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This article was published 18/8/2017 (308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With 22 million acres of canola in production on the Prairies and a multi-billion-dollar industry chugging along around the locally invented crop, it’s sort of sacrilegious in these parts to say there’s a new oilseed in town.
Camelina is likely never going to supplant canola, but there are oilseed experts who believe the ancient crop has plenty of promise.
Its emergence in Western Canada is largely the result of work done over the last 15 years by Smart Earth Seeds, a four-person Saskatoon company started by a former software entrepreneur named Jack Grushcow.
Benefiting from about $10 million worth of research funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and other funding agencies, Grushcow has applied modern plant breeding technology and effectively reincarnated the 5,000-year-old oilseed. It’s high in omega fatty acids and vitamin E, requires less input costs than other oilseeds and may prove to be the rotational crop canola producers are increasingly looking for.
Vancouver-based Grushcow, who made his fortune selling an early email technology company to Microsoft in the early ’90s, started Smart Earth Seeds as an off-shoot of Linnaeus Plant Sciences Inc., which was developing organic industrial lubricants.
"We have followed the Yogi Bear school of management — when you see a fork in the road, take it," he said.
Grushcow says thanks to their "killer genetics" his company has developed the only broadleaf herbicide-resistant variety of camelina.
"Imagine canola before Roundup and canola after Roundup. That’s where we are now," he said. "If someone wanted to develop their own line we have at least five years advantage over anyone out there."
Mike Cey, director of corporate initiatives at Ag-West Bio Inc., Saskatchewan’s biotech industry association, said camelina is where canola was in 1970.
"We live and breathe this stuff and we know what it takes all through the value chain to get to success," Cey said. "There’s lots of examples of overnight success that takes 20 years from concept to commercialization. Smart Earth Seeds is well on its way."
Although there are only about 5,000 acres of camelina in production right now — Grushcow says he is personally buying most of it — there is already a solid market developing for camelina oil from the aquaculture business on the West Coast.
In a bizarre twist in the biotech food chain, the best aquaculture feed for the production of fish oil is other types of fish oil. Those producers have long sought a vegetable oil replacement for the feedstock fish oil, and independent of Grushcow’s efforts, the fish oil producers’ own research discovered camelina oil would do the trick.
That was one of the forks in the road that Grushcow gladly took, pivoting development to satisfy the demands of the aquaculture producers.
"There are so many parallels between this and the software business," he said. "You go and develop a product and ultimately the customer will tell you what it is good for."
Smart Earth Seeds is now selling $1 million worth of camelina oil to the aquaculture market with good potential for that sector to grow. And regulatory clearance is now in place and trials have begun with egg producers and broiler chicken producers to use the camelina meal as poultry feedstock.
"We are starting to see demand for high-omega, non-GMO renewable types of feeds for animals and, to less extent, humans," he said.
Kevin Falk, a 32-year veteran research scientist at Agriculture Canada who is recently retired, did close to 10 years of research on camelina.
"It definitely has promise," he said. "We were not in the habit of working on something that was not very well vetted. There’s always a very wide consultative process to show that a program is a fit. Camelina has gone through that exercise and always came up well."
In addition to the excellent genetic properties and the real and potential market demand, camelina also may have the right properties to serve as a rotational crop for canola growers.
Cey said, "Canola growers would strongly agree that from a sustainability and rotational perspective — and many learned people agree — canola has pushed past the boundaries of agronomic sustainability because of disease and rotation issues. Policy-makers would be highly supportive of other oilseed options. So would farmers."
Grushcow has been able to effectively self-fund the enterprise to this point, but he’s now raising capital to increase volumes, develop markets and build the logistics chain for the crop — including a western Canadian crushing operation.
Cey’s organization has promised a loan of $300,000 on condition that he raise another $1.7 million.
And even though canola may be the hometown favourite, Grushcow believes he may be more likely to find success in financing the development of camelina at Portage and Main — the centre of the country’s ag industry — than he will on Bay Street.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Friday, August 18, 2017 at 7:57 AM CDT: Corrects reference to Yogi Berra
8:03 AM: Adds photos