Flax, it seems, is the forgotten crop.
Canadian acreage is declining and when farmers do grow the blue-flowered oilseed, it’s often the last crop to be planted, usually with fewer inputs than the rest.
But boosters see lots of potential for flax because of its health attributes and mega-star endorsements.
“When you have Oprah calling it a super food, when you have Dr. Oz speaking about omega-3 (found in flax) and how important it is and you have the heart and cancer associations of North America endorsing these products… we have to look at flax as a tremendous growth opportunity,” Brian Johnson of Arborgbased S.S. Johnson Seeds told the Manitoba Flax Growers Association’s (MFGA) annual meeting here March 3.
Meanwhile, some analysts are calling for record plantings of canola in Manitoba and across the West this spring. Locally the new darling of the oilseed world – soybeans – could be planted on more than 700,000 acres in Manitoba in 2011, up from 520,000 last year.
In 2010, Manitoba farmers planted just 173,000 acres of flax, which traditionally has been used for industrial purposes including paint and linoleum, compared to the five-year average of 264,254 acres.
Plantings were down substantially in Saskatchewan too, at 710,000 acres compared to the five-year average of almost 1.2 million acres.
Yields also fell, averaging just 19 bushels an acre compared to 26 in 2009, said MFGA president Eric Fridfinnson. But for many farmers, flax prices in 2010-11, which have been as high as $16 a bushel, offset the drop in production, Fridfinnson said.
“With the reasonable cost of producing flax, I think most people find flax produced a good return even with the lower yields,” he said.
Allan Kuhlman, vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission told the meeting flax was the more profitable crop on his farm in 2010.
“For the coming year I think there’s as good potential for flax as for anything else,” Fridfinnson said in an interview.
HIGH IN OMEGA-3
Flax oil is high in omega-3 fatty acid. Research has demonstrated omega-3 fatty acid consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease.
“The dietitians in North America are all concluding there isn’t enough omega-3 in the diet and it should increase so I think you’ll see a lot of it going into enhanced foods,” Johnson said.
Increasing numbers of people are buying raw flax, grinding it up and adding it to their food, he added. Flax bread, which started appearing on store shelves a decade ago, is still gaining in popularity.
Flax benefits are also spreading via word of mouth. Johnson said a relative’s doctor wondered why the 51-year-old’s cholesterol was so low. The relative credited it to eating four tablespoons of ground flax a day. The doctor asked for some flax, but was soon requesting more because he was dispensing it to his patients with high cholesterol, Johnson said.
“It’s definitely a growing trend,” he said. “The omega-3 trend is here to stay.
“We have an awful lot of work ahead, but we’re seeing momentum.”
Johnson also sees increasing volumes of flax being fed to livestock so those consuming meat, eggs and milk get the benefits of omega-3.
“We have to keep our eye on the ball and we’ve got to make sure that we continue to develop high-yielding, good-quality flax so that it’s competitive with other products,” he said.
Before livestock farmers start including flax in their rations, they need to feel confident of a continuous supply.
While Canadian flax production fell in 2010 due to lower yields on fewer acres, exports also fell, Johnson said. China didn’t purchase as much as it did in the previous year, probably because of higher prices.
Exports to Europe were down too in the wake of the 2009 discovery of small amounts of genetically modified CDC Triffid flax in Canadian flax exports. CDC Triffid, an old variety, which had never been commercialized in Canada, was approved for release in North America but not in the European Union (EU).
Still, flax carry-over stocks are projected to be tight when the current crop year ends July 31, Johnson said. To have enough supply to meet demand Canadian farmers (mainly in Saskatchewan and Manitoba) need to seed at least 1.4 million acres of flax this spring, Johnson said. That’s close to the previous five-year average, but up almost 59 per cent from the 883,000 acres grown in Saskatchewan and Manitoba last year.
Flax production has increased in some parts of Europe to take advantage of the drop in Canadian imports, but Johnson said over time those markets will be regained. The Flax Council of Canada was in Europe last week working on just that, he said. [email protected]
“WhenyouhaveOprah callingitasuperfood… wehavetolookat flaxasatremendous growthopportunity.”
– brian johnson