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Interest in camelina gains momentum in Canada

In an era of rising input and transportation costs, the search for wonder crops, both in Canada and around the world, is on. Scott Chalmers, a diversification technician with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), is just one among many on the front lines of that search.


November 4, 2008
By Treena Hein

Ancient crop is versatile and easy to grow

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Although it is more common in Western Canada, Kevin Falk of  AAFC-Saskatoon, believes camelina would adapt well to regions of Eastern Canada, including the Maritimes.

In an era of rising input and transportation costs, the search for wonder crops, both in Canada and around the world, is on. Scott Chalmers, a diversification technician with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), is just one among many on the front lines of that search. “We’re trying to look at everything and see what other options we have, in case we need those options,” he says.
But many are currently looking for crop alternatives, and Chalmers is one of them, have already found an ancient wonder crop that still dazzles today with numerous impressive attributes.

Enter camelina, a versatile, drought resistant and low-input crop. Its oil offers excellent human health benefits and its meal has outstanding nutritional value. As if that is not enough, the oil can be easily converted into fuel.

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With its high levels of omega-3 fatty acid, camelina is coveted in food, feed and nutraceutical markets, as well as for its potential in the industrial sector.


According to Dr. Kevin Falk, a crop research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in  Saskatoon, archaeological evidence suggests that cultivation of camelina, of which Camelina sativa is among the most common species, began in southeast Europe in the late Neolithic era, and became well established in that region during the Bronze Age. Even that long ago, it was grown for its oil. Camelina then became common across much of Europe and Scandinavia. “The importance of camelina as a food crop declined during the Middle Ages,” state Falk and colleague R.K. Gugel in a 2006 research paper. “But cultivation has continued sporadically to this day.” 

Camelina sativa was probably introduced to the Americas as a weed amongst flax seeds. The crop does not appear to have been cultivated, except perhaps in small isolated plantings. Falk and Gugel say interest in camelina as a potential oilseed crop for northern regions began to pick up in Canada after trials were conducted in the late 1950s. Recently, camelina has received renewed interest in Europe, North America and Australia, mostly due to its nutritional value.

Falk and his colleagues also have shown that camelina does well in both short and long growing seasons and adapts well to different areas, from PEI to the Prairies. “Our experience is that yes, camelina could be grown in both Ontario and Quebec, based on what we’ve seen in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,” he says.  However, he points out that the climate in the Maritimes can cause downy mildew. “The good news is that we are working on it.  As for resistant varieties, to the best of my knowledge, there are none currently grown in Canada that are resistant, but we are looking.”

Falk says “We have chosen some lines and we’re making crosses this coming winter to start a breeding program.”  He adds, “From an agronomic standpoint, the one issue we do have and are working on is the small seededness.  Camelina has a thousand kernel weight of only 1.2 to 1.5 grams.  This means it is only about half as large as canola.”

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Camelina characteristics
According to Falk and Gugel’s studies since 2004, camelina’s fatty acid composition is largely unsaturated (greater than 90 percent), with significant amounts (30 to 40 percent) of linolenic acid, an important omega-3 fatty acid. This profile is similar to that of flax, making camelina oil a perfect fit for the nutraceutical market, where foods contain added health ben

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efits.

Camelina’s profile also makes it a natural as an animal ration to produce products such as omega eggs. Furthermore, Falk says the seed meal is about 28 to 33 percent protein with a favourable balance of amino acids, making it a potentially valuable feed for poultry, swine and ruminants and fish. As an added bonus for both human and animal consumption, camelina oil contains significant amounts of vitamin E, which helps prevent rancidity.

Camelina also has good potential as a biofuel, industrial oil and lubricant. No bleaching or deodorizing of the oil is needed. “There are also other interesting bioproducts we are looking at,” says Falk, though he says those products must remain confidential at this time.

In terms of growing conditions, camelina is much more drought tolerant than canola and uses about half the fertilizer. Chalmers says grasshoppers, moths, worms, even deer ignore it.

Hugh Campbell, president of Seedtech-Terramax in Qu’Appelle, Sask., has been growing camelina and collecting seeds from many parts of the globe for 15 years. He says “There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of increasing oil content, but it’s a pretty good crop the way it is.”

In 2008, Terramax provided seed for MAFRI to grow
demonstration plots featuring 28 varieties. Chalmers says “We are monitoring how they grow and also assessing how camelina interacts with crops such as canola and flax. Camelina apparently has a growth-regulating substance from bacteria on its leaves that washes off in the rain and promotes growth of other crops.”

Drawing on his experience with camelina since 2006, Chalmers observes “The earlier you seed it, the better it grows. Dormant seeding in the fall works better than spring seeding.” Camelina ripens at the end of June and can be harvested until the end of July, which spreads out farm workload. Chalmers also notes, “It holds its pods better than canola, so you can let it stand. It swathes like wheat, so an old-style farmer can grow it. There’s no need for new and expensive equipment.”

In terms of disease and pests, Chalmers says, “I haven’t seen an insect yet. Wildlife don’t seem to go near it. I have noted some root rot Pythium sp. and found some Fusarium wilt. It doesn’t like wet feet.” 

Since 2006, Campbell has had several farmers growing a select variety of camelina on a few thousand acres. “Most of these people believe it’s going to be an economically viable crop and want the growing experience,” he says. “We are not, however, encouraging widespread planting until there’s processing in place. We certainly could ship to existent oil crushing plants, but they’re busy crushing canola, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Camelina Canada in Lethbridge, Alta., however, has been shipping camelina for biodiesel processing in Washington State for also since 2006. President Ryan Mercer says he received $7 per 50 pound bushel in 2007. Since approval for animal consumption is yet to come, the meal has been returned to Canada to be spread on fields.

Mercer plans to have about 50,000 acres with 28 varieties of camelina contracted for 2009. “Dan Kusalik, my full-time agronomist, introduced me to the crop and he is out helping our growers all over Alberta and Saskatchewan,” says Mercer. “The long-term plans are for a million acres. We are narrowing it down for which varieties grow best in different areas.” Mercer says camelina is allelopathic to weeds, preventing them from growing as well. He generally seeds five pounds per acre.

With such impressive characteristics, it would seem nothing can stop camelina from having a bright future in Canada. “The multitude of potential uses for the crop, combined with its favourable agronomics,” state Falk and Gugel, “suggests that cultivation of C. sativa may have a place in western Canadian agriculture especially now that growers are being encouraged to diversify their cropping strategies.”

“It’s got a very good carbon footprint compared to canola,” concludes Campbell. “With some action from the government, this could be a major crop, especially on marginal land."