Tired of searching for enough material to make his own biodiesel, Applegate Valley resident Roarke Ball is considering going into the oil business.

By Paul Fattig

For the Tidings

Tired of searching for enough material to make his own biodiesel, Applegate Valley resident Roarke Ball is considering going into the oil business.

Oil seed in the form of camelina sativa, or canola, that is.

"I've played with used cooking oil, but it's not enough for what I need to do," he said. "I have a grading-excavating business — I want to run all my stuff on it.

"But the oil is hard to get," he added. "I thought maybe I could generate it locally."

Ball was among a small crop of local farmers on Wednesday checking out a 10-acre camelina field off Highway 62 about two miles north of Eagle Point grown by Mark Wiest of Sams Valley.

Wiest, who produced the first camelina crop in southwestern Oregon last year, spent part of the day with Tomas Endicott of Willamette Biomass Processors Inc. giving a crash course on growing the oil seeds locally. Located near Salem, the firm contracts directly with Oregon growers in producing camelina or canola seed.

After Wiest's pioneering plot of about two dozen acres of camelina last year, there are now about 60 acres planted this year in Jackson County, he said. Five farmers from Ashland to Grants Pass are now growing it, added Wiest, 56, a farmer with a degree in biology who has worked for Oregon State University's agricultural experiment station.

However, Wiest always has kept a hand in agriculture, becoming interested in growing oil seeds when fuels prices began to sky rocket two years ago.

"Oil seeds do a lot better here than in the Willamette Valley which is cooler and wetter," he said. "This is a more arid plant. Obviously, this is a more arid climate.

"You go to the coast and it's too wet," he added. "It's too cool (to the north) and too dry (to the south). We are sitting right in the pocket."

While it appears to have great potential as a cash crop, he says there are more questions to be answered, such as whether weed control is an issue and what needs to be done for soil preparation.

"Can you go organic? There are a lot of significant things that need to be determined," he said. "We're learning a lot. Surprisingly, it's looking like the less tillage, the better. Of course, that's in favor of the farmer. The less times you have to go over the ground with your equipment, the better off you are going to be."

Researchers estimate canola seed could produce 100 to 150 gallons of oil per acre.

Wiest planted the 10-acre plot last Halloween. It is now about two feet tall and about a week from harvesting.

"We used no fertilizer, no irrigation, no herbicide," he said.

Endicott, vice president of business development for Willamette Biomass Processors, agrees that Oregon farmers are on a learning curve when it comes to growing oil seeds.

"But we have learned a lot in the past year," he said. "Camelina can survive in areas that have greater than 12 inches of annual rainfall. With canola, you are going to have to get up into rainfall that is 15 to 20 inches minimum a year. . . Southern Oregon is a good area for both of these crops."

Statewide, about 20 farmers are growing camelina or canola, he estimated. Farming commercial oil seed took root in 2007 after Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed into law the state's new Renewable Fuels Initiative, which encourages Oregonians to produce renewable energy sources, he noted.

Using what he figures is a conservative estimate, a farmer growing 1,500 pounds of camelina per acre can make a profit of about $136.50 an acre, he said. A yield of 2,500 pounds of canola per acre means a profit of $317 an acre, he added.

His firm processes the seeds, which are about 40 percent oil by weight and 60 percent meal. The straw is typically left in the field to become mulch, he said, adding about 10 percent of the oil is left in the meal which is then used as livestock feed.

"It is a very good livestock feed — about 35 percent protein," he said.

Camelina meal has been approved for beef, swine and chickens but not yet for dairy cows or laying hens, he said.

With the ability to crush up to 80 million pounds of seeds each year, the firm has the largest oil seed processor in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

"We are optimistic," he said. "Both camelina and canola compete very favorably against wheat. There are a lot of areas where this is a viable rotation."

Longtime farmer Jim Alston, 75, of Sams Valley, planted a small test crop of canola and camelina last fall.

"We wanted to see how it would do — the canola hasn't turned out that terrific," he said. "We had a lot of invading weeds and grasses. But the camelina did fairly well.

"It's a good possibility for this area with its small acreages that could be utilized for something like this," he added. "You don't have to have irrigation. If a fella could get it planted in the fall, it would have a good root system. It definitely has possibilities."

Eagle Point-area resident Don Veach, a retired mill worker, also is interested in planting oil seeds.

"I do dry-land hay," he said. "I've got about 30-35 acres over in Sams Valley. Weeds grow real good. This stuff ought to do real well over there."

For more information, contact Wiest at 261-1088 or e-mail him at markwiest@yahoo.com

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.