By 2007, global increases in energy demand over supply spurred a tremendous demand for biofuels produced from crops. The concept was based on our ability to capture the sun’s energy in crop plants, harvest those crops and convert them into usable fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel or combustible dry biomass. The goals were to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, keep our energy dollars at home, stimulate the farm economy, produce fuels that improve air quality and reduce global warming. Federal and state legislature and agencies committed investments in WSU and USDA ARS research and extension programs to establish and sustain the Washington Biofuels Cropping Systems (WBCS) Team. While only a small percentage of our overall energy need could be satisfied by biofuel crops, there was a keen recognition that any investment in crop biofuel feedstock production would have spin off benefits in promoting multiple crop outputs of fuel, food and feed while diversifying and strengthening regional cropping systems and markets. The concept was simple, but the execution of such a major shift in regional agricultural and energy systems posed an extreme challenge.
While the Midwestern U.S. simply used their current crops of corn and soybeans as biofuel feedstocks, the inland Pacific Northwest was faced with a more daunting task, since the crops grown are not immediately adaptable to biofuel production. In 2007, discussions of a state supported project amongst WA Dept of Agriculture (WSDA); WA Department of Commerce; WSU CSANR, Energy and Agricultural Research Center (ARC); and USDA-ARS lead to 2008 WA state appropriations to WSU to evaluate the feasibility of alternative crop feedstocks, with the goal of integrating them into existing cropping systems, and strengthening the economic and environmental sustainability of these cropping systems. Since 2012 the project has focused on oilseed (canola and camelina) production as near term adoption is more evident, and WA state has invested heavily in oilseed processing industries. Today, we are more aware of global and regional opportunities for meeting increasing demands for oilseed food and fuel oil, as well as oilseed based animal feed and other specialty products. With the current focus on oilseeds, we have renamed our project as Washington Oilseed Cropping Systems (WOCS).
During the past seven years there have been significant increases in each step along the oilseed production chain in Washington State, including acreage, yield, processing facilities, biodiesel use, and animal feed consumption. Oilseed feedstock production is specifically identified in Governor Inslee’s 2013-2015 Strategic Budget Plan to “encourage the growth of oilseed farms”. Increases in local and worldwide demand for canola, along with the targeted research and extension efforts by WBCS and researchers in Idaho and Oregon have resulted in a steady increase in WA state canola acreage. According to USDA statistics, WA oilseed production has increased from 10,000 acres in 2011 to 36,000 acres in 2013 and 45,000 acres planted for the 2014 growing season.
The team has produced 21 refereed journal publications, 1 patent, 10 extension publications, and 123 abstracts and presentations at regional and national conferences and workshops. Four to six field days and tours are held per year, and an annual oilseed production and marketing conference that has developed into a major annual event, drawing over 200 participants in 2013 and 475 participants in 2014. Oilseed agronomy, economics, pest management, genetics and variety performance in the context of wheat based cropping systems are researched and extended to stakeholders.
The WBCS team has specifically focused on identifying key agronomic management and variety selection strategies for maximizing oilseed production, and transferring that technology development to growers, crop consultants and oilseed processors for increasing feedstock for local biodiesel, food grade oil, and animal feed production. Recommendations and tools are being developed for plant establishment, N management, residue management, economic assessment of oilseeds in rotation, pathogen and weed control.
In addition to the major regional oilseed annual conference that has evolved under this project , extension publications are being produced on topics related to the research initiatives, and oilseed production has been featured at field days and direct seed grower breakfasts. The team will continue to publish manuscripts and extension materials on the topics described above, continue to provide leadership in conference planning, field day organization, and grower/industry networking to transfer information and technology related to oilseed production.