Sams valley rancher plants renewable crop with a future in biodiesel technology.

Rancher Mark Wiest held up a bunch of what some folks would call weeds in his calloused hands.

Not Wiest. He sees a growing opportunity.

"At some point, we will use up all our fossil fuel, but this will still be here," he said. "This is renewable."

Behind him were 26 acres in Sams Valley planted in camelina sativa, which produces an oil seed touted as the latest affordable source for biodiesel.

"There was not one drop of fertilizer used on this crop," he said. "No irrigation applied. No herbicide treatment."

The plants represent the first camelina crop in southwestern Oregon. The test site is a partnership with Willamette Biomass Processors Inc., located in Rickreall, a small town west of Salem.

The commercial oil seed processing firm took root last year shortly after Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed into law the state's new Renewable Fuels Initiative, which encourages Oregonians to produce renewable energy sources.

Wiest, 55, who has a degree in biology from what is now Southern Oregon University, has worked for Oregon State University's agricultural experiment station as well as several state agencies in southwestern Oregon. However, he has always kept a hand in agriculture, doing everything from bucking hay to working cattle.

With the growing interest in alternative fuels fueled by the high cost of diesel and gas, Wiest began researching camelina. The test crop is planted on acreage owned by Dalton Strauss, a longtime rancher in the Rogue Valley who previously grew alfalfa in the field.

Planted early in April, the camelina is now ready to harvest. Wiest spent most of Thursday morning operating a swather, a machine used to cut the camelina. A combine will be used to gather up the plants with their oil-rich seeds.

The camelina crop is under the "microscope" of local farmers and ranchers waiting to see if the crop turns a buck, he acknowledged.

"People ask if this crop is feasible," he said. "This crop is directly related to your pump. The feasibility of this crop is dictated by the number that shows up on the pump. The higher the price at the pump, the more feasible this is."

Wiest estimated it takes 50 percent less fuel to plant and harvest a camelina crop than hay.

He estimates the 26 acres will produce between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds of seeds per acre. The price he can expect to receive for the seeds will be 17 cents a pound, perhaps as high as 19 cents, according to Tim Parker, president of Willamette Biomass.

The Sams Valley acreage is among the nearly 2,500 acres of camelina growing under contract between Oregon farmers and ranchers with the lion's share in the northern and central part of the state, Parker said. The firm with its new large-scale crushing facility can process more than 100 million pounds of oil seeds each year, he said.

"The oil is needed for biodiesel," he said. "And that's a good thing for Oregon farmers, actually Northwest farmers."

A third-generation Oregonian who decided to produce oil for biodiesel after the cost of fuel skyrocketed, Parker said he wants to see Oregonians making money off the fuel rather than giving money to foreign-owned firms.

"And this is a crop that can grow easily and nicely on dry land," he said. "It does well on marginal land. We're looking for growers who have soil that is marginal. There are literally millions of acres in Oregon where the soil is marginal."

Montana, with some 20,000 acres in production, is topping the camelina harvest in the West. A relative of mustard, camelina originated in Northern Europe where it has long been known as a healthy source for omega-3 fatty acids that are good for the heart.

But Wiest, who notes the seed husks as well as stocks can be used to for livestock feed, noted camelina doesn't take away from food crop production because of its ability to survive on marginal soils.

"This is not a food staple like corn, wheat or soy beans," he said. "Southwest Oregon area is prime climate for camelina. There are also a lot more low-producing soils than high-producing soils here."

But he allows the jury is still out whether the crop will provide a profit that will turn the heads of other farmers and ranchers in the region.

"Even if it comes out on the positive side, you still have to weigh it against other commodities," he said, noting the current high price of alfalfa and wheat could cause some to balk at planting camelina now.

"But this plant will grow on lower quality soils and do well there," he reiterated. "And that's an important consideration."

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