Business & Economy

Cargill, U of M team up on oil seed crop expansion effort

Soybeans grow between rows of Winter Camelina
Soybeans grow between rows of Winter Camelina at a USDA research plot near Morris, Minn. Researchers hope this combination will provide farmers an option for a cover crop to reduce erosion, and earn extra cash by harvesting two crops.
Courtesy of Russ Gesch | USDA ARS

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Agri-business giant Cargill and the University of Minnesota are collaborating in an effort to expand production of crop-based biofuel in the region.

Cargill and the University of Minnesota are collaborating on a plan to expand production of plant-based biofuels.

Soybeans are the most widely grown oil seed crop, but researchers with the U of M Forever Green Initiative have been working for years to expand the use of winter-hardy oil seed crops camelina and pennycress. Researchers say the seeds from those plants have a higher oil content than soybeans.

A new collaboration with Minneapolis-based Cargill will focus on developing improved seed varieties, better methods for growing the crops in the Upper Midwest and expanded production across Minnesota and the Dakotas.

“This is really Cargill saying, ‘OK, we are believers in the technology and in camelia and pennycress,’” said Lyle DePauw, Cargill’s crop innovation director. “It's all about accelerating the program, it's all about bringing better genetics forward, it's all about creating better lines of camelia that can be put into the marketplace.”

Winter camelina and pennycress are members of the mustard family. The crops are not new, but have had relatively little plant breeding attention to develop new varieties, according to Nick Jordan, a professor at University of Minnesota.

“These crops are viable now, but need to become better,” said Jordan, co-director of the Forever Green Initiative. Jordan said goals include developing an earlier-maturing camelina plant, a higher-yielding pennycress plant and improving the composition of the oils produced by the plants.

A patch of camelina ready for harvest
Camelina at a USDA test plot near Morris, Minn. The seeds are crushed to produce oil.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2015

A few Minnesota farmers have experimented with camelina and pennycress as cover crops to reduce erosion and keep fields covered over the winter. The “shoulder season” crops are planted in the fall and harvested in June. They can also allow a farmer to grow two crops on a field, potentially increasing profits.

Farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota grew about 2,000 acres this year as part of a pilot project, and Cargill hopes to expand its pilot to 20,000 acres next year.

The state of Minnesota has provided funding for financial incentives to farmers who grow camelina and pennycress. Jordan said the crops could also play a critical role in reducing nitrate pollution in southeastern Minnesota by keeping plants on the land much of the year.

“Our estimate is that we could get up to somewhere between 1,000,000 to 1,250,000 acres in 10 years,” said Jordan. “If we are able to robustly invest in research and development and in the other things that are necessary to scale up a new crop.”

A million acres of the oil seed crops would produce between 25 and 50 million gallons of aviation biofuel according to Jordan.

Delta merger nearly complete
Delta Airlines is a partner in the Minnesota Sustainable Aviation Fuel hub project.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR file photo

Cargill will use the company’s crop innovation center in Fort Collins, Colo., to accelerate new crop varieties. The company will turn the seeds produced through the pilot project into oil at a crushing plant in Fargo.

Earlier this year, Cargill gave $2.5 million to the U of M to help accelerate research on winter camelina and pennycress.

“We have been been trying to figure out what are the right crops that can fit the need for the renewable fuels space,” said DePauw. “And it's really the renewable fuels, the sustainable aviation fuel, that's driving a lot of this.”

Last year the Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership announced plans to create a sustainable aviation fuel hub in Minnesota.

That project has a goal of creating a production system to deliver a large volume of affordable, low-carbon, sustainable aviation fuel.