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Published May 10, 2011, 10:08 AM

Canola shines again

Kevin Waslaski, a Langdon, N.D., farmer, has been growing canola for two decades.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Kevin Waslaski, a Langdon, N.D., farmer, has been growing canola for two decades.

Jeff Scott, a Pond Creek, Okla., farmer, began growing the winter variety of the crop eight years ago.

Together, the two farmers are a measure of how far the once-obscure crop has come — and of what promises to be even bigger things ahead for it.

“The future certainly looks extremely strong. End-user demand continues to grow,” says Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association in Bismarck, N.D.

U.S. farmers — responding to strong and growing consumer demand — are projected to plant a record 1.6 million of the crop this year, 10 times more than in 1991.

North Dakota, where the climate is well suited to canola, remains the nation’s dominant producer of the crop. The state is expected to account for about 90 percent of U.S. canola acreage this year.

But producers on the Southern Plains increasingly are turning to the crop as a substitute for winter wheat.

“We’ve had a monoculture here (planting only winter wheat) for more than a century. Now it’s time for something else,” says Scott, president of the Topeka, Kan.-based Great Plains Canola Association.

Oklahoma has become the nation’s second-leading canola producer. Farmers in the state are expected to plant more than 100,000 canola acres this year — and Scott predicts that combined canola acreage in Oklahoma, Kansas and northern Texas will top 1 million acres within five to seven years.

The U.S. Canola Association, of which Waslaski is president, is working to further expand canola production outside the Northern Plains.

Waslaski says North Dakota canola producers have asked him, “Why are we trying to help other people grow our crop?”

His answer: Expanding the grower base geographically will broaden political support for the crop.

Southern alternative

On the Northern Plains, canola is planted in the spring and harvested in the late summer or fall.

On the Southern Plains, the winter variety of the crop is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer, just like winter wheat.

For many farmers on the Southern Plains, planting winter wheat — and only winter wheat — has been virtually automatic since the 19th century, Scott says.

There’s good reason for the dominance of winter wheat, says Mark Boyles, canola extension specialist with Oklahoma State University, which is working to increase canola acreage in the state.

Historically, Oklahoma’s climate and soil offered few, if any, viable alternatives to winter wheat, he says.

In addition, cow-calf producers like to graze their livestock on the wheat stubble, he says.

“So it was wheat on wheat on wheat, year after year after year,” he says.

But planting the same crop every year has led to serious disease problems, hurting yields. Oklahoma’s average wheat yield has been stagnant over the past 30 years, when average yields elsewhere have risen significantly, Boyles says.

Weed problems also mean more weed seed in harvested grain, increasing dockage and price discounts.

Boyles’ goal is getting Oklahoma farmers to plant canola once every three or four years on a field that otherwise would be planted to wheat every year. Already, farmers using canola as a rotation crop are being rewarded with better yields and less dockage in their wheat, he says.

But the switch is easier said than done for farmers who have been planting just one crop for generations, he says.

“There’s a lot of education involved,” he says.

For instance, Oklahoma State University technicians provide farmers new to canola with on-site help on calibrating drills and setting combines, among other issues.

Farmers on the Southern Plains would have planted far more canola in the fall of 2010 if wheat prices hadn’t surged, Scott says.

But higher wheat prices, and the urge to stick with the crop they know so well, held down winter canola acreage, he says.

It’s only a matter of time, however, until weed and insect pressure cause more farmers on the Southern Plains to begin growing winter canola in rotation with winter wheat, he says.

Oklahoma already has one plant that crushes canola, and the state’s burgeoning canola industry is receiving growing support from ag companies, Boyles says.

A final observation from both Scott and Boyles:

Oklahoma is struggling with moisture shortages this spring, but the state’s winter canola generally is holding up better than its winter wheat.

Northern stronghold

Canola is coming off its best year ever in North Dakota.

Total canola production in the state was a record 2.18 billion pounds, a 64 percent increase from 2009.

Often, record production of a commodity pushes down its price. That hasn’t happened with canola, at least not yet. The cash price of canola at many area elevators exceeds $25 per hundredweight, compared with $15 per hundredweight a year ago.

