An interview with three people in the vanguard of winter camelina commercialization efforts as an oilseed cash crop in the Upper Midwest.
Colin Cureton is Director of Adoption and Scaling at the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative.
Matthew Tentis is a 3rd generation farmer on White Barn Acres near Kellogg, Minnesota focused on raising cattle and implementing regenerative agricultural practices.
David Kiesner is Director of Business Development at Millborn Seeds, a specialty seed company dealing with over 1200 unique species of seed, located in Brookings, South Dakota.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops, you’re gonna love it. Join us on The Cutting Edge, A Podcast in Search of New Crops for Wisconsin.
David Kiesner 0:10
One of the things that we’ve seen is a lot of interest from the biofuels producers with the advent of new technology for producing renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. There’s more capacity coming online for refining fats and vegetable oils than what we produce here in the United States today. And there’s some unique advantages with camelina oil, and the carbon intensity score as a feedstock and how that impacts the value of the biofuels at the output.
Steffen Mirsky 0:56
Welcome to another episode of The Cutting Edge, A Podcast in Search of New Crops for Wisconsin. I’m Steffen Mirsky, Outreach Specialist for Emerging Crops with UW-Madison Extension. I’m joined today by my co-host, Jason Fischbach. Hey, Jason.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:11
Steffen Mirsky 1:12
And we are here to learn about winter camelina, a crop that has been getting a lot of attention and hype recently for reasons that we’ll talk about today. We have three guests joining us today, who are leading the charge in the Upper Midwest with the introduction of this crop. Welcome to you all. And thanks for joining us. Can you all just briefly introduce yourselves and say when you do, especially as it relates to winter camelina. And let’s just start with Colin.
Colin Cureton 1:40
Sure. Hi, Steffen. And hi, Jason. Hello, Matt and David, good to be with you all today. My name is Colin Cureton, and I work as the Director of Adoption and Scaling with an agricultural innovation platform that’s based at the University of Minnesota called the Forever Green initiative. And there I co-lead the efforts of a commercialization, adoption and scaling team that is working with crop research and development teams on over a dozen new perennial and winter annual crops and cropping systems for the upper Midwest. And our team essentially forms a bridge between the types of folks on this call, seed companies like Millborn, growers like Matt, and many other people that it takes to make a new crop launch out of university and succeed on the landscaping and in the market.
Steffen Mirsky 2:32
Great. Thanks, Colin. Matt, you want to go next?
Matt Tentis 2:36
Yeah, thank you and pleasure to be here. I really appreciate the invite. Yeah, as you said, we’re a third generation family farm in near Kellogg, Minnesota, so the southeastern part of the state. Our focus has been, especially within the last five years or so, it’s kind of been a regenerative model, very diverse cropping system, where we actually incorporate cattle as well. So we’re always looking for crops that may give us a investment advantage or a different angle. And lo and behold, camelina kind of came onto the radar through programs that Colin is involved in. So we partnered with them last year to try and give it a shot as part of a cropping system where we had camelina and soybeans going on in the same field, kind of a relay system. And that kind of got us got us off on the on the further races, so to speak to give camelina a try.
Steffen Mirsky 3:35
Okay. Thanks, Matt. David, are you there?
David Kiesner 3:38
Hi, yes. Can you hear me okay? Yeah. Great. Well, my name is David Kiesner. I’m the Director of Business Development at Millborn Seeds. Our company has been around since 1987. And we’re located in Brookings, South Dakota. And we call ourselves a specialty seed company because we deal with over 1200 unique species of seed that we really manage from end to end. So we contract and produce seed with seed growers across the United States. We bring that to cleaning facilities into our warehouse where it’s either sold as a mono crop seed or gets put into a mixture. We package that then distribute across North America. And as it relates to camelina, we kind of serve as the link between the genetics and getting that into commercial production. So we would take camelina genetics, scale up seed production, and then distribute that to growers that fit into the commercial supply chains.
JASON FISCHBACH 4:45
So first question, I think camelina is new enough that we should probably do a little review. So it’s a winter annual, and it’s an oilseed crop, and it’s being positioned as a ForeverGreen crop for protecting soil and water quality but what else do we need to know? What do our listeners need to know about camelina? You know, what is it as a plant? What is a winter annual? Anyone want to jump in on that?
Colin Cureton 5:12
Sure. I’ll jump in Jason and say a few things. Camelina is in the mustard family. It’s a it’s a Brassica. And camelina is actually an ancient oilseed crop that was in production in northern and eastern Europe for many, many years, going back hundreds of years. Somewhat upstaged by the emergence of rapeseed oil. But camelina is both actually a spring and winter crop. There are spring lines. There are winter lines, and there are semi-winter lines. And there’s actually a lot of activity in the US and Europe around spring camelina. And winter camelina is kind of eagerly coming up behind that work. Spring camelina is often going to market as a cash cover crop or catch crop, as they say in Europe, and here in the US fitting into dryland wheat rotations in the western United States. And our vision for camelina is that it serves as a cash cover crop that fits into existing rotations here in the upper Midwest, say in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, in between current rotations. And some other important things to know about camelina is that it’s has relatively high oil seed content, 35 to 40%. And it’s also extremely winter hardy. So if you get that crop established in the fall in a small rosette stage, Matt can tell you what his farm looked like in April. And we could hear from him on that terms of its fall establishment, winter survival and spring growth. Happy for anyone else to add aspects on the basics of camelina.
David Kiesner 7:00
I think you’ve covered it well, Colin, and I think we’ll probably get into some of the end-use market applications. But from my perspective, there’s an exciting opportunity to add this into rotations. And we’re seeing pull through demand, you know, from commercial partners that are looking to produce biofuels, or, you know, high-value, animal and pet nutrition, and potentially some cases and edible oils for human consumption. So I think there’s a lot of promise that this could be a crop that scales because demand is pulling.
