Flax is back in farmers’ good books this spring, so much so that many flax dealers have sold right out of seed.
Five years after traces of genetically modified CDC Triffid flax were discovered in Canadian flax exports to Europe, Statistics Canada predicts Canadian farmers will seed 1.7 million acres of the blue-flowered oilseed this spring — the biggest acreage since the 2006-07 crop year when almost 1.99 million acres were planted.
“We’ve reconstituted the CDC (Crop Development Centre) varieties (contaminated with Triffid) and that means farmers are taking the stewardship program to heart,” Will Hill, president of the Flax Council of Canada said in an interview May 8. “They’re planting certified seed ensuring their seed supply is as free of Triffid as it possibly can be. And that’s a good thing.”
The industry has been working hard to get Triffid out of the system since its discovery temporarily shut down Canadian flax exports to Europe and cost it premium food markets. Since then, farmers have been urged to grow only certified flaxseed, which is tested to be sure it’s Triffid free.
The Canadian Seed Growers Association has a web-based search tool farmers can use to find certified seed at www.seedlocator.net.
Farmers considering reverting to farm-saved seed are urged to test to ensure it’s Triffid free before planting because buyers insist on that information, Hill noted. Tests take three to four days to turn around.
Strong prices, lower production costs and crop rotation have all contributed to renewed interest in flax, farmers said.
“Prices for flax are high, the health benefits of flax are great, we’ve got three good customers now — China, Europe and the United States, so we’ve broadened out our base,” Hill said. I think the industry really has an opportunity to start to look forward again.”
StatsCan expects Saskatchewan will seed almost 1.5 million acres of flax this year, up 72 per cent from 2013.
It predicts Manitoba will seed 120,000 acres of flax, up 42 per cent from last year’s 85,000 acres.
Manitoba flax acreage averaged almost 379,000 between 2003-04 and 2006-07.
Triffid wasn’t the only reason Manitoba farmers had lost interest in flax. The last few years other crops, including soybeans, had the potential to earn more profit.
But fungicides have helped increase yields. Manitoba flax yielded just 20 bushels an acre, on average, the last 10 years. Last year that jumped to 28 bushels an acre, tying the record set in 2009.
Foxwarren producer George Graham said he has applied Headline fungicide to his flax the last four years and it boosted his yields.
“Last year my flax weighed out at 45 bushels an acre, which is the best crop of flax I’ve ever grown,” he said.
“We just never realized how much (the fungal disease) Pasmo is taking from the crop. For me flax is the one crop Headline was made for. They talk about a two or three bushel-an-acre yield increase on cereals or canola, but on flax it makes an eight to ten bushel-an-acre difference.”
As well, flax doesn’t require seed treatments at planting, Graham said. “You just fertilize it, spray herbicides and a shot of fungicide. You can grow a good crop of flax for under $200 an acre.
Old-crop flax is bringing around $14.50 a bushel and farmers can lock in $11.50 to $12 on new crop, he said. “The canola-wheat rotation is starting to fight back. When farmers saw the flax prices it was a perfect fit.”
The silver lining in the wake of Triffid is Cana- dian flax exports are now more diversified, Hill said. Europe used to buy 70 per cent of Canada’s flax, the United States 20 per cent and domestic and other buyers made up the rest. Now exports are divided evenly between China, Europe and the U.S.
Canada hasn’t regained the European food market because buyers remain nervous.
“But we will be working on a plan to regain that part of the market,” Hill said. “I think the Europeans would like to have an alternate source. It’s just a matter of time for building confidence and… we’ll find a way to make it work. It will likely be more of a container market (to start).”