THE CAMELINA plant is hardly new. A member of the mustard family, it was rooted in human diets for millennia.
But for farmers like Curt Greenwalt, introducing modern cooks to the nutty oil from its seeds is like showing off a newfangled invention.
From his farmland and production factory near Ritzville, Adams County, Greenwalt’s family grows the plant and presses the oil. As they tell customers, touting their Camelina Gold brand, camelina oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. Its high smoke point makes it useful for cooking. It can’t be hydrogenated. And, for those who care about those things, it’s minimally processed and a rare source for local cooking oil. Restaurants such as Coho on Friday Harbor and organizations like 21 Acres in Woodinville rave about it in their kitchens.
Three years into production, the crop has drawn more interest than Greenwalt expected. It’s available in outlets from Seattle to Montana, including Whole Foods, PCC Natural Markets and Town & Country markets.
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That’s a lot for a product he describes as “a complete unknown.”
He understands why it’s not a household name. Not only was he himself ignorant of camelina a few years ago, he flatly turned down the chance to farm it.
A retired agriculture teacher heading back to his family farm, he first heard about it when his grown son approached him asking about the crop.
“He does feasibility studies for a living,” Greenwalt says. In this case, a company was looking at raising camelina for the biofuels industry. His son consulted experts who told him it works fine, but “what somebody needs to do is look at camelina as a human food, because it’s been in the human diet for over 3,000 years.”
Greenwalt, primarily a wheat farmer, hadn’t taught agriculture for 30 years for nothing.
“I said, there’s no way I’m going to do that,” he recalls. The field’s history is full of examples of why it would be foolish to risk being one of the first growers in an uncertain market.
“He got his little brother. They ganged up on me. Finally, I made the ultimate mistake and said, I won’t ever raise a crop without a market. If you find me a market I’ll do one year.”
The brothers found a chain of groceries willing to stock the oil.
The family turned a garage into a USDA-certified processing plant. And the crop, Greenwalt found, was well-suited to the land.
“Where we farm, west of Ritzville toward Moses Lake, we honestly cannot raise winter canola. Our ground this time of the year is too hot,” he explains. Camelina, though, can be seeded later, and “it’s really a tough crop.” Alternating it with wheat helps the crops resist diseases and insects, and improves the soil.
Potential new customers always have questions, he says. The Greenwalts and their Ole World Oils company don’t always have ready answers but enjoy finding them out.
Over time, they’ve learned to let the oil age rather than selling it when fresh-pressed, so the flavor can mellow.
“It’s got an earthy taste — a lot of people think it’s nutty, buttery, but it does have a natural earthy taste.” His wife, Lynn, uses it in pumpkin breads; it’s popular in stir-fries.
“It does have taste,” he tells potential customers, explaining that processing removes a lot of nutrients in oils, and they end up seeming all alike.
In his camelina’s case, “It’s not processed. It’s just squashed, and you get all the nutrients from that seed.”
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer and regular contributor to The Seattle Times food blog All You Can Eat. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.