STAPLES - Bob Schafer, Central Lakes College Ag Center director, makes mistakes so innovative farmers won't.

Trial and error is the name of the game when working with alternative energy crops that can help farmers diversify their output. During Tuesday's Ag Center tour, Schafer described the painstaking learning process he underwent while experimenting with camelina, a little known oilseed crop that can be used as an edible oil or as a biodiesel product. Schafer learned how to grow it, combine it and store it. Combining posed a particular challenge as the crop would continually plug up the reclaim augur.

Bob Schafer (right), Ag Center Director at Central Lakes College's Staples campus, discussed alternative energy crops Tuesday with Kevin Johnson (middle) of Sauk Rapids and Dean Schmidt (left) of WesMin Resource Conservation and Development in Alexandria.Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

"This is like combining sand," he said he recalled thinking at the time.

The tour, coordinated with the Central Clean Energy Resource Team, a University of Minnesota sustainable development partnership, did not draw any area farmers, but offered professionals and others interested in biofuel and biomass a chance to exchange information.

Schafer said there was not a lot of interest in biofuels right now, because of the low gasoline prices. He cautioned people not to get caught up in "irrational exuberance" that has sometimes characterized the ethanol business.

Camelina, an oilseed crop that may be used as an edible oil or as a biodiesel product, is one of the experimental crops.Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

"We've watched the whole industry struggle," he said.

Still, markets are starting to develop for camelina and grasses such as penny cress and miscanthus, he said. Schafer said he'd like to see the Ag Center produce its own oil seed that can be used for heating fuel at the CLC site and for the center's tractors. By raising the crop, processing it and using it on site, Schafer said they can reduce the center's carbon footprint.

"We won't have any semi trucks running up and down the road," he said.

Bob Schafer, Ag Center director at Central Lakes College's Staples campus, showed a tour group at the center on Monday a blade of miscanthus, an ornamental grass that can be used for biofuel.Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

The key to convincing farmers to grow crops for biofuel and biomass products is making the economics of the agriculture work, Schafer said.

"If we can compete with fossil fuels then we've got something," Schafer said.

CLC's Ag center, located near the college campus and about three miles north of Staples, aims to be self-sustaining. So while experimentation at the center is common, Schafer is mindful that "we have to pay our bills."

Lissa Pawlisch, the CERT coordinator, who's based at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, said farmers are busy this time of year and that might have accounted for their lack of participation in the tour. Projects like those at the Ag Center experimenting with grasses that can be grown for fuel help farmers find a use for their marginal land, Pawlisch said. She said she's glad organizations are trying out new crop models.

"Somebody has to be willing to try something new," she said

Schafer said farmers' interest in biomass and biofuel wanes when fossil fuel prices are low and they are usually interested in products that help them make a profit.

"Farmers, they've got to watch the bottom line," he said.

Dean Schmidt, coordinator for WesMin Resource Conservation and Development in Alexandria said the knowledge gained at the Ag Center to be taken to a commercial scale in order to reap benefits for the agriculture community.

"This is all state of the art stuff," Schmidt said. "It's just a question of getting it out to the land. It's got to be economically viable."

Schafer proudly displayed the center's thriving camelina plot, which he said he hoped would yield one ton per acre. That one ton of carmelina, he said could produce as much as 70 gallons of oil per acre to be used for biodiesel fuel.

Also on hand for the tour was Angela Headlee, Central CERT organizer.

MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5860.