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Published February 08, 2012, 07:44 PM

Excited about canola

LANGDON, N.D. — Here in the heart of America’s top canola-producing county, enthusiasm for the crop is stronger than ever.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

LANGDON, N.D. — Here in the heart of America’s top canola-producing county, enthusiasm for the crop is stronger than ever.

“There’s been interest in canola before, and it’s had a lot of growth. But the level of optimism now is really high,” said Tom Borgen, a Langdon, N.D., farmer who’s been raising canola for nearly three decades.

Borgen was among an estimated 350 people who attended the 15th annual Canola Day Feb. 8 in Langdon. The event, organized by the Northern Canola Growers Association in Bismarck, N.D., featured crop scientists, canola industry officials and Mike Krueger, founder and president of The Money Farm, a grain marketing advisory service located near Fargo, N.D.

Why so much interest in canola? Borgen and other canola boosters cite a number of factors, including:

• Prices for new-crop canola, or canola that will be planted this spring and harvested in late summer or early fall, are exceptionally high.

• Canola is increasingly in demand as both a healthy food and a biodiesel feedstock.

• A new canola processing plant is opening this spring in northwestern Minnesota.

• Improved seed varieties are boosting yields, while chemical companies are devoting more attention to products intended for canola.

Canola hotspot

Langdon and canola have deep ties.

Work at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Langdon in the 1970s helped bring canola to the attention of farmers here and elsewhere in northern North Dakota, where cool nights favor the crop.

Cavalier County, in which Langdon is located, leads the United States in canola production. Most farmers in the Langdon area rotate wheat and canola on their fields, occasionally mixing in crops such as soybeans, sunflowers, flax or barley. In the summer, many fields around Langdon are bright with the vivid yellow of flowering canola.

Borgen, who grows wheat and canola, described canola as a crop that fits well into the growing rotation of many regional farmers.

He encouraged farmers who aren’t familiar with the crop to look over the “Canola Product Field Guide” prepared by the NDSU Extension Service. More information on the guide: www.ag.ndsu.edu.

More canola in 2012

U.S. farmers aren’t meeting the strong, growing demand for canola, so it’s important they increase production of the crop, said Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association.

He and others say the region’s unusually wet spring in 2011 cut into canola acreage and dimmed what had been shaping up to be a bright year for the U.S. canola industry.

Last year, 840,000 acres of canola were planted in North Dakota. This year, 1.1 to 1.2 million acres of the crop could be planted in the state, Coleman estimated.

“We really think we’ll see more acres than last year. We just don’t know how many more,” he said.

Robust canola prices are part of the crop’s attraction.

Prices for new-crop canola are around 24 cents per pound now. Borgen said he remembers years ago when canola growers were lucky to receive 8 to 10 cents per pound.

The hope is that some area farmers who grew canola in the past, but subsequently switched to other crops, will return to canola this year, Coleman said.

Another reason to think more canola might be planted this year:

New research shows that yields of late-planted canola hold up relatively well, said Bryan Hanson, an agronomist at the NDSU Research Extension Center in Langdon who spoke at Canola Day.

The research could encourage farmers to plant canola later into the growing season than they have in the past, Coleman said.

Farmers who plant canola should be wary of high seeding rates, which can lead to disease and lodging, said Ron Beneda, Cavalier County extension agent who spoke at Canola Day.

He also cautioned producers to be careful with on-farm storage after canola is harvested and not to swath canola too soon, which can cut into yields.

Big producers

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

Canadian production and canola use are both expected to increase this year, Krueger said.

Canola north of the border is benefitting from Canada’s renewable diesel mandate, which requires all diesel fuel and heating oil sold in the country to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel.

North Dakota typically accounts for about 90 percent of U.S. canola production. Montana and Minnesota also rank high, although Oklahoma has climbed to second place in U.S. production.

An Agweek cover story last year looked at rising interest in canola in Oklahoma and other states on the Southern Plains, where the winter version of the crop is seen by some as a viable alternative to winter wheat. On the Southern Plains, winter canola is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer, just like winter wheat.

Some North Dakota canola farmers don’t want producers in other parts of the country to grow the crop, said Borgen, who is secretary-treasurer of the Northern Canola Growers Association.

But geographic diversification will help to ensure a secure supply of the crop and encourage food companies to use even more canola, Borgen said.

“It helps us here when other people grow canola, he said.

Good times before

As Borgen noted, canola already has seen several growth spurts.

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, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Canola seeds, similar in size to poppy seeds, are crushed to produce oil and meal. Annual consumption of canola oil in the United States rose from about 700 million pounds in 1991 to about 2.8 billion pounds in 2009, according to the Economic Research Service.

Canola meal typically is fed to livestock.

The high end of canola prices is determined by the crop’s food uses, while canola’s use in biodiesel helps to raise the floor on the crop’s price, Coleman said.

Canola’s popularity in North Dakota slumped in recent years because competing crops offered better yields and prices.

But now canola prices are strong, and new canola varieties are pushing up yields, officials say.

Borgen said area farmers would do well to take a long, hard look at growing canola this year.

“Check it out,” he said.

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