Research company touts camelina as the next Cinderella crop in Western Canada

Jack Grushcow is a true believer, at least when it comes to camelina.

Grushcow, who founded a software company that was sold to Microsoft in 1991, is convinced camelina will be the next Cinderella crop in Western Canada.

There’s only about 5,000 acres of camelina in Saskatchewan this year, but Grushcow envisions a much larger number in the near future.

“I think there’s going to be an explosion in acres in a couple of years,” said Grushcow, founder and president of Smart Earth Seeds in Saskatoon.

Smart Earth Seeds is a camelina breeding and production company that develops new varieties of camelina and contracts farmers to grow the oilseed.

For years Grushcow and his team have been developing markets for the oilseed crop, which is part of the brassica family, focusing on sales to the aquaculture trade, the poultry industry, dairy feed and now pet food.

Camelina acres in 2017 are flat compared to 2016, but Smart Earth Seeds has posted a string of successes over the last 12 months:

  • In November the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved camelina meal as feed for laying hens.
  • In April the CFIA approved camelina oil as a feed ingredient for farmed salmon and trout.
  • In May Ag West Bio, Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association, invested $300,000 in Smart Earth Seeds.

“Their successive technology and market milestones over the past two years sparked our investment interest,” said Wilf Keller, Ag West Bio president.

“Their sustainable aquafeed ingredient has garnered the most attention, but we like their diversity into several different revenue streams, based on a foundation of advanced germplasm and solid economics.”

Camelina oil has the potential to displace fish oil in the aquaculture industry because it has high levels of omega 3 fatty acids.

“The use of wild-sourced fish to feed the farmed fish is not sustainable either ecologically or economically,” Claude Caldwell of Dalhousie University said in a statement.

“Camelina could be a viable alternative.”

It may have the right attributes and may be more sustainable, but Smart Earth Seeds hasn’t convinced a major aquaculture firm in Canada to make the switch to camelina oil.

Part of the challenge is price. Last summer fish oil was selling for US$2,000 per tonne.

“Now, because there’s been a massive anchovy harvest in Peru, the price has gone down by almost half,” Grushcow said.

Smart Earth Seeds is in discussions with a couple of aquaculture companies on purchase agreements.

“They all talk about sustainability and marine-free diets,” Grushcow said.

“I’m hoping one of these companies is going to see value in camelina, simply beyond the fatty acid profile.”

Demand for camelina meal may also jump soon, thanks to the CFIA approval for laying hens.

Grushcow said one of the larger egg producers in Western Canada is testing camelina meal on its flock and how it affects the eggs.

“So far they’re absolutely loving the data,” he said.

“Indications are that they’re going to replace a certain amount of flax in their high omega egg diet with camelina.”

Besides fish farms and laying hens, Grushcow believes that pet food is an untapped market for camelina, especially for aging pets.

“(We are) working with U of S (Saskatchewan) to do some pet (food) evaluations this year,” he said.

“We think there’s an opportunity to have (a camelina) ingredient in an older pet diet that will improve joint or skin health.”

If the demand side of the equation does take off, Smart Earth Seeds will need a larger supply of camelina and potentially a crush plant in Western Canada.

Right now, camelina seed grown in Saskatchewan is shipped to the U.S. Northwest, where it’s crushed at a facility in Oregon.

“If we’re going to develop this crop in Western Canada, we’ve got to start crushing it here,” Grushcow said.

Smart Earth Seeds has been collaborating with the Landis Producer Co-op, which operate a former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator in Landis, Sask., on handling and processing camelina.

As well, Grushcow is working with another organization in Melfort, Sask.

“There’s a group that has taken over the Melfort terminal. That’s being funded in part by Anderson Grain (the Andersons Grain Group) out of the States,” he said.

“I figure Landis or Melfort or both will be centres of production for us going forward.”

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