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Cinderella crop is the child of immigration

Early Polish settlers were the first to grow rapeseed, near Shellbrook, Sask., 
spawning the multibillion-dollar industry of today

Much of the attention focused on newcomers to Canada these days is laced with fear that they will bring change.

What is often overlooked however, is that change can bring good things to a country — including economic growth.

Canada’s canola story — a stunning success by any measure — is a case in point.

It was Polish immigrants who first introduced the early relatives of the yellow-flowered oilseed now known as “Canada’s Cinderella crop” to the Canadian Prairies.

A historical timeline posted on the Canola Council of Canada website to commemorate its 50th anniversary credits Fred and Olga Solvoniuk, who started planting Brassica rapa in their garden near Shellbrook, Sask. in the late 1920s. Some say they brought those seeds from Poland in a handkerchief. Others say they borrowed a few seeds from another neighbour.

Soon they were handing tobacco cans filled with the seed to their neighbours and acres of what came to be known as “Polish rapeseed” grew.

However, it remained not much more than a novelty on Prairie farms because of its limited use. Traditional rapeseed contains high levels of erucic acid, which makes the oil taste bitter, and glucosinolates, which remain in the meal, rendering it unfit for livestock feed. Its commercial uses were limited to industrial lubricants.

But the crop was clearly suited to Prairie climate at a time when cropping options were limited to cereals and forages. That attracted the interest of plant breeders, initially during the Second World War when demand surged for industrial oils.

Then came the “what if?” moment, thanks to two plant breeders who became known as “the fathers of canola.”

Baldur Stefansson, the son of Icelandic immigrants, was at the University of Manitoba and Keith Downey was with the federal Department of Agriculture in Saskatoon. Both started work in the late 1950s to breed those undesirable traits out of rapeseed.

You could characterize their relationship as one of competitive collaboration. Both wanted to be the first to achieve that goal, yet they routinely shared germplasm that might help the other one get there. Both have been honoured for their contributions to Canadian agriculture and to Canada.

In 1974, Stefansson released the first variety of “double-low rapeseed,” later branded as canola, with a line that had a slightly better yield potential than Downey’s first effort. But not long afterwards, Downey released the first early-maturing variety, which vastly increased the range of acreage that could grow canola on the Prairies.

From there, canola’s story has been one of steady growth to where its impact on the Canadian economy is now calculated at $26.7 billion. The industry generates 250,000 jobs and $11.2 billion in wages, in large part due to the development of a domestic processing sector, a newly released economic analysis commissioned by the canola council says.

The crop is grown on most Prairie crop farms, with last year’s 20 million acres creeping ever closer to wheat at 23.2 million acres — a notion that would have seemed incredible even a few short years ago.

As the Canola Council of Canada gathered in Winnipeg to celebrate its Golden Anniversary earlier this month, there were lots of plays on the word “golden” to describe its growth since the first varieties were introduced in the mid-1970s.

More than anything, it is the story of a value-chain approach. Whereas the former Canadian Wheat Board played a key role in value-chain collaboration for the grain sector, the canola council was the first to emulate that for a non-regulated crop.

Under its umbrella, plant breeders, processors, farmers and exporters have had to come together to determine the best path forward for the crop even though their perspectives on the best genetics, technologies and market opportunities can be quite different.

Fred and Olga had no idea what they were starting when they sowed those first few seeds of hope. Like many others, they were just looking for a better life.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Farm Business Communications. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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