“Cover” Story

September 15, 2020

Investigating camelina as a sustainable cash crop of the future

While we’re advised never to judge a book by its cover, agronomic science is showing that we can indeed make positive interpretations about covers when it comes to a fundamental of the food supply — crops.

In Minnesota, the story begins with dominant annual crops like corn and soybeans that grow in the summer, leaving the land bare and brown for other parts of the year. Without active plant root systems to hold soil in place and absorb water, fields are much more vulnerable to wind and water erosion and loss of nutrients. When this happens, ecosystems can be impaired in a number of ways, including causing water quality issues in local communities.

Enter a developing plotline that is unfolding to protect water, soil, pollinator habitat and climate — all while helping farmers expand their enterprises to be more profitable, productive and environmentally sensitive. Winter crops are at the heart of this story, and winter camelina [Camelina sativa (L.) Crantz.] is a compelling character that farmers, conservationists and consumers can cheer for. 

Camelina can work as a system with corn and soybeans as a ‘relay’ crop — so fields are covered with living vegetation year round. It is planted in the fall, survives throughout the winter, and can be harvested in the spring for use as a cooking oil for food or in the biofuels market. When the camelina has been harvested, farmers can proceed with planting their traditional summer crops. 

Testing the waters 

From training for watershed specialists and conservation professionals, advancing knowledge on soil health, modeling and analysis, and help in mitigating the effects of urban stormwater runoff, researchers and educators at the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) Water Resource Center (WRC) work closely with stakeholders throughout the state on practices to improve the quality and quantity of Minnesota’s water supply.

“From a water quality perspective, crops like camelina are a potential win-win, helping farmers be more productive while keeping nitrogen in the soil versus leaching into lakes, rivers and streams,” said Jeff Peterson, director of the WRC. “But more research is needed to understand how these crops might benefit farmers economically as well as their impacts on the environment.”

Teams of faculty working on breeding, agronomics, ecology, life cycle analysis, food science and economics are developing new crops to improve vital air, land and water resources and enable abundant grain production despite climate variability and new pest pressures. Researchers also are looking at the life cycle of fossil energy consumption, climate change and air quality impacts of the farming and supply chain components of potential relay camelina cropping systems. 

Looking at life cycle 

Winter camelina is part of the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green portfolio of crops, which aim to diversify economic opportunities for Minnesota’s farmers through the production of new sources of food, feed and high-value biomaterials without interfering with current annual production systems. 

Stay tuned as new chapters are developed and continue to illuminate the powerful possibilities of camelia from cover to cover.

This research is funded by National Science Foundation Award #1739191.