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Jessica Holdman, The Bismarck Tribune, Published May 13 2012

Canola making a comeback in North Dakota

BISMARCK – After a decline in 2011, canola growers could plant a record number of acres this spring.

Farmers across North Dakota are expected to plant 1.3 million acres or more of canola this year, according to Northern Canola Growers Association Executive Director Barry Coleman. He said about 1 million acres is typical, but only 850,000 acres were planted last year after an unusually wet spring cut into useable acreage.

“Acres have jumped up quite a bit,” Coleman said. “Farmers have land back that they weren’t able to plant on last year.”

Tom Borgen of Langdon has been planting canola for about 30 years. He usually plants 750 acres but is planting slightly more this year. He said the ground was too wet to plant last year and weed control was difficult. He didn’t get his normal income off the field and it had to lay idle, but this spring has been dry and his fields are about 70 percent seeded.

Planting is being driven by high demand and prices.

“The market has been strong and continues to be strong,” Coleman said.

Canola oil is used for baking and frying. It also is used in some foods, such as peanut butter and salad dressing. Coleman said many restaurants are now using it for cooking oil and a lot is being sold in supermarkets because it is low in saturated fat and has zero trans fat.

Canola also fits well into farmers’ crop rotations.

“It’s an excellent rotation crop, for wheat especially,” Borgen said.

North Dakota grows about 90 percent of the nation’s canola. With last year’s crop being down, consumers relied a lot on imports from Canada, Coleman said. He said many farmers had to rely on crop insurance to make up for their losses.

The weather has been favorable so far this year, though.

“Nothing was planted this time last year,” Borgen said.

He was able to get into the field 10 to 15 days early this spring.

“It’s been a good year for us,” Borgen said. “We didn’t have the snow, and we’ve had spotty rains, but no real hard rains.”

Historically, farmers have steered away from canola because it is a higher-risk crop and requires more effort, Borgen said.

Now, canola prices are strong, new varieties are increasing yields and companies are making more protective chemicals for the crop, he said.

Other boosts to demand came when canola was given a “Generally Recognized as Safe” status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1985 and was given a qualified health claim for reducing heart disease in 2006.

Competing crops produced higher yields and prices.

Last year’s situation was different for farmers in the southern part of the state.

Scott Hoger has been growing canola for six or seven years near New Salem. He said he was able to plant in well-drained fields and had to rely on crop insurance for only 1 to 2 percent of his acreage.

“It just worked out last year,” he said.

Hoger said the main problems he faces are high winds and hard rains late in the season when the seed pods get brittle and the seeds fall out easily.

“Canola is easy to grow until it’s time to harvest,” he said. “It just takes one windy day or heavy rain. I can lose a crop in a heartbeat.”

Hoger said he planted about 350 acres last year. He plans to stick with the same amount this year, even with higher prices.

Jon Wert of New England also said he had a pretty good crop last year, facing just minor hail and wind damage.

“It looked thin, but when I got into it with the combine it came out all right,” he said.

Wert planted 2,600 acres but took a risk by planting after the crop insurance deadline. He plans to plant about the same amount this year because it is hard to keep up at harvest time if he plants more.

“When canola is ready to harvest, you really have to be on top of it,” he said. “Twenty-six-hundred (acres) is a number we can manage.”

Wert did decide to try something new and plant a couple of hundred acres of Nexera canola, which produces a new type of oil that is in demand by Frito-Lay.

“It’s something new so we thought we’d try a little bit of it,” he said.

Wert said it’s amazing what has happened to the canola market in the last 10 years.

“Wheat price keeps going down, but canola is going up, he said. “We’re not raising enough in this country to meet demand ... It’s just taken off.”

“Other (oils) can say they may be healthy. We can say that (canola) is, in fact, healthy,” Borgen said.

Federal crop insurance, additional delivery points for producers and a boost from canola’s use in biodiesel technology also have helped to make more farmers willing to grow it.