Introducing camelina, the oilseed expected to fuel the future


It’s often said that some things are too good to be true, but in the case of one specialty crop called camelina, the old adage does not apply. This member of the Brassicaceae family could be flowering in a field near you due to the overwhelming demand for its oil that is currently being made into renewable diesel.

“I know this is a strong statement, but if I had 2 million acres of it in the High Plains today, it wouldn’t be enough,” said Mike Karst, president of Sustainable Oils.

Sustainable Oils is the world’s leading camelina seed company for renewable diesel production. Sustainable Oils is owned by Global Clean Energy Holdings, which also owns Bakersfield Renewable Fuels plant in Bakersfield, California, where the seeds are processed and turned into fuel. Camelina is in the mustard family and is closely related to canola. Using renewable fuels, using less petroleum products and decreasing carbon emissions have become goals for many the last few years, and camelina has become the renewable plant feedstock of choice. Apart from its main uses—the oil—camelina is also a no-waste crop as the hulls and seeds can be made into meal for livestock feed.

Additionally, Amanda DeRosier, vice president of investor, community and public relations with Global Clean Energy Holdings, said camelina does not have to be blended with traditional petroleum productions to be used for fuel, making it the ultimate source for renewable fuel.

Camelina produces ultra-low carbon renewable diesel fuel, propane, butane and naphtha. It has an estimated carbon intensity of 7 grams per megajoules with meal credit, the lowest CI score of diesel feedstock alternatives. Carbon intensity gauges how clean electricity is and measures how many grams of carbon dioxide are released to produce a kilowatt hour of power. Compare camelina’s CI of seven to canola’s 52 grams per megajoules or even the CI of traditional diesel at 100 grams per megajoules, and camelina is by far the most desirable renewable fuel feedstock in terms of environmental impact. To Karst, the environmental impact of renewable diesel is just as significant as pumping financial lifeblood into farming communities and incorporating agriculture into the fuel of the future.

“I get a lot of questions about how I must really love the environmental aspect of making renewable diesel. It’s a fantastic way for our dryland farmers in the High Plains and all the way up into Montana who have been unable to participate in the renewable fuels boom because they are not producing corn to turn into ethanol.”

Growing camelina

Planting a new crop is always a risk and there is usually a learning curve, but Karst said camelina is not a difficult crop to grow.

“If you’ve grown alfalfa or canola, you can grow this,” he said.

Farmers who grow Sustainable Oils camelina work with a crop consultant throughout the growing season. Karst said there is also no need to purchase new equipment. An air seeder or a grain drill with a small seeding attachment is all that is needed.

(Photo courtesy Global Clean Energy.)

“It’s planted in narrow rows like wheat,” Karst explained. “In the High Plains, it is planted in the wintertime, starting at about Thanksgiving. You’re going to scratch it in very shallow at about a quarter of an inch.”

Camelina is harvested with a combine and producers only need to change the settings because the seeds are extremely small—330,000 seeds per pound, that is.

As a winter annual, it is planted on fallow land between cropping systems, making it a perfect short season crop that only takes 80 to 100 days to reach maturity. It can fit well in an existing rotation or be used for double cropping.

Partly due to its short growing cycle, camelina is a low water-use crop as well.

“In the High Plains, if I could get 6 inches (of rain) at the right times of the year, that’s enough to grow this crop,” he said.

“In fact, Camelina can be planted while the soil is still partially frozen,” Karst explained. “It’s more resilient to low temperatures than other oilseeds with a minimum germination temperature of 33 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Unlike other cover crops, camelina is more than just a way to cover the soil until it’s time to plant the cash crop. It provides real financial returns, in addition to improving soil health.

Karst said camelina provides a food source for the bacteria in the soil throughout winter. The roots break up the soil profile and improve the movement through compacted soil layers.

“It makes a carpet and it does a really good job of covering the soil completely,” he said. “So you don’t get the impact of the beating rain, which compacts the top of the soil.”

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Is it right for you?

Karst said Sustainable Oils has over 45,000 acres contracted in the U.S. this year with the majority of those acres planted in Montana. Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Oregon are growing the rest.

“Right now, we’ve got 20 different elevators in the United States that are taking camelina seed,” he said.

Crop insurance has been a large hurdle for camelina producers as it has only been available in Montana in the past. However, recently the United States Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency announced it is expanding the camelina insurance offerings to different states in the High Plains and the Pacific Northwest. To help growers, Sustainable Oils has decided to assist those who want to plant camelina and reduce some of the financial risk.

With reduced risks, expert guidance, low water use and guaranteed market demand, camelina is an ideal specialty crop to be introduced to the High Plains.

“We would encourage folks to get on board and try something new, make some extra money on your idle acres and improve your soil health in the process,” DeRosier said.

To learn more about camelina and production opportunities, visit

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].