There are a couple of bugs to work out, but the agronomics look good, especially in rotation with soybeans. If the market potential can be realized, camelina may become a bigger part of the crop mix in Western Canada.
“The interesting thing about camelina from an agronomic point of view is that it is a low-input crop. If you compare it to something like canola, where the seed cost can be $40 to $50 an acre, camelina seed cost is below $20 an acre,” said Jack Grushcow, founder and CEO of Smart Earth Seeds, which has been working with camelina for more than 10 years.
“Producers have a lot of acres to plant and have to lay out a lot of cash every year. If they complement even 10 per cent of their regular production into camelina, it just reduces overall expense.”
A member of the Brassicaceae family, camelina is also known as false flax or German sesame and is similar to canola. It grows to 90 cm tall with branched smooth or hairy wood stems and five- to eight-centimetre-long arrow-shaped leaves.
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Camelina originated in Europe and was first grown in Canada in 1863. Agriculture Canada scientists began researching the crop in Saskatchewan in 1999, and continue to develop new lines.
Camelina has excellent yield potential over an 85- to 100-day season and grows well in cool temperatures.
“Its season is 10 days shorter than canola, which means it can be grown farther north than a typical canola crop and you can combine it earlier, avoiding frost,” Grushcow said.
Camelina requires less moisture than canola and is resistant to blackleg and some strains to downy mildew.
“It is also resistant to many of the pests and diseases that bother canola like flea beetles and alternaria. We have had crops where canola has grown beside camelina and flea beetles pretty much wiped out the canola but hasn’t touched the camelina,” Grushcow said.
Camelina is also shatter resistant, matures relatively early and tolerates heat and drought.
Market is uncertain
Despite its agronomic advantages, camelina has never taken off due to limited demand.
“Camelina is one of those crops that we don’t have a huge marketplace for yet but I believe there is some interest growing. Other areas of the world are interested in us growing it as we have the right climate for it, but we are still examining compatible varieties,” said Lionel Kaskiw, production adviser with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. “There has been some research done in Manitoba, but the majority of the acres in Canada is being grown in Saskatchewan right now.”
Camelina has so far been used mainly in bio-based products, including biolubricants. However, in 2010, Health Canada approved camelina oil for sale as human food. It is high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have well-established health benefits.
“Camelina has one really important thing going for it and that is the omega-3 content, which is about 40 per cent of the total fatty acid. Compared to soybean oil, which is very minimal, less than five per cent — this is similar to canola as well,” said Stefanie Hixson, post-doctoral fellow with the department of chemistry and biology at Ryerson University.
There is a growing demand for products high in omega-3. According to the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, daily intake of 500 mg of omega-3 is recommended for optimal cardiovascular health. A world population of seven billion would amount to an annual requirement of more than 1.25 million tonnes.
Part of that demand could be supplied by meat with its omega-3 content boosted by camelina in the feed.
“Meal in broiler chicken feed was approved by CFIA last November, which is a huge step forward for us. The other factor is now that we are working with CFIA to get other livestock approved,” Grushcow said.
A study at the University of Alberta found that feeding higher amounts of camelina meal to broiler chickens produced breast and thigh meat that was two to four times higher in omega-3.
CFIA is currently considering including the meal in layer feed. Camelina meal has also been approved for animal rations in the U.S. for all species. Industry members believe it will eventually be approved for all species in Canada and have high hopes for its potential use in the aquaculture and pet food industries.
Production and marketing challenges
Grushcow said production challenges include the lack of a registered broadleaf herbicide, and the small size of the seed — a quarter to half the size of canola.
“We are also trialling a large-seeded variety — the seed is 40 per cent bigger. There has never been a variety released like that and we are quite excited. We are aiming to release it for the 2017 crop year,” Grushcow said.
Currently seed grown in Canada is shipped to the States to be crushed.
“In the next two to three years my goal is to find a place in Western Canada where I can have camelina crushed or build a crush facility. Once we further develop the market, we can start to build local production and that will really help our economics overall,” Grushcow said.
The United States Department of Agriculture recently began exploring intercropping and relay cropping camelina with soybeans, for which Grushcow sees potential in Manitoba.
“I really think that the opportunity for camelina in Manitoba lies as a complementary crop with soybeans. We are starting to do some trials on that now and if it works well it will be a really big opportunity,” he said.
Smart Earth Seeds will be working to replicate trials similar to the USDA with the hopes of working camelina into soybean rotations.