Many have simply named him the “camelina pope”. Thomas Kaiser’s longstanding commitment to camelina led to the co-founding of the Camelina Initiative in 2014. Since then, the German scholar and founder of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Technology has been fascinating more and more people with the rare oil plant. “We were simply in love with the plant because it grows so nicely,” Thomas explains. “We called it the cavalier plant because it never overshadows the main crop.” Together with his colleagues, Thomas wanted to introduce more diversity into the crop rotations and provide the insects with a nectar source in summer.
We were simply in love with the plant because it grows so nicely.Thomas Kaiser
This was a major challenge, not just due to the lack of farmers willing to grow camelina. The supply chain was also missing. Eventually, support came from the construction paint manufacturer DAW SE with the well-known brands Caparol and Alpina. The company wanted to develop a sustainable wood varnish using camelina oil. The project was funded by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation with money from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) as part of the Federal Programme for Biological Diversity.
The so-called “camelina project” (full title: Establishment of large-scale mixed cultivation of peas and camelina to strengthen biodiversity and ecosystem services and build a value chain based on sustainably produced, domestic, renewable raw materials) gave the plant’s comeback a significant boost. As a result, it was possible to give farmers a purchase guarantee for their camelina at the start.
Camelina yields less than rapeseed
This convinced farmer Herbert Miethke from Dolgelin in Brandenburg to venture into camelina cultivation. He planted the crop for the first time in 2019, having only recently converted to organic production. He grew it as a second crop in its pure form but has since switched to mixed cultivation with common birdsfoot due to its higher yield potential.
He now grows camelina on around 150ha of the 800ha farm. In an average year, this yields around 1t/ha; this year, for the first time, 1.5t/ha. Of course, that’s well below the usual 3.5t/ha expected from winter rapeseed. However, two aspects should be taken into account here: Firstly, in contrast to rapeseed, camelina has hardly been grown in recent decades. Secondly, it grows on marginal sites where rapeseed no longer has a chance. “These are completely different cultivation areas,” remarks Thomas.
In the sparse soils of Brandenburg, where the only crop that can be economically grown is rye, camelina provides a welcome change and an additional source of income. In addition, camelina has a decisive advantage: It hardly requires any work. “You throw it onto the ground and then harvest it at some point,” explains Thomas. The seed is also cheap at €20/ha (£17.40/ha) because it is not subject to variety protection.
Domestic camelina replaces imported flaxseed oil
The Brandenburg farmer is not only a fan of the cruciferous vegetable. He is now also involved in developing the supply chain after the camelina project came to an end. Although the oil is valued in the food sector, the quantities used could still be increased. Therefore, the paint industry’s interest plays a central role – all the more so as the chemical company Worlée continues to promote camelina cultivation even after the project came to an end. Worlée aims to replace the large quantities of imported flaxseed oil with domestic camelina oil to help protect the climate. “At the moment, there’s no such thing as too much camelina oil,” explains the firm’s chemical engineer Matthias Körber.
From a political perspective, there is great interest in the positive influence of camelina on biodiversity. “There are significantly more insects in camelina than in other crops, including 15 species that are on the red list,” explains Herbert. Dr Stefanie Göttig, scientific adviser for the project, agrees: “As a yellow-flowering cruciferous plant that blooms in the otherwise scarce flowering period from June to August, camelina attracts many insect species.” These include hoverflies and endangered wild bee species.
In conventional agriculture, concepts like the mixed cultivation of camelina and peas could help to minimise the negative effects of intensive farming on biodiversity, says Stefanie. This is a great opportunity considering that, unlike the wildflower strips or fallow land otherwise favoured in nature conservation, camelina also produces a yield.
A crop for poor soils
Oil flax can also be cultivated in Germany – but it is not very popular. “Camelina has many advantages over flax,” reports Dr Katharina Spethmann, who was responsible for establishing the supply chain before Herbert. Camelina is preferable to flax on very light soils – it makes little sense to grow it in good locations because it is less competitive there. “We have many farmers who grow it on areas with low soil quality. That works well.” Establishing a crop rotation in these areas is a major challenge which cruciferous vegetables can help with. Camelina is both a good recovery and preceding crop, says Herbert.
