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Stanislaus County to join major biofuel project

POSTED July 29, 2011 6:38 p.m.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently announced that Stanislaus County will be part of a multi-state, $45 million biofuels project to produce renewable energy.

Farmers in 17 California counties, including neighboring Merced and San Joaquin, will be offered the opportunity to grow camelina for conversion into a jet fuel substitute.

Camelina is a member of the mustard family and when its seeds are crushed with oil it is easily converted to biodiesel or aviation biofuel that can perform more efficiently that regular jet fuel.

According to the USDA Farm Service Agency, the project will immediately launch 265 jobs across counties in California, Washington and Montana and an estimated 1,925 jobs by full scale production.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the project could relieve small businesses from high energy costs and help break the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The camelina biofuel project is part of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which was part of the 2008 Farm Bill. The BCAP provides farmers with the start-up costs of planting non-food crops for conversion to heat, power and biofuels.

As part of the BCAP farmers are reimbursed for 75 percent of the cost for establishing energy crops and would receive yearly maintenance stipends. Contracts last from five to 15 years.

California, combined with Washington and Montana, will be allotted 51,000 acres of camelina grows. According to the USDA, for each acre of camelina, between 40 to 43 gallons of fuel can be produced.

This announcement will bring the total national biofuel acreage up to 250,000 acres nationwide.

Scott Johnson of Montana-based camelina seed producer and biofuel marketer Sustainable Oils said the project is a step towards energy security.

“The USDA is showing a real commitment to scale up camelina production. We’ve been testing camelina for three years with UC Davis and we know that camelina will grow as a winter crop in California,” Johnson said.

Johnson is a 1971 Turlock High School graduate and president of Sustainable Oils. He explained that camelina is equivalent to aviation petroleum. In the past several years Sustainable Oils has been testing camelina with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. The USDA project will propel camelina jet fuel into the commercial market.

AltAir Fuels, based in Washington, is sponsoring the project and could be the first refiner to offer camelina for commercial use to airlines.

Boeing and the Air Transportation Association have signed up to buy the camelina biofuel, which will likely be blended 50 percent with regular jet fuel.

For Stanislaus County farmers, timing is of the upmost importance. Project registration begins Aug. 8 and will end Sept. 16 of this year.

All of this could be big news for Stanislaus farmers.

“We will be working quickly to get contracts out for farmers who want to participate in this project,” said Johnson. “I’m hoping to get some of my farming buddies involved.”

 In additional to providing biofuel, camelina is extremely high in protein and could be used for meal feed for cattle, poultry and swine. For local dairies camelina could provide a much-needed relief from corn silage for feed and ethanol mandates that dairies say is part of high operation costs.

Along with the Fiscalini Dairy Farm's "methane to electricity" convertor in Modesto, the Central Valley is actively involved in the contribution to energy independence and the national green energy commitment.

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail jmccorkell@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.

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