Researchers working to improve the performance of camelina see room for the oilseed in North American crop rotations.
The crop’s potential has been touted for several years, but food, nutraceutical and biofuel markets, along with the corresponding acres, have been slow to materialize.
Fledgling buyers and processors, regulatory hang-ups and growing competition from carinata seed in biofuel markets haven’t helped the crop’s emergence, leaving growers in Canada and the United States uncertain about its future.
Nonetheless, officials from the research community continue to examine the plant, working through a list of characteristics and traits to improve farmers’ experience with the crop on at least one side of the farmgate.
“We want to develop camelina cultivars that are agronomically superior and adapted to the Canadian Prairies,” said Christina Eynck, a breeder with Linnaeus Plant Sciences.
Camelina cultivars grown in Western Canada have been transplanted from Europe. Eynck, along with Agriculture Canada researchers in Saskatoon, are working to develop made-in-Canada varieties to address the challenges faced by local producers. They are studying yield, oil content and seed size.
The crop’s strong performance against blackleg and flea beetles makes it well-suited to Western Canada, but it remains susceptible to other diseases common in the brassica family, including downy mildew, aster yellows and sclerotinia.
It’s one factor Eynck is hoping research and breeding can address.
“For the crop to really be accepted by farmers, it’s important that we have herbicide tolerance in it, so that farmers can use herbicides in the crop,” said Eynck.
A non genetically modified variety with Group 2 herbicide tolerance could be available within the next three years, she added.
Current varieties are susceptible to even residual amounts of those herbicides, which limit its performance in rotations following cereal crops.
“Our end goal really is to combine Group 2 and Group 4 herbicide tolerance in one line, so that herbicides can be used in a more sustainable manner,” said Eynck.
Herbicide-tolerant camelina is part of Scot Hulbert’s research program at Washington State University. While most of his work concerns wheat disease, he’s interested in camelina as something that can intensify crop rotations and reduce soil loss in lower rainfall areas of the northwestern United States, where wheat-fallow rotations are common.
“If you grow (herbicide tolerant Clearfield wheat), you really can’t grow camelina because it’ll be two or three or four years before you won’t see damage,” he said. “It lives in the soil here pretty long.”
Camelina in his area is minimal.
“The farmers around here are pretty wary, especially when you talk about oilseeds. The companies have really come and gone here,” said Hulbert. “All the oilseeds are really minor here, and the industry has been kind of stop and go.”
Western Canadian producers have had a similar experience in recent years, not receiving full payments for acres contracted with American buyer Great Plains — The Camelina Company.
“It’s a chicken and the egg thing. I think they just have to grow and work together,” said Eynck.
“The scientist has to work on things that in the end have application for the farmer and have importance for the farmer and if the industry grows and, in the end, there’s more funding for science, there’s a mutual benefit between the two.”