We have many farmers who grow it on areas with low soil quality. That works well.Dr. Katharina Spethmann
It removes nitrogen from the soil, which makes it an interesting crop for water conservation areas in particular. A low fertiliser application of 40-60kg/ha of nitrogen in pure crop cultivation is possible, but not necessary for this frugal crop.
A robust plant against drought
The oil plant does not mind drought either, as long as the seeds have had enough moisture to germinate. Farmer Herbert is quick to emphasise that camelina must be drilled in moist soil. That’s why he sows as early as possible in March and to a depth of up to 1.5cm so that the seeds do not remain dry. If the start is successful, which takes a long time for this cruciferous plant, camelina grows quickly and has an impressive record of successful weed suppression and a positive humus balance.
In mixed crop cultivation, especially with peas, camelina offers security: If the peas are poor, you can still harvest the camelina. Cultivation as a second annual crop, on the other hand, makes it possible to fully utilise the cultivated area over the entire vegetation period. The 100 days or so from the end of July to mid-October are enough for the camelina seed pods to ripen. This means that the plant does not get in the way of other crops and creates an additional yield from the land. The low costs and the low labour input make up for the fact that the yield is rather low.
The firm seed pods, which do not burst, are practical for organising work on the farm. This does more than simply making the crop robust against hailstorms. Harvesting with the combine can also be timed to fit in with the farm schedule. Seed cleaning is simple – partly because, quality plays only a minor role. “Of course, it can’t be of extremely low quality. But I was able to sell some directly from the combine,” says Herbert.
While there are plenty of advantages, there are also disadvantages. The main problem with camelina is that hardly anyone even knows about it. Cultivation was abandoned because the area grown was so tiny. There are no hybrid varieties. For the same reason, hardly any plant protection products are authorised for use. “But it can also tolerate a lot,” reports Katharina.
If the sowing conditions are not suitable or the seedbed is not clean, this improves conditions for the weeds to take off. Any weed that has better starting conditions than camelina would then become a problem. “But if the seedbed is clean, I don’t know any weeds that overgrow the camelina,” says Herbert. Even sweet clover and couch grass are then suppressed by camelina. Root exudates may play a role in this. However, these also impair the growth of flax, which means it should not be grown in a crop rotation with camelina.
Guaranteed purchase and good prices
Worlée paid at least €700/t (£609/t) for organic camelina in 2023 and slightly less for conventional crops. This gives farmers security in times of market volatility. “If you harvest 1.5t/ha on a very light soil and have low input costs overall, the plant offers a high margin with very low risk,” explains Katharina.
I can see the potential for more camelina to be used for even more products and for cultivation demand to increase.Matthias Körber
Developing or expanding other sales channels, in addition to the paint industry, is important for profitability. Including camelina press cake in the positive list for straight feedstuffs has fuelled the animal feed industry’s interest in the crop. “This is important because it makes camelina oil cheaper, even competitive with imported flaxseed oil,” explains Matthias from Worlée. Like the chemical company, the animal feed industry places importance on reliable supplies. The area grown needs to be expanded for this. “I can see the potential for more camelina to be used for even more products and for cultivation demand to increase,” he says.
A domestic source of raw materials
Innovations in the food sector are generating optimism for a sustained revival of camelina production. If you like, you can try pesto with camelina oil or camelina salt with camelina flour. From a nutritional perspective, this is a good idea, as the composition of essential amino acids in camelina comes quite close to the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for human nutrition. The MV e.V. research association in Rostock is also working on this.
Perhaps the protein trend in the food sector will also give camelina a boost given that the seeds contain 40% protein as well as 40% oil. Last but not least, camelina is a domestic source of raw materials which are available even when global trade flows are disrupted – an advantage that should not be underestimated, as the past year has shown.