JASON FISCHBACH 7:38
So in terms of you know, why camelina, why now, rumor has it that you know, some of the bigger buyers and markets in the world are all of a sudden interested in camelina primarily due to supply chain disruptions in traditional oilseed crops. Do I have that correct? Or if not, why? Why does camelina seem to be coming into its own right now?
David Kiesner 8:03
Well, one of the things that we’ve seen is a lot of interest from the biofuels producers, and with kind of the advent of new technology for producing renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. And there’s more capacity coming online for refining fats and vegetable oils than what we produce here in the United States today. So the driver is really generating more oil to feed into those biofuel supply chains. And there’s some unique advantages with camelina oil, and the carbon intensity score as a feedstock, and how that impacts the value of the biofuels at the output. So that would be probably the biggest driver that I’ve seen. But also the fatty acid profile, the Omega three, omega six fatty acids have some really interesting nutritional values that, you know, potentially eliminate or displace ingredients like fish oil, and pet foods or aquaculture diets, as well as terrestrial animals. So there’s this a lot of interesting and exciting applications that could come from producing camelina oil at scale.
Colin Cureton 9:22
I’ll add things that I think overlap with some of what David said, which is a great summary. Maybe three or four big factors that are driving what you could call a perfect storm for industry-wide hunt in agriculture and energy sectors for low carbon vegetable oils. So one of those factors is persistent, at least mid-range, high commodity prices for standard commodities like soybean and canola. So when you know baseline commodity prices are high, industries willingness to look to alternatives and develop alternatives increase. The second is the regulatory environment that David alluded to, which is state level and in some cases national and international, major regulatory shifts toward lower carbon fuels. And we could get into the specific mechanics of that later. But since camelina if it were produced on otherwise fallow land, would not be displacing the production of other food or feed crops, thereby having a lower carbon intensity score, also known as a CI score. A third is broad, broad scale and public industry commitments toward regenerative agriculture, soil health, water quality, and I think, a real hunt to identify solutions, meaningful solutions that could be market-driven scaling pathways to meeting those commitments. And I think we’ll stop with those three.
JASON FISCHBACH 10:51
Well, so let me ask one more question to kind of set the stage for our discussion. Most of the new crops that are being developed or new crops in general, the genetics are almost good enough, but not quite there. What’s the situation with with camelina? Are we dealing with glufosinates still? Is it hardiness, shattering? What are the main breeding goals right now to get this to sort of a mainstream crop? Or are we there?
Colin Cureton 11:19
Well, we’re not there. That’s the premise of why the Forever Green platform exists, at least in part. So, camelina is moving within the University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative as one of several winter oil seeds that include winter camelina, and also crops like pennycress, that are under development. There’s been lots of news on the growth and business development of a company called Cover Cress that we work closely with. It’s based out of St. Louis, that has developed IP in partnership with several universities, including the University of Minnesota to take pennycress to market. And so originally, pennycress actually received a fair bit more investment and attention because the early maturity, the naturally occurring earlier maturity of pennycress was more attractive for relay cropping and hopefully double-cropping pennycress with our summer annuals. So this is all getting back to camelina. In that camelina matures several weeks, at least with the currently available camelina lines, winter camelina lines, such as ‘Joelle’. It’s a common publicly available camelina line, matures a couple of weeks after pennycress, and so that made pennycress a much more attractive winter oilseed candidate. Camelina some of its benefits is that it is already domesticated and has been an oilseed crop, as I mentioned for many many years. However, several of the breeding targets for our program are early maturity and early flowering. And some of the excitement around winter camelina is that we’ve identified an early maturing line that matures about anywhere from seven to 12 days earlier than currently publicly available winter camelina. That might not sound like a lot, but in a relay cropping system where two crops are in a field for four to six weeks, reducing that relay cropping period by one to two weeks is very significant. And brings it up almost to equal early maturity with pennycress, which you may have seen have had recent, you know, many zeros attached to major buyout deals by some of the big four seed technology companies. So, early maturity is a major breeding focus as is yield, identifying other standard breeding traits that we love to build into the breeding portfolio. But primarily, we’re working to bring the maturity earlier and maintain and hopefully also increase yield.
Steffen Mirsky 13:54
And I know this podcast is about winter camelina, but since you brought up pennycress, can you just quickly talk about the difference between the two?
JASON FISCHBACH 14:03
Besides the maturity?
Colin Cureton 14:05
Sure. Well, I feel like I’m talking a lot here. So I’ll try to be concise. And I’d say both are receiving a lot of attention. Again, as I mentioned early on, pennycress to many growers was a weed in their field that they’d like to eliminate. But University of Minnesota along with several other key research partners, had made tremendous progress in domesticating pennycress within as, you know, shorter period of time six to 10 years with modern breeding methods, all non-GMO at the University of Minnesota. Classic mutagenesis, but pennycress just, you know, made rapid progress on the breeding front and camelina has followed up a bit behind that. I would say both are moving in concert very similarly. They’re intended to fit in as cash cover crops in the Midwest. Just happened to be that some IP filings and early research investments moved into pennycress a little bit earlier. But we think both have their place on the landscape, certainly in the Upper Midwest and the southern Midwest.
David Kiesner 15:09
And, Colin, I would add to that to one of the challenges or differences with pennycress, you alluded to, most farmers seeing it as a weed that they want to eliminate from their, their fields. There’s also some state regulation that limits where pennycress can be planted today. So there’s some regulatory hurdles that I think will be overcome for wider scale adoption of pennycress, but as it sits today, camelina doesn’t have those restrictions. So in a state like South Dakota, you won’t be able to plant pennycress today as it sits.