Canola’s popularity in North Dakota surged a decade ago, only to fall back when better yields and prices of competing crops drew farmers away from canola.

But new canola varieties have pushed up yields of the crop, making it more attractive to producers, Coleman and others say.

In North Dakota’s Cavalier County, which leads the state in canola production, the crop yielded 1,910 pounds per acre in 2009 and 1,754 pounds per acre in 2008, compared with 1,463 pounds in 2001, according to statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of USDA.

Coleman points to three developments that bode well for canola on the Northern Plains.

n Research tests have shown canola can be planted relatively late and still produce good yields. That could draw the attention of farmers facing widespread planting delays this spring.

n State government recently approved permanent funding for a state canola breeder at North Dakota State University.

n A $160 million canola oil processing plant is being built in the northwestern Minnesota town of Hallock.

Canadian connection

Canada is the world’s leading producer and exporter of canola, a contraction of “Canadian oil, low acid” — or “can ola.”

The United States is far and away the biggest market for Canadian canola, although exports to China are increasingly important, according to information from the Canola Council of Canada.

Canadian canola production can have a huge impact on U.S. canola prices. Last spring, prices south of the border shot higher after heavy rains cut sharply into canola acreage in Canada.

Canola was developed by Canadian scientists from rapeseed, an oilseed plant that dates back thousands of years. Canola and rapeseed are different, and the terms can’t be used interchangeably.

Canola seeds — similar in size to poppy seeds — are crushed to produce oil and meal. Its oil has a reputation for being healthy and is in growing demand worldwide.

Last year, North Dakota exported $204 million of canola to Canada, where some major crushing plants are located. Canola was the state’s third-leading export in 2010, trailing only front-end shovel loaders and crude oil.

Consumers want it

Annual consumption of canola oil in the United States has risen from about 700 million pounds in 1991 to about 2.8 billion pounds in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Canola received Generally Recognized as Safe status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1985, helping to set the stage for the crop’s growing popularity.

Another big step came in 2006, when the FDA issued a qualified health claim for canola oil’s ability to help reduce heart disease risk.

Canola oil is used for baking, frying and as an ingredient in salad dressings, margarine, and various other products. It appeals to health-conscious consumers because it’s low in saturated fats and free of artificial trans-fats, the ERS says.

American consumers, on balance, are continuing to switch to canola oil from other cooking oils, according to a 2010 study prepared for the Canola Council of Canada.

Canola has nonfood uses, too, including biodiesel.

Canola boosters increasingly tout the environmental benefits of canola biodiesel. For instance, the California Air Resources Board has found has found that canola biodiesel releases 66 percent less carbon emissions that petroleum biodiesel, according to information from the U.S. Canola Association.

Waslaski says biodiesel is important, establishing a “floor” for canola prices, but that the crop’s food uses are responsible for the high end of prices.

Canola meal generally is fed to cattle and pigs. Most U.S. canola meal goes to dairy cows, the ERS says.

Unified organization

The U.S. Canola Association is the only U.S. agricultural organization representing all industry segments, including farmers, processors, food manufacturers, exporters, seed companies and crop protection companies, according to the association’s website.

“You always know where everybody is coming from,” says Waslaski, who began his two-year term as association president earlier this year.

Ryan Pederson of Rolette, N.D., was elected vice president. Scott, the Oklahoma farmer, was elected second vice president.

A farmer always serves as association president, Waslaski says.

The association is involved in legislative, research and regulatory issues and seeks to increase domestic canola production to meet growing demand for healthy oil, the website.

One sign of the importance of the U.S. Canola Association — and the canola industry in general — in U.S. agriculture:

Waslaski recently attended a meeting in Washington that brought together top federal ag officials and representatives of 12 commodity groups to discuss the upcoming farm bill and other key ag issues.

“We had a seat at the table,” Waslaski says of his association.

The meeting didn’t produce any firm conclusions about what the next farm bill will look like, he says.

But given the huge push in Congress to cut spending, it’s certain that the existing farm bill will be restructured he says.

Whatever else happens with the farm bill, it’s vital for U.S. canola producers and other farmers to retain a federal safety net that provides protection in tough times, Waslaski says.

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