Young Farmer Pushes Sustainability for Valley Agriculture

By Beacon Staff

Chris Fritz graduated from Montana State University in 2006 with one goal in mind: to move back to the Flathead and reinvigorate agriculture in this region by making it profitable, self-sustaining, and a leader in the growing market for biofuels. And he is betting it all on a little known European weed called camelina.

“I want to be a farmer for the rest of my life,” Fritz said. “This is the beginning of, hopefully, something bigger.”

Fritz, 24, is the co-owner and chief operating officer of Flathead Biodiesel, a business barely nine months old. Working on the modest farm north of Evergreen where his grandfather settled in the 1930s, Fritz is growing and crushing camelina seed to produce oil for nutritional supplements, biodiesel, and cattle feed. He also buys camelina seed from the handful of farmers in the region who grow it. With some time and a little luck, Fritz hopes to create a market here for camelina as more and more farmers try the crop.

So it was an encouraging sign last week when a former Whitefish mint farmer named Brian Schweitzer, also the state’s governor, swung by to check out the oilseed pressing facility. Schweitzer had held a news conference earlier in the day, but tacked this visit to the Fritz farm onto his schedule at the end of the day simply because he wanted to see it. (It was also a family reunion of sorts, since the Fritzes’ dog, Maggie, is the sister to Schweitzer’s dog, Jag).

To call Schweitzer a supporter of camelina production is an understatement. He calls it a “renaissance crop,” a “miracle crop,” and “the crop of the future in Montana.”

Running his hands through a bin of seeds, Schweitzer said he was excited about camelina because there is so much left to learn about its cultivation and uses. “This is where we were in Montana in 1900 with wheat,” Schweitzer added, predicting “within five years there will be more than 100,000 acres going in Montana.” As farmers learn more about camelina, Schweitzer added, the yield will only increase, along with the quantity of oil produced from that yield.

Fritz and his father, Carter Fritz, first learned about camelina at a farmers’ union meeting about three years ago. The Fritz farm was previously a dairy farm, but equipment and labor costs grew impossible to keep up with. Shifting to camelina, wheat, barley, oats and alfalfa allowed the family to keep the farm running. And so far they are pleased with the results – particularly camelina.

“I can see it’s not going to go away,” Carter Fritz said. “It’s going to be something that a lot of farmers are going to be taking more of a look at as far as rotation.”

Camelina thrives in arid central Montana, and explodes in the relatively wet Flathead. It doesn’t deplete the soil’s nutrients as much as crops like wheat or barley. Nor does camelina require much water, particularly in late summer, and needs barely any expensive fertilizer. These low costs allowed Fritz to get into farming straight out of school, when he might not otherwise have been able to afford it.

“I don’t think I could have ever gotten into wheat right away,” Fritz said. “It made it so I could buy equipment.”

Fritz designed and built the oilseed production facility himself. From a harvester holding 3,000 bushels of camelina, Fritz shakes the husks off the seed before dropping them into two heated crushers. The first crusher produces an oil rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are found mostly in fish and can improve cardiovascular health. Fritz ships this oil to a business in Florida that separates the Omega 3 acids from the oil to make nutritional supplements. Oil squeezed out of the second crusher is sold to make biofuel. The crushed meal left over is a rich, healthy feed for livestock that Fritz anticipates will soon be approved the Food and Drug Administration.

“If we get approval for FDA feed, then we’ll have a lot of demand for it,” Fritz said. The oil produced from Camelina fetches Fritz about $3 per gallon, and he sells the meal for $400 per ton.

Fritz is proud of what he has accomplished so far, but it irks him that he produces an environmentally-friendly fuel, only to send it across the country for someone else to extract the biofuel’s most valuable component, the Omega 3 fatty acids.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to ship it all to Florida when we could do the same thing here,” Fritz said, and Schweitzer nodded in agreement. A facility in the Flathead, or at least in the state, would cut down on transport costs, and could make this region a hub for a nascent alternative fuel industry.

“Why not us? Why not Montana? If they can do it so can we,” Fritz said. “I’m not about to let them tell me I can’t.”

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