Colin Cureton 15:45
And one last thing to clarify, pennycress is making great strides in research and development. But just for your listeners, to kind of calibrate expectations, pennycress, right now, with the exception of several 1000 pilot acres in the southern Midwest, does not exist as a crop on the landscape. Whereas camelina, having to do with its historical trajectory, there have been multiple pushes to develop camelina as a spring and winter crop in Montana and the Dakotas, much of the early commercial activity is there. So some of those regulatory barriers that David mentioned, had been broken down over the last 20 years. Feed approvals have been cleared, there is a grass status for food, human food consumption for select camelina oil profiles. So there’s a lot of nuance there in the historical trajectory of camelina, relative to the R&D intensive focus of pennycress. Whereas I think camelina is now coming more under the umbrella of R&D efforts by multiple public and private entities.
JASON FISCHBACH 16:47
Let’s shift gears a little bit. Matt, can you talk through your experience growing it, how you’re growing it? How you got in first involved with it? You’re part of a pilot project, right, to grow this?
Matt Tentis 17:01
Yep. And I don’t recall exactly how we came across it. I follow the University of Minnesota Extension Forever Green project. And so I’m sure I came across it in some of their their communications there, but eventually did reach out to them and kind of offered to get involved. And as soon as I got in touch with Colin kind of things went pretty quickly from there. You know, we were looking for an opportunity to kind of expand some of our cropping options. We’ve been doing cover crops since like 2015 or so, winter rye and kind of the typical cover crops we’ll see in the area. And that’s been fine. But we kind of look for options where we can plant that fall planted crop that we can then harvest. So we get a little more out of it than just putting roots in the ground, which is a good thing in and of itself. So, camelina seemed to present an opportunity to find something that met more of our goals than just strictly cover cropping. So the other benefit was partnering with the technical expertise of the camelina team and people to network with and connect the dots on some of the stuff on the back end, that they’re talking about markets and kind of getting the product to the market. And then did you want the experience from beginning to end? Or did you want to cover something more specific?
JASON FISCHBACH 18:31
Yeah, I think mainly just an overview of how you’re growing it and then your experience, your planting or establishment, weed control, and harvest in particular.
Matt Tentis 18:41
Sure, yeah, I can kind of give you our observations. So we, we follow the program recommendations. We grow sweet corn for a local canning company. We harvest that in August timeframe, then camelina was planted following that right around the first week in September, planted at roughly 11 pounds per acre. And then as part of that program, we skipped rows so that we could plant soybeans into that at 30 inch rows. Planting due to our planter was a little tricky, so it kind of different rates across the field. But on the average we hit that 11 pound mark. And then it overwintered fine, we got germination grade, it was the first crop that we had, you know we had rye in and stuff like that for cover crops. It was the first one to really green up and take off in the spring which its performance in that regard was better than anything else we had planted so that looked great. Plant the soybeans kind of early May and no-tilled that in, got good germination there, that went really well. And for the most part that went great. We did put some fertility on, about 50 pounds of N in the spring. And that kind of helped give it a little boost
JASON FISCHBACH 20:04
Matt, when those soybeans germinate, are they poking up through the rosettes, or because you skipped a row, they’ve got open ground to germinate in?
Matt Tentis 20:13
They had a little bit of open ground. Okay, so for the most part, we, you know, when you’re doing that, you got to be a little more precise, we don’t have GPS guidance on our equipment. So we did the best we could to keep within those rows, but for the most part, it did work out to keep it in that space, which I think helped, you know, helped the beans come along with getting some sunlight and that type of thing. So, kind of as we went into spring, my observation, you know, for the most part that the beans and the camelina came up fine together, we got, you know, generally, I would say we got really good weed suppression, especially on the the end of the field or the side of the field where we did make that adjustment and get some heavier, heavier rates on the planting. So I think that was a benefit. When it came time for harvest, the crop looked great, the camelina crop did when it came time for harvest. You know, that was new to us, we’ve never done anything like this before. But for the most part, you know, we were able to harvest it ok. Our the combine, the contractor we used to harvest, you know, I think we probably needed some a different sieve and the combine, we didn’t have something for that small of a seed. So I think that would be one point where we have improvement or change for the future. We ended up getting about 700 pounds per acre for the end production after it was cleaned and everything. We did do a chemical application after camelina harvest as that camelina kind of went to maturity for harvest and thinned out, some of that weed pressure did come up. And so we did do a chemical application there. Bean harvest, we got about 26 bushel an acre. So probably nothing to brag about at the cafe. But for the most part, we were pretty happy with the experience to move forward with something like this and kind of gain that learning knowledge. So we were okay with that. And Colin can speak more about the program, I guess. But the program really helped us kind of take on that risk.
JASON FISCHBACH 22:28
So what happened in the fall? Did you have a bunch of volunteer camelina germinate going into this winter?
Matt Tentis 22:35
No, not a whole lot. We did have some. So we’ll kind of see what’s uncovered as the snow melts, but we also follow that with the just a regular winter rye cover crop. So it’s kind of a mix, but we did have some volunteers come up.
JASON FISCHBACH 22:55
In terms of establishment, is it going to have to be a crop that’s coming off in September? Or are there options to interseed it in standing corn or something?
Matt Tentis 23:04
Good question. I know from my chatting with other folks that people are spreading it on versus drilling it in. So I think you could do it something like that as a cover crop option. Yeah, that could possibly be an option.
Colin Cureton 23:21
That is a focus of our agronomy program over the long term is how to incorporate camelina and other fall seeded cash cover crops we’re working on into our main corn soybean production systems. Now, right now, if producing camelina as a cash crop, a cash cover crop, we have not developed what we think is a reliable system interseeded into say standing corn. We’re doing a lot of work on establishment, aerial seeding, residue management, potentially collaborating on interseeding into the dwarf corn varieties, which could improve availability of sunlight to get a good establishment. So we do see that as potentially effective right now for more of planting camelina as a cover crop, but at this time, we can get into later, you know, the kind of gold star production systems that we think are most viable at this time. And even those are still in development.
JASON FISCHBACH 24:33
Okay, so another question for Matt and David. Anything particularly unique about handling the camelina grain or seed, post-harvest in terms of drying, cleaning? Any concern about fungal disease in the seed itself? Where are we at on that part?
