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By Jonathan Knutson, Published February 17 2012

Canola’s future in ND looks bright

LANGDON, N.D. – Here in the heart of America’s top canola-producing county, enthusiasm for the crop is stronger than ever.

“There’s been interest in canola before, and it’s had a lot of growth. But the level of optimism now is really high,” said Tom Borgen, a Langdon farmer who’s been raising canola for nearly three decades.

Borgen was among an estimated 350 people who attended the 15th annual Canola Day last week in Langdon. The event, organized by the Northern Canola Growers Association in Bismarck, featured crop scientists, industry officials and Mike Krueger, founder and president of The Money Farm, a grain marketing advisory service located near Fargo.

Why so much interest in canola? Borgen and other boosters cite a number of factors, including:

E Prices for new-crop canola, or canola that will be planted this spring and harvested in late summer or early fall, are exceptionally high.

E Canola is increasingly in demand as both a healthy food and a biodiesel feedstock.

E A new canola processing plant is opening this spring in northwestern Minnesota.

E Improved seed varieties are boosting yields, while chemical companies are devoting more attention to products intended for canola.

Langdon and canola have deep ties. Work at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Langdon in the 1970s helped bring canola to the attention of farmers here and elsewhere in northern North Dakota, where cool nights favor the crop.

Cavalier County, in which Langdon is located, leads the U.S. in canola production. Most farmers in the Langdon area rotate wheat and canola on their fields, occasionally mixing in crops such as soybeans, sunflowers, flax or barley. In the summer, many fields around Langdon are bright with the vivid yellow of flowering canola.

Last year, 840,000 acres of canola were planted in North Dakota. This year, 1.1 million to 1.2 million acres of the crop could be planted in the state, estimated Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association.

“We really think we’ll see more acres than last year. We just don’t know how many more,” he said.

Robust canola prices are part of the crop’s attraction.

Prices for new-crop canola are around 24 cents per pound now. Borgen said he remembers years ago when canola growers were lucky to receive 8 to 10 cents per pound.

Canada is the world’s leading producer and exporter of canola, a contraction of “Canadian oil, low acid” – or can ola. Canadian production and canola use are both expected to increase this year, Krueger said.

North Dakota typically accounts for about 90 percent of U.S. canola production. Montana and Minnesota also rank high, although Oklahoma has climbed to second place in U.S. production.

As Borgen noted, canola already has seen several growth spurts.

Canola received Generally Recognized as Safe status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1985, helping to set the stage for the crop’s growing popularity.

Another big step came in 2006, when the FDA issued a qualified health claim for canola oil’s ability to help reduce heart disease risk.

Canola oil is used for baking, frying and as an ingredient in salad dressings, margarine and various other products. It appeals to health-conscious consumers because it’s low in saturated fats and free of artificial trans-fats, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Jonathan Knutson writes for Agweek.