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Published May 21, 2012, 08:14 AM

Great spring for canola

Bob Schrock was a pioneer when he began growing winter canola eight years ago. The crop was new and unusual, almost a novelty, in his area. But the Kiowa, Kan., farmer, who planned to begin swathing this year’s canola in mid-May, has seen acreage of the crop expand steadily on the southern Great Plains.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Bob Schrock was a pioneer when he began growing winter canola eight years ago. The crop was new and unusual, almost a novelty, in his area.

But the Kiowa, Kan., farmer, who planned to begin swathing this year’s canola in mid-May, has seen acreage of the crop expand steadily on the southern Great Plains.

“It’s winning,” Schrock says of the crop’s future in his region.

Oklahoma is doing particularly well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pegs the state’s canola crop at 130,000 acres, which ranks second nationally. Oklahoma canola officials estimate the number to be even higher: 175,000 to 200,000 acres.

Zach Jacobson, who farms with his family near Langdon, N.D., has been around canola virtually his entire life. For the 27-year-old Jacobson, the decision to plant canola again this spring was a simple one.

“The climate here is good for canola. And it fits well with wheat,” which he and his family also raise, he says.

North Dakota farmers are projected to plant 1.33 million acres of canola this year, which would roughly equal the record 1.3 million acres in 2002. Area canola officials think the final number of planted acres could be even higher than official government projections.

Canola has enjoyed success before, particularly in North Dakota, the crop’s U.S. stronghold. But competition from other crops — due in part to the risk and difficulty in growing canola — has dampened producers’ interest.

This spring, however, the combination of cooperative weather, excellent prices and growing consumer demand have the crop’s boosters up and down the Great Plains as enthusiastic as they’ve ever been.

“These are great times,” says Kevin Waslaski, a Langdon, N.D., farmer and president of the U.S. Canola Association.

Cavalier County, in which Langdon is located, leads the United States in canola production. Cool nights there favor the crop.

Several factors are contributing to canola’s popularity. They include:

• Demand for canola oil from health- conscious consumers continues to grow.

• Prices are at or near record highs. The cash price for canola at area grain elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek averages about $27.50 per hundredweight, compared with about $25 per hundredweight and about $15 hundredweight two years ago.

• Yields are rising, thanks to new and improved canola varieties. Canola yielded an average of 1,730 pounds per acre in Cavalier County in 2011 and 1,960 pounds per acre in 2010, compared with 1,460 pounds per acre in 2002. Extremely wet conditions last year cut sharply into yields; even so, the 2011 average yield was 270 pounds per acre above the 2002 average.

• The weather is cooperating this year. Soon-to-be-harvested canola looks good on much of the Southern Plains, while planting of spring canola on the Northern Plains is going extremely well.

The brisk planting pace — virtually all of North Dakota’s canola could be planted by the week of May 21 — is particularly welcome after the muddy misery that planting brought a year ago.

Last year was so wet that farmers in the state planted only 860,000 acres of canola, just a little more than half of the 1.6 million canola acres originally predicted.

Canola boosters were optimistic last year, too, thanks to high prices and strong demand. But 2011 lost much of its luster because of all the unplanted acres.

So far, 2012 is shaping up to be the good year that area canola boosters hoped for — and didn’t receive — in 2011.

Consumers want it

Though many farmers on the Northern Plains are familiar with canola, the crop itself remains something of a mystery to most Americans.

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.

Just one example of research cited by canola boosters: canola oil reduces the size and incidence of colon tumors in laboratory animals, according to a study released last year by South Dakota State University.

Canola oil continues to gain a bigger share of the U.S. vegetable oil market. Today, canola oil accounts for roughly 20 percent of all the vegetable oil used in the United States, up from about 7 or 8 percent five or six years ago, he says.

Canola oil’s gain has come at the expense of several other vegetable oils, particularly palm oil, he says.

Canola oil’s growing popularity is responsible for the new $160 million Northstar Agri Industries’ canola crushing and refining plant in Hallock, Minn., in the northwestern part of the state, says Neal Juhnke, Northstar president.