Matt Tentis 24:54
I can maybe start with that just with our experience. I know I mentioned earlier, having the right equipment It definitely matters. So my understanding is the seed is closer to like a canola seed in size and diameter and that type of thing. We’re in southeast Minnesota, there’s no one that I know of here growing canola. So we kind of had to work with what we had at the time. But that was one of the challenges we ran into. So we had a lot of chaff and material and with the seed, you know, we don’t have a, we don’t have drying specific drying equipment. So through the program, we were able to get some fans that are set for just drying it in the grain wagon. So we did that, and that worked fine. So from our standpoint, it was there was some flexibility and kind of some options there.
David Kiesner 25:47
And from Millborn Seeds’s perspective, we were involved as kind of a post harvest partner where we would aggregate the camelina crop, bring it to a seed cleaner to get it cleaned up to seed quality. And then to our warehouse distribution center to package it, store it distributed as needed. But we really didn’t run into too many handling issues with small seed size. Probably the biggest improvement to the system that we’d like to see is just a cleaner seed coming out of the field with less of that chaff or field residue mixed in with the seed. It would just ultimately save on some costs. And, you know, additional touch points and processing steps.
Matt Tentis 26:39
Yeah, I suppose I owe you an apology for that, David.
David Kiesner 26:43
No, it’s part of the learning curve, right.
Matt Tentis 26:45
JASON FISCHBACH 26:47
So Colin, both Matt and David had mentioned the kind of program operating in the background to help get this camelina moving. And as you know, we’re we’re always chatting, fascinated and interested in how we commercialize new crops like this. How we de-risk early production, how we develop markets. So can you can you talk about the program that’s in place here to try to move camelina forward in Minnesota and elsewhere?
Colin Cureton 27:09
Sure, sure, Jason. So, I’ll mention it on two layers. The first is the underlying program of what the Forever Green Initiative is trying to do. And if I were to channel one of our founder and co-directors Don Wyse, he would say, you know, to commercialize the crop, first you need the crop. And so the long running programmatic efforts are to organize transdisciplinary teams across genomics, breeding agronomy, soil and water science, food science, biosystems, engineering, supply chain development, commercialization, to give any new crop a fighting chance from the basic genetic and agronomic development of that crop. So that’s the long-running effort. Then, as those efforts progress, my team comes into play. Right when we get in that pre-commercial and early commercial phase, we’re moving one of these crops, even at you know, pre-commercial stage or minimum viable product stage, out into the marketplace, is what you could say as another ballgame entirely, right, to move it from a research field or laboratory setting, breeding plot, in to say Matt’s field and David’s facility. And so this specific program that we’re referencing, is one of a number that we run that we generally termed as pilot supply chain projects, which are kind of like large scale experiments, where we are trying to, in a cooperative and collaborative way, manage risk with partners in the world that have a stake in the success of future perennial and winter annual crops. So this pilot supply chain project was done in partnership with a group called MBOLD, which is housed under greater MSP, which is a major economic development and business consortium in Minnesota. And MBOLD is a coalition, that’s MBOLD, is a coalition of some of Minnesota’s largest food and agricultural firms that are working together to advance their shared business and sustainability efforts. And about now two, two and a half years ago, MBOLD identified three main priorities they wanted to work on that were promising solutions. One, I believe had to do with cover crops and nutrient management in the Red River Valley. One had to do with I believe bio plastics. And a third had to do with cash cover crops as a very promising market driven pathway to scaling cover crop adoption across the agricultural landscape. And so we’re very grateful for all of MBOLD’s support. That was a multifaceted project that I’ll try to move through quickly here. To their credit, they put some money in the hat to de-risk these initial rounds of farmer adoption. So we recruited about a dozen, about 10 to 12 growers that were interested in growing a pilot commercial scale winter camellia crop. I’d say about half of those growers did that as a monocrop and half piloted the relay cropping system. A number of other components of that larger program included grower-focused and industry specific field days, both in-field we had some major industry partners on Matt’s farm, and we took a lot of images of Matt’s farm, of Matt and Seth’s efforts, that’s Matt’s brother, Seth, into some of the biggest food and agricultural companies in the world to show them how this relay cropping system was working. We had industry specific field days at the Rosemount Research and Outreach Center. And we also engaged everyone from company leadership to product R&D to the sustainability teams to procurement within these assembled member companies. So there’s a lot going on. For this project, specifically with these gentlemen on the line here, I bumped into Millborn when we had actually brokered one of our kind of larger-scale research fields to another regional seed company who is great and continues to be a great partner. But we just didn’t quite make quality spec with seed quality on that field coming out of our research station. And so I ended up on Millborn’s doorstep in fall of 2021. They were the one of the only other companies in sight that was carrying a sizable quantity of winter camelina. I personally distributed that seed on a multi day sojourn around Minnesota and Iowa to these 10 or 12 growers. And the straight up economics of it is we committed $250 an acre to piloting winter camelina, whether it’s a mono crop or in a relay cropping system, regardless of outcome. You know, you could call it the hassle factor. We contracted off taking that production, we could get into what the economics look like later. That might not sound like a lot, but keep in mind this is an additive to the system relative to the relatively low input costs and impacts on the other crops you know, in a functioning relay system. So then we try to support those growers as best as we could remotely in field with agronomic support and grower to grower support. And ultimately offtake of that product moved to Millborn Seed where it was cleaned, bagged, tagged and a weight sits on pallets awaiting the support of continued supply chain and market development for winter camelina.
