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Oil Seed Crops

Biodiesel is here; the question is whether Washington State farmers can participate in this market. In the United States, soy beans provide the primary feedstock for biodiesel production. Palm oil from southeast Asia has also emerged as a low cost feedstock for biodiesel production. Both of these feedstocks will compete for market share with locally grown oilseed crops.

Canola crop

In the Northwest, the focus is on brassica crops, which includes canola, rape and mustard. These oilseeds have been used in limited applications as a rotation crop with wheat and barley. The benefit of rotating oilseed crops with cereal grains is that they allow a wider choice of herbicide use, improving weed control. The addition of oilseed crops also helps loosen hardpan and can be direct-seeded or no-till farmed, reducing soil erosion impacts and breaking disease cycles. The brassica oilseeds contain a high oil content which makes them a good candidate for producing feedstock oils for biodiesel. For example, spring canola contains upwards of 42 percent oil as compared to an oil content of about 20 percent for soybeans. A comparative table showing oil yields from various oil producing crops is shown below.

Oil Producing Crops
Plant Yield (seed) lbs/acre Biodiesel gal/acre Plant Yield (seed) lbs/acre Biodiesel gal/acre
Corn 7800 18 Safflower 1500 83
Oats 3600 23 Rice 6600 88
Cotton 1000 35 Sunflower 1200 100
Soybean 2000 48 Peanut 2800 113
Mustard 1400 61 Rapeseed 2000 127
Camelina 1500 62 Coconut** 3600 287
Crambe 1000 65 Oil palm** 6251 635
** Yield given in lbs of oil/acre
Source: Biofuel Variety Trials Factsheet, USDA-ARS and WSU, Prosser, WA

Unlike the Midwestern soybean-dominated agricultural systems, Washington's growers have had limited experience producing oilseed crops in this region. Therefore, production of biodiesel feedstocks in Washington requires the adoption of new crops not widely produced in our region due to substantial obstacles faced by Washington farmers. These obstacles include:

  • Lack of widespread knowledge of the agronomics of potential biofuels crops, like canola;
  • Lack of availability of locally adapted crop varieties;
  • Increased risk of producing / contracting new crops; and
  • Poor economic performance of biodiesel crops relative to other crops.

A targeted research and education program is a key to overcoming these obstacles. The goals of this effort would be to document the potential for:

  • sustainably producing bioenergy crops within existing and future cropping systems and agroclimates; and,
  • developing new, value-added technologies to make in-state production of biofuels more economical "from seed to pump."

The first and most critical portion of jumpstarting this industry is the establishment of "oilseed to biodiesel variety trials" in each of the major agro-climatic zones of the state (high, intermediate and low-rainfall dryland zones; irrigated; and west-side). These trials should be established on at least one site (and in most cases two or more sites) in each of the five major agro-climatic zones of the state. Organic trials should be included at selected sites. The purposes of these trials are to:

  • select potential new feedstock crops for biofuels,
  • improve the yield and economic performance of suitable crops through best agronomic management and genetic selection,
  • identify viable crop rotation schemes that take advantage of these crops in providing rotational benefits to the productivity of other crops in the system,
  • evaluate the efficacy of applying residual bioprocessing wastes (ie. glycerine from biodiesel, anaerobically digested dairy manure, etc.),
  • document the economic performance of crops and technologies, and
  • provide educational opportunities and demonstrations for farmers.

While new research is needed, information for growing oilseed crops in this region is available. Some of this work can be found at the following website supported by the Pacific Regional Biomass Energy Partnership. This website contains links to crop research work done by Washington State University, University of Idaho and Oregon State University, as well as others.

Additional Resources:

Oilseed crushers

Crushers are used to extract oil from oilseed. This involves a series of steps which can include mild heat treatment to precondition the seed prior to processing. Next the seed is crushed and flaked and then heated slightly to enhance oil extraction. The flakes are then pre-pressed in a screw press or expeller to reduce the oil content in the seed. For canola this step reduces the oil content from about 42% to 16-20%. The press cake is then subjected to one of two types of oil extraction to remove much of the remaining oil. Oil may be extracted using either hexane ("solvent") extraction or by "cold-pressing" (also referred to as "expeller pressing"). The oil which is produced during the extraction process is referred to as "crude oil".

Until now, growers have had to send their oilseeds out of state to be crushed. The two nearest crushing facilities are located in Great Falls, Montana and Lethbridge, Alberta. New in-state crushing capacity is being developed, spurred on by the Energy Freedom Fund which is providing low interest loans for crushing facilities located in the state.

Potential Washington Crushers - 2006
Spokane County Conservation District/Palouse BioEnergy/Four farmer coops, $2,000,000 Energy Freedom Program - NA
Port of Warden/Washington Biodiesel, $2,915,397 Energy Freedom Program - 350,000 tons per year
Odessa PDA/Inland Empire Oilseeds, LLC (2 co-ops, Rearden Seed and Fred Fleming, $2,500,000 Energy Freedom Program - 44,200 tons per year
Port of Columbia County, $2,500,000 Energy Freedom Program - NA
Port of Sunnyside/Natural Selections, Ted Durfee - $750,000 Energy Freedom Program -8,000 tons per year
Colfax- NRCS ¾ ton per day portable crusher
Moses Lake/Adrian Higgenbotham - NA
Whitman Conservation District - Has crusher


Oilseeds such as canola, rape and mustard are generally not grown as primary crops, but can be used as a rotational crop in the cultivation of wheat or other grains. Farmers evaluate oilseeds profitability against other rotational crops. To plant oilseeds, a farmer must be convinced that the economic returns for these crops are at least as good as other alternatives. The value of oilseeds as a biodiesel feedstock depends upon a number of factors:

  • value of fossil diesel;
  • value of tax incentives;
  • value of seed meal;
  • value of glycerol (a co-product of biodiesel production);
  • cost of crushing oilseed; and
  • cost of processing seed oil into biodiesel.

While all of these factors are important, the development of higher value seed meal markets may be the most significant. As of now, canola meal is sold as an animal feed supplement. This market does not provide the economic returns needed by most growers to justify planting oilseeds. Instead higher value markets are needed-from increasing the value of the meal as an animal feed, to using it as a high value fertilizer, a biopesticide, as food for human consumption, or as a feedstock for other bioproducts. There is also an increasing demand from organic dairies for high value organic meal.

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