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Plans for Biodiesel Crop in Montana Suffer Setbacks

December 08, 2008

BILLINGS, MT --- Rising prices for traditional crops like wheat have stalled plans to convert millions of acres of Northern Plains farmland to grow a biodiesel crop known as camelina, the Associated Press reported.

In Montana, the number of acres devoted to the oilseed crop fell by more than half this year from the 22,500 acres planted in 2007, preliminary federal figures indicate. That's a major setback for a crop widely touted as an ideal source of plant oils needed to make alternative fuels, AP reported.

"There were some big numbers being thrown around, but it just hasn't come to fruition," John Hilton, deputy director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service field office in Helena, told AP.

Camelina requires little water to grow and tolerates extreme cold weather, making it ideal for the arid Northern Plains. Just a year ago, several companies announced plans to collectively produce more than 200 million gallons of biodiesel from camelina within two to three years. Reaching that goal would require several million acres devoted to the crop, but the rise in wheat prices is dissuading farmers from making the switch to camelina. About 5 million acres of wheat are planted each year in Montana.

Camelina supporters hope for a shift in 2009, as wheat prices drop and make the alternative crop more economically attractive. Yet with prices for diesel also falling, interest in the crop as a fuel source could falter, AP reported.

U.S. Sen. John Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer -- both Democrats from Montana -- have promoted camelina as a way to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. Tester included a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill that made camelina eligible for federal crop insurance. However, the USDA has yet to implement such a program, AP reported.

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