Canola was once a little-known Canadian import slowly gaining a foothold in North Dakota. Today, the crop is one of the state's most important, and the outlook for 2020 acreage remains bright.

Based on current expectations, "We're looking at either stable acreage or an increase from last year," when farmers in the state planted a record 1.7 million acres of the crop, said Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association in Bismarck, N.D.

If you're not familiar with the crop:

Canola, originally developed by researchers in Canada, which still dominates world production of the crop, is a contraction of "Canadian oil, low acid," or can-o-la.

Canola seeds, similar in size to poppy seeds, are crushed to produce oil and meal. Canola oil, used for cooking and frying, appeals to health-conscious consumers. Canola meal generally is fed to livestock, with most of North Dakota canola meal going to dairy cattle, Coleman said.

A biodiesel plant in Velva, N.D., uses canola, too, he noted.

In 2019, U.S. farmers planted 2.018 million acres, of which North Dakota producers accounted for a whopping 1.7 million acres. The crop is especially popular in the northern part of the state, where relatively cool nights favor the crop — which also is the case in Canada.

Farmers in Montana (120,000 planted acres in 2019) and northwest Minnesota (59,000 planted acres in 2019) grow the crop, too.

Introduced in Canada in 1974, canola began catching on in North Dakota in the 1980s, in part because the crop disease scab was hammering durum, a popular crop at the time in northern North Dakota. In 1990, farmers in the state planted 160,000 acres of canola -- a figure that rose to 1.35 million acres in 2010 and has grown since then.

There are a number of reasons for that, Coleman said. They include:

  • Increasing attention on growing a number of different crops on the same field in a multi-year rotation, to combat pests and to improve soil health.

  • Improved farmers' skill at planting and harvesting the crop. Once, for instance, canola was swathed before combining. Now, it's usually straight-combined, saving a step at harvest.

  • Canola yields are rising, reflecting that improved skill and better varieties. An average yield of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds per acre once was considered a good harvest, with 2,000 pounds per acre exceptionally good. Today, a ton per acre is regarded as just OK, with 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre considered good.

Rising planted acres can be a concern with some crops. Too much additional production in a given year could outstrip demand, "swamping the market" in parlance, and pushing down the prices that farmers receive.

But that's unlikely to be the case with U.S. canola acreage because U.S. output is small compared to Canadian production and exports to the United States.

"We're just a blip compared to Canadian production," he said.