“The demand for canola just keeps growing,” he says.

The Hallock plant isn’t having any trouble getting the canola it needs, he says.

The plant will operate this summer with canola harvested last year. In August, it will start using canola harvested this fall.

The environmental benefits of canola biodiesel also are touted by canola industry boosters.

Canola meal generally is fed to cattle and pigs. Most U.S. canola meal goes to dairy cows, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Canada is the big player

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

Canadian scientists developed canola from rapeseed, an oilseed plant. Canola and rapeseed are different — canola has less eruric acid — and the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably, canola industry officials say.

The United States is the biggest export market for Canadian canola.

Canadian farmers, attracted by strong canola prices, are expected to plant a record 20 million to 21 million acres of canola this spring, says Mike Jubinville, president of Pro Farmer Canada, a market analysis and advisory service for farm commodities based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Recent wet conditions have slowed planting, which could mean the final number of canola acres is closer to 20 million than 21 million, he says.

However, there’s still plenty of time to get the crop in, provided the weather isn’t too unfavorable, he says.

U.S. farmers can’t produce enough canola to meet demand, the Canola Council of Canada notes.

Without imports of Canadian canola oil, U.S. food producers would need to switch from canola oil to other oils, the Canadian group says.

More U.S. acres needed

Strong demand for canola, coupled with extensive imports of Canadian canola, create good opportunities for U.S. farmers to grow the crop, says Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association in Bismarck, N.D.

“The demand is there, and it’s growing,” he says.

Though some farmers on the Northern Plains may disagree, the U.S. canola industry needs to expand production outside of its North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota base, say Waslaski and other canola industry leaders.

Doing so will expand and diversify the supply of U.S. canola and encourage food companies to use even more canola oil, canola boosters say.

Efforts to expand acreage are finding fertile ground on the Southern Plains.

Schrock, the Kansas farmer, says winter canola is a good complement to winter wheat, the staple crop in much of his area.

Rotating wheat and canola on a field can improve wheat yields, he and others say.

Canola on the Northern Plains typically is planted in spring and harvested in late summer.

Winter canola typically is planted in late summer or early fall and harvested the next spring.

In Oklahoma, the Okanola — a play on Oklahoma and canola — Project has been working since 2003 to increase canola acreage in the state.

Farmers there traditionally relied too heavily on winter wheat, leading to an undesirable crop monoculture, according to the Okanola Project website.

Oklahoma farmers could plant as many as 350,000 to 500,000 acres of winter canola this fall, says Jeff Scott, a Pond Creek, Okla., farmer.

He’s president of the Great Plains Canola Association, which represents the interests of canola farmers on the Southern Plains.

If he’s right, canola acreage in the state will have expanded roughly nine to 12 times from the 42,000 acres planted in 2009.

Soaring canola acreage, which comes at the expense of winter wheat, shouldn’t reduce Oklahoma winter wheat production, he says.

Though less winter wheat is being planted, yields on the remaining acres are rising and should offset the reduced acreage, he says.

“We’re seeing huge benefits” in winter wheat yields, Scott says.

Planting, harvesting

Canola fields on the Southern Plans, where harvest is just beginning, look great, Scott and others say.

“It’s certainly a very, very respectable crop,” possibly the best canola crop he’s seen in his nine years of growing it, Scott says.

However, hail recently hit some canola-growing areas, hurting yields.

“I would have preferred to harvest my canola at its full potential. But I’ll take whatever Mother Nature has left me,” Scott says.

Schrock says favorable temperatures and rainfall during winter really helped canola on the Southern Plains.

In North Dakota, many farmers are much as four to five weeks ahead of their rain-delayed 2011 planting pace. Some producers are wrapping up planting this year roughly at the same time in May that they began planting last year.

There was concern early this year about potential shortages of canola seed. Those concerns don’t appear to have materialized, Waslaski says.

With everything coming together for canola this spring, “We’re just very optimistic,” he says.