David Kiesner 32:50
So I’ll maybe shift gears a little bit with what we’ve seen in the market. I can’t remember what the original question was. But one of the challenges that we’ve seen in the market, or maybe I’ll call it more of a bottleneck, is if we you know, if tomorrow we had a million acres of camelina planted eventually that has to go to oilseed crusher at some point. And there’s just a handful of oil seed crushers that can handle camelina seed in North America. You know, most of your soybean processing plants just are not set up to switch in and out from soybeans to an alternative seed, and especially not one the size of camelina. So your soft seed, or flex crush plants in North Dakota, Minnesota up into Canada can process camelina. But back to the point of if we got a million acres planted for camelina it needs to go somewhere. And that is one of the pinch points in the market today. The demand for the oil and the protein co-product are not necessarily pinch points or challenges. All of that oil could be consumed in a very short amount of time. And there’s demand for it. It’s just the extraction step. We’re going to need to really see some infrastructure development to enable this prompt at scale.
Steffen Mirsky 34:17
I was curious, are there other companies that are cleaning the seed besides Millborn? Or, yeah, how many how many companies are there that are doing that processing?
David Kiesner 34:29
Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s, you know, certainly seed cleaning plants across the country that you know, likely deal with public varieties of camelina. Our organization historically has sold camelina seed as a mixed cover crop input not as an intentional crop for the oil seed production. But as as you start to see, you know, new genetics being developed in the market. I think you’re gonna see more and more seed cleaners being comfortable was dealing with camelina. You know, as it moves into production agriculture, as opposed to just fitting into a mix cover crop species.
Steffen Mirsky 35:12
And is everybody who’s growing winter camellia at this point, are they all growing it on contract?
Colin Cureton 35:21
Well, I’d say there’s a few different things going on. There are some larger camelina focused efforts in both the cover crop seed industry as well as in the early renewable fuels industry. And so there’s a number of names if you Google camelina might come up groups like Global Clean Energy Holdings, I believe they’re on a contract and production structure. There’s an outfit out of Europe that has was recently bought out by the entity that I believe also had contracted production. David can speak to the structure of how the seed industry runs things. And then we have what our you know, pre-commercial and early commercial partners are doing which is, you know, providing some programmatic support for growers that see an opportunity and want to get familiar with the crop. And, you know, see an upside prospective market there. But I would say, oh, I should also mention there is an active biotechnology company that is now, they’re developing a number of higher value traits directly in camelina. And they have contracts available, they’re also growing for the renewable fuels market. And those contracts are available, I believe, in Minnesota and nearby states. So it’s great to see, you know, we’re turning a little bit of an early corner with that, but we’re still frankly, not at a place where there’s widespread chemistry and production anywhere, and contracts are pretty limited.
JASON FISCHBACH 36:44
Any idea how many acres there are out there, or like produced last year or seeded this fall?
Colin Cureton 36:48
Oh, well, depends how you count it, Jason, and David could help us with that. If you include camelina, as you know, seeded in a cover crop mix, you know, we’re in the 10s of 1000s of acres of camelina plants growing across the countryside. As far as renewable fuels, and other market applications much smaller, probably, you know, in the single 1000s, if that. It also depends your geographic footprint. Canada has a more established camelina industry, they have fluctuated up and down over the last 10 years, I think somewhere around between five and 15,000 acres for niche feed markets, including aquaculture and equine feed. So it really depends where you’re asking and what market segments you’re looking at.
JASON FISCHBACH 37:32
Yeah. So David brought up the chicken or the egg. So are crush facility investments happening, or are they waiting for more acres?
David Kiesner 37:43
I know of a few crush facilities that are, there’s a greenfield facility being developed in South Dakota, that’s going to be able to handle sunflowers and camelina seed. I don’t think it’s drawn the attention from some of the majors out there, or the large scale soybean processors. But they’re all interested and kind of watching what the market does. But, you know, to kind of add to what Colin shared, I think he hit it spot on. For the biofuels space, we’re at very early stages still. And a lot of the acres that are under contract production are part of pilot programs. So really, I think what the industry is trying to do is build a proof of concept that can go out and be marketed to a broader grower network. And, you know, you kind of brought up a good point of the scale. I think in order for crushed plants to commit to processing camelina, there needs to be critical mass, so you’re not, you know, aggregating for a one day production run and then reconfiguring the plant to go back to soybeans or what traditionally would have been processing. So I think they’ll see more of that investment when we get to critical mass and there’s a proof of concept for the end-use market. But again, we’re a pretty early stages with I think, a lot of positive indicators that this is gonna go somewhere.
JASON FISCHBACH 39:14
Definitely sounds like it. Matt, what’s your, what’s your take? Are you in? I mean, was 700 pounds enough? Or what else do you need to see before you commit to camelina as part of your rotation?
Matt Tentis 39:26
Yeah, I think for us, you know, we we don’t have fancy equipment, we’re relatively small. I think if we can grow camelina, most farmers out there can, regardless of system. We live in a corn and soybean-focused area and that’s what we kind of transitioned out of, so the ability to actually grow it, I think I’m confident we can do that anytime. The harvesting problems like we know what adjustments we think we need to make there to hopefully give you know, guys like David a nice, cleaner product off the field. I think we can do that to the relay system, I think we’d have to play with a little bit more. But I think for growers like us who want options in and that living root constantly in the soil or at least as much as possible, camelina is a great option. And we’re not growing it this year. But we are looking at it to plant again this fall, meaning we don’t have any in the ground right now. But we are looking to do it again, this, this coming fall as a planting crop. So I think we’re in, we’re just kind of watching what the market options are, and then how we put the pieces together to get the seed to where it needs to be.
JASON FISCHBACH 40:44
And is there a next stage to the scale up program?
