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What's new in oilseeds? check out crambe!

What's New in Oilseeds? Check Out Crambe!

Most farmers would call crambe (KRAM-bee) a new crop, but to one Agricultural Research Service chemist at Peoria, Illinois, it's an old one whose time has come.

Known botanically as Crambe abyssinica, this member of the mustard family originates from the Mediterranean area. Its seed contains 30 to 35 percent oil, nearly twice that of soybeans. Of this, 55 to 60 percent is composed of erucic acid.

According to Kenneth D. Carlson, crambe oil is a good source of long-chain fatty acids - useful as a chemical feedstock because the longer the hydrocarbon chain, the more things that can be made from it. Potential industrial uses include a wide range of plastics, coatings, and lubricants.

Crambe is best grown in areas of the Midwest, upper plains states, and Northwest. It's anticipated that about 5,000 acres will be grown this year, mostly in North Dakota, says Carlson, who works at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research.

Many small-grain farmers already have the expertise and equipment to grow and harvest crambe.

Crambe oil contains 8 to 9 percent more erucic acid than industrial rapeseed oil. Up to 40 million pounds of high-erucic-acid oil are used annually in the United States - mostly imported from Poland and Canada. An estimated 50,000 acres of crambe would be needed to supply the U.S. need. Currently, only 20,000 acres of all high-erucic-acid-oil crops are grown here.

"If more crambe and industrial rapeseed were grown, we could reduce our reliance on imports," says Carlson.

One product from crambe-derived erucic oil, Nylon 1313, developed at the Peoria Center in the early 1970's, could become important in producing parts for cars and trucks if supplies of erucic oil were plentiful.

Nylon 1313's incredible resistance to moisture makes it ideal for truck air brake lines, hydraulic and fuel lines, gears, tubing, and fasteners. The moisture-resistant quality is also useful for other products: gears for clocks, water meters, gas pumps, and communication cables.

An Expert Approach

Given the potential for producing erucic acid locally in the United States, the questions become: Should a particular farmer grow crambe and, if so, what's the best way to grow this crop at a particular location?

An ARS-Purdue University team developed a computer program that can help Indiana farmers decide whether to take the plunge. Called CRAMBE, it evaluates the long-term economic risks and benefits of producing the crop. The knowledge expert for this program was a Purdue agronomist, Ellsworth Christmas. The soil and climate information is specific to Indiana.

"The program is an expert system - one that mimics human decision-making processes," says ARS agricultural engineer John R. Barrett, a co-developer. "It's coupled with a model that stimulates what would happen, if, for example, an Indiana farmer rotated crambe with corn and soybeans."

Barrett, who is an expert systems computer scientist at the National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory in West Lafayette, Indiana, says the program can provide recommendations about the feasibility of growing crambe based on site- and situation-specific agronomic conditions.

A producer can input data into the program such as crop acreages, rotations, and yields, and the equipment and labor available to grow and harvest the crop. In addition, economic data would be entered: the farmer's fixed and variable costs, commodity prices for crambe, and costs for other crops that a farmer might consider planting instead.

The result: The computer issues a advisory that might read: DO NOT PLANT, or GROW 350 ACRES THIS YEAR IF MARKET VALUE OF CRAMBE IS $265 PER TON.

In addition, Christmas says the program will provide a summary report that gives economic analysis, planting dates and rates, equipment needed, recommendations for fertilizer, and management information, such as the tillage method best-suited for the particular field and the optimal time to harvest - right down to the proper combine settings.

The Future for Crambe

In 1986, USDA began a High Erucic Acid Oils Project. This project is a federal-state consortium governed by two USDA agencies - the Cooperative State Research Service and ARS - and eight states: Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Dakota. The goal: To promote development of domestic sources for crambe and rapeseed.

After the oil is extracted, crambe meal has a potential use as a cattle feed. The Food and Drug Administration has approved it for ruminants, but says it cannot be safely fed to pigs or poultry.

Crambe is one of several plant introductions with promise as an industrial oil seed crop. The impediment to more widespread introduction to crambe into U.S. agriculture has been low crude oil prices combined with management and/or economic considerations that may vary within a production area. If crude oil prices were to rise and supplies were to dwindle, the importance of crambe and other alternative crop-based oils would likely increase.
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Title Annotation:plants that produce acidic oils
Author:Cooke, Linda; Kostant, Devora Aksler
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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