America’s airlines have ambitious plans for using more biofuel, and the feedstocks in their sights include obscure oilseed crops such as camelina that could provide a new income stream for farmers without competing for land with existing crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat.

Instead, these biofuel feedstocks would be grown as soil-conserving cover crops, harvested and then followed with the farmers' normal cash crops.

But there’s a big challenge with that business proposition – federal crop insurance policy.

USDA’s Risk Management Agency allows farmers in select areas to insure camelina as a cash crop, and RMA recently expanded the number of counties where that’s permitted. But with some exceptions, producers aren't allowed to insure both camelina and another crop on the same land in the same year. Farmers are unlikely to plant and harvest camelina as a cover crop if doing so will risk their primary commodity crop insurance. 

The stakes are high for airlines to find new feedstocks for sustainable aviation fuel.

Airlines for America, the industry trade organization that represents Delta, Southwest, United and others, has set a goal of using 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030, 10% of projected fuel use, and achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.

SAF proponents don't want feedstock to replace current food crops. Instead, they've been promoting crops like camelina, carinata, and pennycress as harvestable cover crops.

“Cover crops, including camelina, are one of those things that have been identified as having potential for SAF, for sustainable aviation fuel, and they're attractive because as a cover crop, they pose less risk for indirect land use change type issues," said Sean Newsum, managing director of environmental affairs at A4A

The idea is that farmers would plant camelina as their yearly cover crop, but then instead of terminating it, harvest the camelina for aviation fuel feedstock – helping the industry meet its climate goals through renewable fuel.  

This would enable farmers to profit off a conservation practice while continuing to raise and earn revenue from their primary crop.

Global Clean Energy Holdings, Inc. is a leader in camelina development, marketing the crop as a product that will be grown on otherwise fallow land. Depending on the region, Global Clean Energy says camelina could be compatible for double cropping with soybeans, sorghum and more.


Camelina growing in a field (Photo: Global Clean Energy)

Mike Karst, vice president at Global Clean Energy, said the company has 20 patented varieties of camelina and is continuing research on the crop across the globe.

“We're learning which ones work best in which environments around the world,” said Karst. 

The big sell for camelina, according to Global Clean Energy, is that it “protects like a cover crop and pays like a cash crop.” 

However, that strategy is at odds with the legislative definition and purpose of cover crops. 

Francie Tolle, director of RMA's product administration and standards division, said that with the exception of repurposing a cover crop for hay or forage, it must be terminated to be considered a cover crop under RMA policy. 

"The definition of a cover crop is considered for conservation purposes, and so if it's planted for the harvest of grain or seed, we don't consider the primary reason being conservation,” Tolle said.

Cover crops are not insurable. Tolle said the insurability of a crop is especially important to producers when trying something new, like camelina.

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RMA has termination guidelines for cover crops specific to each region. The termination guidelines must be followed for the insurance policy of the cash crop that follows in the producer's rotation. 

Oliver Peoples, CEO of Yield10 Bioscience, a company currently studying uses of camelina, told Agri-Pulse the RMA cover crop definition is at odds with farming best practices. 

“The fact that you have to plow [cover crops] under doesn't make a lot of sense,” said Peoples. 

He said plants like camelina provide an opportunity for expanded profits for farmers and a way to decarbonize the transportation industry. 

In 2021, 70% of farmers in an Agri-Pulse poll said cost was the biggest reason they wouldn’t plant cover crops. Camelina boosters see harvesting cover crops as a solution. Peoples said policy should adapt to allow cover crops to be harvested, which would address the cost barriers currently keeping farmers from planting them. 

"This should be expanded to enable any cover crop regardless of its end use. In fact, quite frankly, they should be encouraging the end use to be focused on the commercial outcome," Peoples said. 

The USDA has recently updated crop insurance policy to address the aviation sector's need for renewable fuel. Last month the USDA expanded the insurability of camelina through written agreements in about a dozen states in "direct response to the anticipated increase in demand for the crop for biofuel production.”

According to an email from an RMA official, that expansion would allow for double-cropping of camelina with soybeans and sorghum in select counties. Camelina would be planted in the fall, followed by soybeans or sorghum. Producers should check with their agents, the email said. 

Tolle said the biggest challenge in crop insurance is the limited data available about new crops. Crop insurance policies must be agronomically driven and actuarially sound. 

“When that crop's not grown a lot, it's a real challenge for us,” Tolle said. 

Donna Cook, a fourth-generation farmer in Big Sandy, Montana, whose family primarily cultivates wheat on their 3,000 acres, has planted three camelina varieties as part of a Global Clean Energy project. Cook said she’s always willing to try something new. 

“We can actually plant it on fallow ground that would normally not earn us any income. So, for a small family farm, it is really beneficial for us,” said Cook. 

Cook plants camelina on land that would usually be fallow for a year following a wheat harvest. In addition to selling the camelina for feedstock, Cook said there are also conservation benefits. 

“We get the ground cover and we don't have the wind blowing our soil away and we don't have the erosion," said Cook.

USDA has taken note of the need for new SAF feedstocks. Two of the USDA's climate-smart commodities projects are aimed at better understanding camelina's potential. 

The project Cook participates in is led by Global Clean Energy and allocates $30 million to "accelerate farmer adoption of camelina as a non-food crop grown on idle acres to produce more plant-based feedstock for renewable biofuels." 

According to A4A, SAF must be just as safe and effective, as well as environmentally superior, to petroleum-based jet fuel. Land use change is part of that sustainability determination. Advocates say the focus on idle farmland will reduce land-use change and displacement of current food crops. 

Karst said over a five-year period, Global Clean Energy's climate-smart project will research and test how camelina performs in a variety of crop rotations with corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Another project, led by Millborn Seeds, is intended to encourage adoption of camelina and five other specialty crops as "climate-smart cover crop seed." Iowa Cover Crop, a full service cover crop company, is also a partner in the initiative. Co-owner Bill Frederick said the $35 million project is still in development.

Frederick told Agri-Pulse he was initially skeptical about camelina’s prospects in the upper Midwest, until he heard from an Iowa farmer that had success with 10 acres of it. Now he's looking forward to seeing how camelina can do.

“The exciting part of it is it comes off in June, and so you can potentially follow it with beans or you can just follow it with a diverse cover crop mix. It just opens you up to a bunch of different opportunities that aren't just row crop and chemically intense and fertilizer intense,” Frederick said. 

Newsum with Airlines for America said the group is pushing for "strong federal incentives" to encourage sustainable aviation fuel production. 

“There's so many existing programs within the Department of Agriculture that support renewable energy and biofuels and renewable fuels. Most of those have the potential to support aviation through SAF," said Newsum. 

Last year, 15 million gallons of SAF were used, just 0.5% of the 2030 goal. Newsum said cost and availability are the two biggest challenges to scaling sustainable aviation fuel. He added a strong partnership between agriculture and aviation is essential for success. 

“We do see the benefit of a strong partnership between the aviation sector and the agricultural sector as being beneficial to both. And I don't think within the US, we'll get to where we need to go on SAF without having a strong partnership between those two sectors.”

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