Colin Cureton 40:50
Well, I wanted to share a couple small anecdotes from the growers perspective that have been shared with me of other participants in that pilot program. They just kind of calibrate what other people’s experiences were. So one, we had a grower in central Minnesota who participated, who selected a field that, you know, he’s tried to grow corn and beans on before but we have this area in Minnesota, the Central Sands that, you know, he’s always, you know, spending more on certain inputs than then he’s making on yield. And so he decided to give camelina as a relatively low input crop a shot, and he was able to, he did that as a mono crop and followed that with you know, this is not a widely applicable rotation, but with a short season millet forage because he grazes his acres like, like Matt and in the drought last year, he was quite happy with his camelina yield and his millet yield. And he called me and said, You know, I double cropped, in the Central Sands in a drought, and got a got a competitive yield and price on both for his acreage. And so he said that that doesn’t happen every day. So he was pretty happy with that. The other things I’d like to share is that we had a number of fields that didn’t go great. So we’re here at Forever Green, not to sell anyone who’s listening on camelina. The crop needs improvement. We had folks who terminated their field because they had spotty establishment. We had a, you know, in some cases, maybe one or two lower yields than what Matt saw. But also we had folks up around 1000 pounds per acre or more. So there’s just a wide variety and experience that I think encapsulates where camelina is at. I kind of invited Matt to join because I think he had in terms of where the crop is at, a representative experience of that system, going fairly well, with the crop as it stands. But keep in mind that that’s kind of the baseline, it’s only up from there with any, you know, hope of continued investment. So anyways, Jason, onto your other question. I think, our 2022, as this pilot program kind of wrapped up, frankly, was a perfect on-ramp to the 2022 we experienced, it was frankly, unprecedented. I don’t think we have enough time to go over it. But right as those fields were wrapping up, we had just about every major food and agriculture company, you know that some of the biggest entities you can think of in the Upper Midwest, but also globally, come to our doorstep and tell us the story of cash cover crops that we that we’ve been working on for, you know, 10 plus years. With those big macro shifts we talked about, I think it was timed fairly well, we heard the rumblings and put a plan in place to have some proof of concept that we could rally around. And so we’re talking several of the biggest technology companies, global processors, input companies, both manufacturers and retailers. The USDA climate smart commodities program rolled out and David could share, you know, that they’re engaged significantly and several of those, one of which focused on camelina. And so the interesting thing I’d maybe like to wrap that section up with is to say that we’re now in concrete negotiations with kind of leading several candidates for a comprehensive partnership to develop the winter oil seeds. Of course, I’m wrapped into about a dozen nondisclosure agreements. So I can’t say that much more. But the stage we’re really at is that the crops need focused partnership for intensive research and development and deployment. We’re not going to be scaling on the landscape without major investment in R&D. And we also need those R&D partners who are committed to scaling on the landscape in partnership with us over time. And so we hope to be able to, you know, turn some corners on that process in the next say, three to six months. And I think that’s really important because you can’t be all things to all people. We need some concrete partners that can rally around, say a five to 10 year partnership to improve the germplasm do, you know, agronomy, across the region, support farmer adoption, technology transfer, support policy change. As everyone listening knows, to this podcast specifically, there are a lot of aspects to making, to developing, launching and scaling, a new crop. So that’s kind of where we’re at in the process. I also think there’s a great opportunity right here, kind of in between spot for entrepreneurship, to get the big global actors, you know, organized and moving nimbly around a new opportunity. You know, usually it’s the entrepreneurs that take risks, show proof of concept, and then, you know, are invested in or bought out by those major, those major industry partners. So I think the University of Minnesota is going to, you know, seek partnership on all fronts. But there’s certainly a limit to what we can do in terms of acting in the marketplace. That’s not really our role. But if we can help spur entrepreneurship, while we also build these big industry partnerships, we think we need to do all of the above.
JASON FISCHBACH 45:57
Well, I just want to congratulate Forever Green, because this is, you know, a long time coming where I don’t want to say floundering necessarily with cover crops over the last few decades, but the reality is adoption has not been very good. And it’s because it’s mainly been a cost to production, yeah there’s long term soil health benefits and reduction of externalities, but in terms of cash in the farmers pockets, it never works very well. And this creates that opportunity to actually make money cover cropping essentially. And beyond the fact that that everybody’s rallying around the idea of winter oilseeds is super exciting.
Colin Cureton 46:34
Thanks, Jason. I think we have still have a long way to go. But I’m really appreciative for growers like Matt, who took this on with his brother, Seth, and David as a business development partner brings tremendous experiences work. And, you know, these crops aren’t gonna make headway without their involvement and the involvement of lots of other people. So we have our role, but it’s just part of the, you know, tapestry.
JASON FISCHBACH 46:58
So I do want to lean into the question, though, about, you know, where growers are going to fit into this piece of the puzzle in terms of how you see access to the genetics, will we see contract production? Largely will we see some intentional empowerment of growers to be involved in this by value chain? I guess, how do you see this playing out in terms of access to seed? Will we see growers license public domain? You want to just talk a little bit about that? Or is this more or less going to play out as the market determines or will it be some thought and intentionality to it?
Colin Cureton 47:39
Well, very good question, Jason. And I think there are several, I’d say, main routes, this could go, that are being deliberated right now, in the form of what those major partnerships, who those partnerships are with, and what their desired outcomes are. So again, without being able to say specifics, there’s the route in which, you know, we have a relatively proprietary seed genetics situation and vertically integrated supply chain, between seed companies and our processors and or energy companies. That could offer a number of, you know, benefits and efficiencies. And there’s also the situation actively being debated about whether we pursue more of a public and open commodity market that will allow us to operate with, you know, less proprietary genetics, public or co-exclusive licensing, that would allow for the large scale, you know, movement, contracting, etc, of camelina and other winter oilseed crops to meet, you know, the demands of energy markets. So it’s, it’s in decision mode right now. And that’s about the extent I can say. It’s very interesting to be involved with decisions that could affect that pathway. And it’s ultimately not up to any one individual.
David Kiesner 49:05
Yeah, Colin, I would agree with that, that, you know, there’s probably more than one train of thought on how this market develops. But the thing that, to me is kind of unique about it is the demand pull is coming from the end use refiner. And that kind of sets the stage for a closed loop supply chain with dedicated production to feed into those facilities, I think as you see the oil seed extraction infrastructure develop, that could develop in a way where it’s more of a cash bid situation where it’s treated more as commodity and for sale on the open market the oil, which would then create opportunities for growers to take on risk to grow camelina and sell it against the highest bidders, as opposed to being part of that closed loop, dedicated supply chain, so I think you’ll see some of both. But in order for it to really be more of an open market, I think there needs to be processing capacity that puts out bids, that allows the growers to kind of take their own risk or manage it within within the rotations that they have planned.
