ways, including human and animal food.

And camelina can be a useful cover crop, or one grown primarily to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale; overall interest in cover crops is increasing. Obour says camelina has potential value as "fallow replacement," or a crop planted on a field that otherwise would go unseeded.

While the crop has drawn interest from researchers in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota and other states in the Northern Plains, camelina has received little attention in the central Great Plains, including Kansas.

"Here, it's not known. It's kind of a new crop," Obour says.

Two test sites

The research project, which included other scientists from Kansas State University and Montana State University, seeks to increase carmelina's popularity in the central Great Plains.

It examined how camelina fared in two test sites: Hays, Kansas, which has relatively early springs and warmer summer air temperatures; and Moccasin, Mont., which has relatively cooler spring and summer temperatures and also lower average annual rainfall.

The research, conducted over three years, studied how camelina genetics and environmental conditions affect camelina growth, yield and oil composition — information that can help farmers target their camelina crop for a specific market.

A number of notable differences between the two test sites were identified. An example: Monounsaturated and saturated fatty acid contents were greater at Hays, while polyunsaturated oil content was lower there. Obour says his interest as a scientist is "to look at something that will work" and that drought-tolerant camelina works in dry conditions.

"Agronomically, we can grow it," he says, adding that marketing the crop can be a major challenge.

His recommendations to farmers interested in raising camelina: Start on a small scale, see how it works and identity markets in which to sell it.

To learn more about the research: