Canola Payoff on the Horizon

Canadian oil-producing seed could be a profitable alternative crop for United States farmers

IN the air-conditioned trailer outside the large warehouse, Steve Enfinger awaits the little black seeds that could spark big changes in southeastern United States agriculture. ``There's a lot of interest there right now,'' he says of the new canola. As seed operations manager for a huge farm here known as Pineland Plantation, Mr. Enfinger is fielding a lot of farmers' calls.

Canola has been called a miracle crop. The yellow-flowering plant produces seeds that, when crushed, produce a highly prized oil, low in saturated fats. The oil can be used in all sorts of foods, from mayonnaise to cereal, crackers, and cookies. Researchers are also working on industrial uses for a close canola relative known as industrial rapeseed.

Canola and rapeseed aren't sure-fire winners yet and probably won't become major crops in the US anytime soon, researchers say. But if they can grow the cool-weather crop in warmer conditions, US farmers will be able to diversify into profitable special-niche markets.

The results are mixed so far.

``It's going to replace wheat acres in this country,'' says Mike Newberry, a farmer in nearby Arlington, Ga. Last year, he cultivated 20 acres that yielded a respectable 42 bushels of canola to the acre. ``The net profit on it was fine,'' he adds.

Last year's results were so good that south Georgia farmers will expand their acreage this year, says Pineland's Enfinger. Pineland is distributing two new canola varieties of the Ameri-Can Pedigreed Seed Company, called A112 and A114. Until now, companies have imported varieties from Canada and Europe. Canola A112 and A114 are the first varieties specifically developed to grow in the southeastern United States.

Ameri-Can, a subsidiary of the California genetic-engineering firm Calgene Inc., is not alone. Other agricultural companies are also experimenting with canola in the US. Ameri-Can's goal is to have the region plant 2,000 acres of its canola varieties. ``I think we will exceed our goal,'' Enfinger says.

But in states such as North Dakota and Minnesota, the outlook is less promising.

``Canola is slipping,'' says John Gardner, superintendent of North Dakota State University's research extension center at Carrington. Only the northern reaches of North Dakota and Minnesota appear to be cool enough to avoid temperature problems.

The canola has also been ravaged by local pests, like the flea beetle and tarnished plant bug (genus Lygus), and US farmers have few options to combat them. Canadian farmers can fight back with pesticides that are outlawed, or about to be outlawed, in the United States.

``It's a pretty risky crop for these farmers to grow,'' Mr. Gardner says. He and his colleagues have started to focus on more promising alternatives, such as crambe (see boxed story).

CANOLA and rapeseed are related to the cabbage and part of the mustard family (the Brassica genus of the Cruciferae family). Thus, they thrive in cool weather.

They can be raised two ways. Georgia raises the winter variety, which is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring just like winter wheat. Northern areas of the US are raising the spring variety, which is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, like corn and soybeans.

So far, the winter varieties appear more successful. One surprising exception is Michigan, where researcher Larry Copeland has gotten excellent yields this year from both spring and winter varieties. Eleven of 31 spring varieties he tested yielded 60 bushels or more to the acre this year. One plot of winter canola yielded just under 90 bushels per acre.

``As long as the price stays in the neighborhood of where it is now, it looks like a very good crop,'' says Mr. Copeland, a Michigan State University crop and soil scientist. Some of the winter varieties in Michigan yielded almost as much per acre as winter wheat and fetched double the price.

Although rapeseed has been widely cultivated in parts of the world for centuries, canola dates from the late 1960s. Recognizing rapeseed's low saturated-fat levels, Canadian scientists developed an improved variety that is low in erucic acid. They coined canola from its description: ``Canada oil - low acid.''

Rapeseed oil that is high in erucic acid is being tested for several industrial uses. In August, for example, International Lubricants Inc. tested a canola-based additive to automatic transmission fluid for automobiles. The company found that its product reduced wear on the engine and seals, didn't break down as fast, and had a higher (and thus, safer) flash point than regular transmission fluid.

``People should not get the idea that this will provide a huge market for agricultural products,'' says Joe Roetheli, a program manager for the US Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research Service. Instead, such specialized crops can help farmers diversify into small, profitable niches.

COMPARED with industrial rapeseed, canola has much bigger and immediate potential in the food industry. US food companies hope canola will attract health-conscious consumers, because it has less saturated fat than any other vegetable oil, including soybean, olive, and even safflower oil.

Canola's success will depend on consumer acceptance.

At least 26 brand products in the US, including Batman cereal and Pepperidge Farms' Goldfish crackers, list it as an ingredient. Since Puritan Oil became a 100 percent canola product in 1986, sales have nearly tripled, says Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Wendy Jacques. Frito-Lay Inc. is test-marketing Sunchips, fried in 100 percent canola, and is scheduled to distribute them nationally next year.

``We like canola OK if we can economically use it and buy it,'' says Chester Miller, vice-president of commodity purchasing with Frito-Lay. But ``there's a lot of questions that remain to be answered about the crop.''

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