Steffen Mirsky 50:22
I was wondering, we haven’t really talked a whole lot about the ecosystem benefits of growing this crop. And I was just wondering if there are if there are any incentives from a conservation perspective, like through NRCS programs for growing this as a winter annual.
Colin Cureton 50:46
Sure, I can I can mention a few. David could add on with how they’re approaching this with some federal resources. But I want to give a shout out to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for working with Forever Green Initiative on developing a pilot program to de-risk and support the early commercial success of a number of crops under development by Forever Green. So we started with the program to de risk and support success of Kernza perennial grain, try to maximize the siting of those new acres on drinking water supply management areas in the state of Minnesota. And so that program is called the Forever Green Eco Implementation program, eco is EECO, stands for economic and environmental clusters of opportunity because you know, we need an acronym right? One more acronym. But the rationale there was the eco you know, as a prefix for economic and ecological and Greek eco means home. So I thought that was a nice way to indicate that we need to take care of both the economics and the ecological. So that program is now extending to winter camelina and two other winter annuals. Hybrid winter rye and winter barley. We released the first winter barley line for the Upper Midwest, called MN Equinox. But that program provides both and environmental benefit payment for winter camelina, about $20 to $40 per acre, based on the model water quality impacts using the nutrient tracking tool. And we also are offering risk management, basically like partial crop insurance, that if grower, you know, for any reason, outside of their control, you know, pursuing best management practices, sees a loss on the field or in the market will eat about half the cost of production. So, wish we could do more. But you know, sharing the risk is important, and we got to manage the amount of money in the bank, try to get resources to more acres. So that is one example. Also the Olmstead County Soil Health Initiative, it’s a county in southeast Minnesota has included winter camelina in a de-risking program using some federal, I think ARPA dollars. And then maybe David, you could share what you’re up to. And then I can circle back to NRCS, in terms of some of the long term work with incorporating NRCS support for cash cover crops.
David Kiesner 53:12
Yeah, and Colin, I’ll talk a little bit about the climate smart commodities grants. So these were awarded and 2022. So just last year, and we’ll be kind of going through implementation phases, this spring and the program has over a five year period. There’s two specific grant applications that wrote in camelina production is part of the mission. One of them was through sustainable oils and global clean energy. And the other one was, the lead applicant was Millborn Seeds. And for our grant specifically, it’s to encourage the adoption of cover crops. And so we listed five different cover crops, camelina being one of them. And the the federal funding that we received will be allocated for incentive payments to the growers to kind of help get over the edge of trying something new, but also to provide technical and agronomic services to those growers. So we will have a field agronomist working with the grower network to really help them fit this into rotations and manage it properly. And then, you know, based on performance, they would see, you know, fairly modest, I don’t think all the details are worked out, but it’d be fairly modest incentive payments for planting these cover crops.
JASON FISCHBACH 54:38
David sorry if I missed it, but did you say the geographic area of, you know, where growers might be eligible for the program?
David Kiesner 54:47
Yes, I believe for our grant we had a focus on like a nine state region throughout the Upper Midwest. But within those programs, it’s not, you know, a black and white hard line that we can’t move out of that territory, that’s just going to be where we’re going to dedicate resources towards. And, you know, certainly if you were in a state that fell outside of what was written to the grant, we can still work with those growers. Okay.
JASON FISCHBACH 55:17
Speaking of those growers, they’re tuning in on the podcast, let’s say next week, and they’re super excited about camelina. Now, what are their next steps? Is there an association is there? Where should they go?
Colin Cureton 55:30
Well, I think learning more about the crop is a great first step. And you can do that through a number of the resources we have on our website at University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative. I think Millborn is a great market partner to learn about, you know, the production and retail end, and AgSpire, you know, one of their subsidiary partners, I’m sure has some agronomy support. Not to offer up, you know, folks to.
David Kiesner 55:58
Yeah, no we’d love to get involved.
Colin Cureton 56:02
And, you know, I know for folks, at least in their area, you know, Matt has proven to be pretty supportive and talking to other growers about the opportunity. And I’ve been trying to get him into conferences and legislative hearings and other things, because I really appreciate when growers are able to share their experience. As I mentioned, there are a couple companies that have active camelina contracts now in the Upper Midwest, so if they’re really bullish on it, we could put you in in touch. And I think they’re publicly open that they’re looking for acres. So their, their name is Yield Ten Bioscience, they have some contracts available. But otherwise, this use of camelina as a cover crop, I think it’s a great on-ramp to seeing it in the field, having getting a little practice, risk managed, you know, experience with the crop is a great first step, then you’ll have those benefits to cover crop without fully committing to it as a cash crop as these markets develop.
David Kiesner 56:59
And Colin, one thing I would add too, is, you know, for any growers that are interested, you know, bring in your specific situation, what your crop rotation looks like to some of the experts with Forever Green. To kind of understand what your opportunities could look like, would be a good first step. You know, Millborn Seeds can also support that and make, you know, commercial connections to contracts. But if you’re in western Nebraska, and you’re putting this into a wheat rotation, it’s going to be a very different scenario than, you know, being in Iowa where you’ve been growing corn and soybeans. So kind of trying to understand what that crop rotation looks like. And what the economics potentially would look like, would be where I would start if I were a producer myself.
Colin Cureton 57:48
We will also have number of field days across Minnesota this summer. Keep track on the Forever Green website for those opportunities. And we are hiring a perennial grains and winter annuals field agronomist that’ll be up and running in the next month, who growers would be welcome to call and talk through. They’re interested in camelina.
