The industry contemplates the appeal and power of a little yellow flower
Just call canola "the little yellow flower that could." More acres were devoted to this crop in 2012 and 2013 than any other years on record—and it’s poised to become even more popular.
"We can expect to see an upward trend in acres for years to come, especially in the South Plains," says Angela Dansby, U.S. Canola Association communications director. "There are about 250,000 acres grown there now, and we could see it peak as high as 2 million acres eventually."
The hotbed of growth is in Kansas, Oklahoma and north Texas—all areas with significant pockets of continuous wheat acres. New winter canola varieties adapted to the region allow farmers to tap into a much-needed rotation option, says Mike Stamm, Kansas State University assistant agronomist and canola breeder.
"The interest in canola really stems from wanting to grow better wheat," he says. "Canola has been a good solution for continuous wheat, and in the past decade, we’ve learned how to grow canola more efficiently."
Stamm says a dedicated group of experienced farmers want to see canola stay in the Southern Plains. They have been key in helping the dozens of new canola farmers who join the bandwagon each year.
The learning curve for a first-time canola farmer is not too cumbersome, Stamm adds. They can use most of the same equipment they already use to plant and harvest wheat. The smaller seed size does require some planter calibration, he says.
Spring canola farmers need a little extra patience, says Paul Gunderson, director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center (DPAC) in Devil’s Lake, N.D. While the Southern Plains climate allows for a more immediate harvest, spring canola farmers in North Dakota have to swath the crop first and wait as long as three weeks for it to dry down.
Scouting the crop can be burdensome, Gunderson says, but he and fellow DPAC researchers are currently testing an unmanned aerial vehicle they can fly over fields to gather valuable information for farmers to send to their local university for analysis or even self-diagnose disease and insect problems themselves.
"You can detect the same problems walking the fields, but that takes a great deal of time," Gunderson notes. "The unmanned aerial vehicles do a good job of crop scouting, and you can learn to fly it in under an hour."
Stamm and others expect demand for canola acres to stay on a steady incline. Currently, the U.S. only grows about 25% of total domestic demand. A new crushing plant in Enid, Okla., set to finish construction by 2015, could need as much as 800,000 acres of canola to sustain it, he says.
An Oil Without Equals
The biggest driver behind canola’s recent successes has been continued skyrocketing demand. Angela Dansby with the U.S. Canola Association says canola oil is now the No. 2 oil by volume consumed in the U.S., behind soybean oil. It is popular for several reasons.
"First off, it has the least amount of saturated fat of all cooking oils," she says. "It also has a high level of omega-3 fatty acids, a good flavor profile and a high smoke point."
Earlier this year, a team of scientists reported at an American Heart Association conference on a study that showed people who consumed canola or high-oleic canola oils daily for four weeks lowered belly fat by 1.6%. This might not seem significant, Dansby says, but extrapolated over many months or years, the benefits could really add up.
You can e-mail Ben Potter at email@example.com.