Oilseed crop may sprout new life as biodiesel source

During the early 1950s, more than a quarter of a million acres of flax - an oilseed crop - could be found growing from Waco southward in Texas. Grown primarily for the vegetable oil market, it may have new potential as a biodiesel crop as determined in part by a Texas AgriLife Research field trial experiment, according to researchers.

Four varieties of flax pioneered by the agency known as the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at that time are part of a recently developed research trial funded by Chevron Energy Technology Ventures.

“It's kind of like we're coming full circle,” said Dr. Gaylon Morgan, small grains researcher and member of the Texas A&M AgriLife project team. “Flax was grown on about 400,000 acres during that time and Texas Agri-Life Research had an active flax breeding program.

“Those varieties were known nationwide for having good cold tolerance. That's what we needed; a flax variety was something you could plant in the fall, survive the winter, avoid late freezes, and produce seed in the spring. Now we're evaluating this as a possible biodiesel product or (one which) could be used in the vegetable oil industry.”

Canola, rapeseed, winter-hearty safflower, and camelina can be found growing in the field trials near College Station.

“This project is funded by Chevron Technology Ventures, and there is another (camelina) trial funded by Targeted Growth International,” Morgan said.

Results from this trial, as well as some spring types will be harvested in the next month and a half, Morgan said. Winter types will be harvested in about two months.

The project faces challenges, Morgan said, such as stand establishment.

“Most of these crops have small seeds and must be planted very shallow compared to our traditional crops,” he said. “Therefore, good stand establishment is highly dependent on a rainfall following planting. We are running into weed control problems. There are not a whole lot of herbicides labeled for these crops.”

Harvesting has some challenges, too, Morgan added.

“Again, these are small seeds, and some varieties are worse about shattering and require a timely harvest.”

There are 51 entry trials at the College Station plot and have been repeated at nine locations across the state at different Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Centers.

“We're trying to get a good idea of where these species and varieties fit in specific growing regions across Texas,” Morgan said.

The data collected on the different varieties will be used in determining which type of crop is best suited for either the biodiesel or vegetable oil industry, Morgan said.

“If it's biodiesel we're considering, we want the highest oil yield per acre. The majority of the crops being evaluated have oil content of about 40 percent. However, if some of these varieties have vegetable oil potential, then oil characteristics may be more important.”

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