JASON FISCHBACH 58:11
Matt Tentis 58:12
Yeah. And I may, yeah, just real quick, I will say if any growers reach out and want to talk to a producer that’s grown at you know, I’m happy to communicate or you know, get on the phone or email or whatever, just to kind of tell our experience for what that’s worth. And I need to kind of compile all of our our data and information and get into a nice document, I think, because I keep getting, getting into conversations like this where it’d be useful. So you can try and put something together, but definitely available for for any questions.
JASON FISCHBACH 58:48
That’d be great. Thanks for the offer. If you don’t mind, let’s take a deep breath. We can talk carbon a little bit. If this is being positioned as for the biofuel market, you know, I think sort of makes folks a little nervous in terms of now you’re in voluntary carbon markets, you’re dealing with changes in federal administration, you know, is this market tied up until a policy or? Or Is this legit on its own, but maybe just talk through, if you will, the carbon implications in terms of incentives coming to make this market reality, or also, if folks are capturing some carbon payments, and who might see those benefits as this develops.
David Kiesner 59:34
Yeah, so just real quick, my background prior to working for Millborn, I worked for a large ethanol company based in South Dakota. And I just want to make the point of clarification between the voluntary carbon markets and compliance markets. And camelina oil really kind of fits into the compliance markets which are established and well-defined. So the carbon intensity score of camelina brings advantages to biofuels producers over using soybean oil, or distillers corn oil other available fats and oils on the market. So really,
JASON FISCHBACH 1:00:14
David, can you clarify the difference between those two, compliance and voluntary?
David Kiesner 1:00:21
Yep, so a voluntary market is probably what most people think of when they think of carbon markets. And that’s, you know, taking baseline soil organic measurements, implementing a new practice and then trying to take measurements of how much carbon is sequestered in the soil. And then those voluntary payments would come from a corporation or an entity that is trying to offset their carbon footprint by buying either insights or offsets. So they are not required by law to make payments to manage their carbon footprint. And that’s why they call it voluntary. The compliance markets. So the low standard fuels compliance in California, they have legislation that dictates how much renewable fuel needs to be part of the energy mix that the state uses. And they have, you know, incentive payments for biofuel producers that are meeting those requirements. So that is what we would call a compliance market versus voluntary.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:01:26
Perfect, well said. So keep going sorry, cut you off.
David Kiesner 1:01:30
So and I guess in my mind, the opportunity for anyone looking to grow camelina would be to, you know, potentially capture some of those incentive payments for a low carbon feedstock that would be passed down through the supply chain from the end use refiner. Because if they had a choice between two different oil feedstocks, and they know that they’re going to, you know, sell higher valued biofuel out of their plant from using camelina versus soybean oil, to incentivize a grower to plant camelina, some of that value needs to be shared on the supply chain. And I think that will happen. It’s just very early stages of market development today. And I think, in order to incentivize growers to produce this at scale, you’re going to see some of the supply chain partners put together offerings that really trying to help out the growers and provide value back to the farm level.
Colin Cureton 1:02:30
My only addendum to that fantastic summary, which I think is totally accurate, is that here in the Upper Midwest, where we’ve seen an effort to replicate, you know, the basics of that California low carbon fuel standard, and a couple other states have adopted that standard, but it doesn’t more considering adopting it. And here in Minnesota, where I sit, we’re considering a clean fuel standard. And just wanted to mention that, you know, I think there’s some, some understandable concern about, you know, how that potential legislation would impact, you know, fuels from other sources like corn and soybean. But interestingly, with these technologies that are on the way, for everyone listening, I’m of the firm opinion that a clean fuel standard policy in Minnesota could somewhat unexpectedly be the largest single policy mechanism to scale cover crop adoption on the landscape. And you kind of have to think it through for all the reasons that David mentioned. But putting that regulatory compliance market in place that makes these structurally more competitive in a pathway, you know, a CI based technology neutral pathway would do significant things for the deployment and rapid scaling of cash cover crops.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:04:01
So what about the foodgrade market? Is their opportunity to capture market share from canola and sunflour and all the other crude oils or is the breeding just too far behind? Or is it just too much of a heavy lift to go that way, and the biofuel opportunity is front and center?
So from my perspective, there’s opportunity to take some of that market share with camelina production. You know, a few of the things that need to take place as we need processing capacity to actually deliver oil to the refiners. I think the you know, the seed genetics and agronomic need to be flushed out to build some confidence. And especially in an environment where there’s limited crop insurance protection for a crop like camelina. There’s going to have to be mechanisms to de-risk it at the farm level and, you know, share some of that risk across the supply chain, whether that’s with a seed distributor and aggregator, seed processor, the biofuels company itself, there needs to be some unique contract structure to de-risk a complete loss at the farm level. So I think if all of those things continue to move in the right direction, based on the CI potential or carbon intensity potential of camelina, there is a large opportunity to displace other vegetable oils. Or not even necessarily displace them, but add additionality within the rotations. And at the end of the day, adding additionality versus displacing another crop helps lower the CI score. And then, you know, the co-products too, if you’re able to sell protein into food production systems, that has an impact on the carbon intensity score, as well as really kind of dialing in the inputs, you know, reducing synthetic fertilizers, they all ultimately add up to that CI scoring mechanism having a low CI score for camelina oil.
Well, that’s a great point that you just made about the additionality, that the goal here is to try to build it into existing rotations that improve the overall rotation itself, but it also results in better CI score for camelina. So rather than just displacing some other crop.
Steffen Mirsky 1:06:20
Well, we should probably wrap it up here. I just want to thank you, Colin, David and Matt for taking the time to be with us today. And all your work with winter camelina. Anything you want to add to that Jason?
JASON FISCHBACH 1:06:31
Same thing, just, to me new crop development is just so exciting because there’s so many opportunities put so many challenges and really it takes folks like the three of you to get out there and make it happen. And it’s great. Thanks so much for your time.
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai