BEARDSLEY, Minn. - Farmers Anne and Peter Schwagerl pull over the pickup truck and let out their dog, Scout, to run up and down the gravel road.

"He's a bird dog who doesn't hunt," Peter Schwagerl said. "So we need to replicate" hunting for exercise.

The need to adapt to circumstances is a western Minnesota grain farmer's forte, especially lately as environmental dollars are thrown at the owners of cropland. The Schwagerls are doing just that with a new oilseed called camelina. This hardy winter crop can be planted in the fall and harvested in the spring — and it is having a moment.

This new cash crop fits snugly into the Schwagerls cropping rotation system and is already popping up in small green tendrils from their soil.

"In central Minnesota and north, there's just so few options for winter hardy cover [crops]," Anne Schwagerl said. "Rye seems to be, more or less, the only one. But camelina is equally hardy."

A member of the mustard family, the plant can grow when many other crops won't in cold Minnesota. The Schwagerls planted their acres of camelina in the fall. It will go dormant in the winter, but will pick up growth in the spring.

"What they're doing now is that it's a winter annual instead of what's being grown out west, which is a spring-seeded crop," Peter Schwagerl said.

Camelina's value could be felt come spring, when rains pound the land. Such downpours often drain nitrogen and soil into creeks. But fields with leafy, green cover — such as camelina — can better absorb the water. According to one analysis, right now roughly 52% of Minnesota farms sit barren, losing carbon and allowing fall fertilizer to leach into the watershed.

Anne Schwagerl, who also serves as vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said she knows the value of protecting the soil on their land, which runs not far from the Minnesota River.

"Those heavy, early rains we've gotten the last several years, those 4-inch pounding rains come," Anne Schwagerl said, "Well, the ground is still pretty brown even if you have a young soybean crop or young corn crop. There's not a lot of armor there."

But not so with camelina, with roots and green cover that can largely bolster the soil.

Winter camelina is just one of a suite of crops — perennials and annuals — that can sit on farm fields over winter and diminish the "big brown spot," a pejorative reference by some in the industry to the satellite imagery of the corn belt, where summer months of green and golden crops cede way to the other nine months, when fields are virtually naked of plant life.

Environmental organizations, such as the St. Paul-based nonprofit, Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR), have described such farming practices as anachronistic in Minnesota's farm country.

"The sight of a bare and exposed field in autumn, while now commonplace in the Midwest, is a somewhat recent historical development," reads a recent report compiled by FMR, Ecotone and the University of Minnesota's Forever Green Initiative.

But reversing that trend means speaking the language of farmers, which often means understanding their economic pressures.

To that end, Forever Green and others have worked to develop and popularize a range of crops with sturdy root systems that stay on the ground over winter. One perennial grass that has garnered its own annual conference is Kernza.

But while much ink has been spilled extolling the virtues of Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass engineered, in part, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, its uptake by farmers has been limited.

Kernza, with leviathan root system reaching deep into the ground like a bluestem prairie, could replace wheat as the foodstuff for pancakes to whiskey, proponents say. But as of this summer, only about 1,400 acres of Kernza are grown across Minnesota.

Enter camelina. Long sown in fields from Montana west and north, camelina can also be grown in the winter and, while its roots don't plunge into the earth like a perennial, the oilseed has one stark and appealing difference for the farmers who need to make sure they can make a profit.

"Farmers are taking on the risk and the input costs," Anne Schwagerl said. "Meanwhile, land prices aren't getting any cheaper."

And as of now, there are more buyers for camelina, which can be pressed into oil for low-carbon fuels for airplanes or to add to cosmetics.

Kernza and camelina "are very different niches," Peter Schwagerl said. "They've got way different growth trajectories and uses."

The Friends of the Mississippi report says there's the potential for over 5 million acres of camelina to be grown in Minnesota by the middle of this century.

"Camelina may well be the most important new crop in a generation," said Trevor Russell, water program director with FMR.

It's also gained the attention of Cargill, the influential global food and ag company based in Minnetonka. This year, Cargill has undertaken a pilot project, planting a couple of thousand acres of camelina across various growing zones to study the yields.

Gabe Afolayan, Cargill's soft seeds commercial leader, said camelina can benefit producers with its ease of fitting into a farmer's existing crop rotation system, and companies looking to buy lower-carbon fuel or food.

Camelina has use as animal feed to aquaculture to bioplastics, Afolayan said, "But the primary customer, on the oil side, is linked to obligated parties who are trying to decarbonize their fuel supply chain and ultimately meet mandated requirements in regulated markets, whether that's in North America, the EU or elsewhere around the world."

When the Schwagerls harvest the camelina next year, they'll sell the crop to Cargill at the West Fargo, N.D., crush plant. But other growers on the land are experimenting with the crop, as well.

Ben Fox, a Stearns County farmer, planted hundreds of acres of camelina for the first time in early September.

"It's all about economics," Fox said. "We want to do cover crops because we want to do what's right. We want to be protecting our soil and our water. But they've got to make sense, too, financially."

By early December, green, leafy rows ran over his fields. Fox had tried rye as a winter cover but took multiple passes with his tractor to terminate the crop come spring. If the camelina does well, he'll try more of it.

"We've got creeks, lakes, ponds, swamps everywhere," he said. "It's your traditional central Minnesota farm."

The Schwagerls' farm, like many in southern and western Minnesota, is connected to the Minnesota River watershed, and they're aware of how their farming, from fertilizer to crop rotation, affects people downstream.

But there's always an economic risk with experimenting. When the Schwagerls planted the camelina — a tiny seed — they loaded the planter with extra oat seed to distribute the seed.

They're still waiting to see how their trial run turns out.

"It's got a decent little taproot. It's there. It's anchoring the soil," Peter Schwagerl said, bending down to inspect the plant in November, as Scout the dog sprinted past, his paws bounding along the green shoots.