Breaking the canola barrier in Jefferson County
Farmers in Jefferson County are watching closely as two farmers plant canola, a crop the Oregon Department of Agriculture has excluded from the region for more than a decade.
John Locke hopes to plant 60 acres in canola this week. He wants to grow canola for a few reasons. For one, it uses less water than some of the other crops he grows.
"The amount of water we use will be somewhat less, so maybe I can farm more of my farm land," said Locke, whose farm is located in Madras.
Canola also adds diversity to his production. "I'm stuck in a grass seed/wheat/carrot seed rotation," he said. "My chemical options for weed problems become limited. Adding canola in the mix allows us to use different chemicals." Locke says he needs to diversify his crops if he's going to survive as a farmer.
Perhaps most important to Locke, there's a ready local market for canola.
Kerry Backsen spends about $1 million a year on canola. He ships canola in to his mill on Holly Lane in Culver by rail car from the Midwest and canola oil by tanker load from Canada.
He'd rather spend less on shipping and keep the money he spends on canola in the local economy.
"It's one of our key ingredients," said Backsen.
The Backsens use canola meal and canola oil in the animal feed products they make under the brand Haystack Farm and Feed.
"Canola oil has a high flashpoint. It doesn't get rancid when it gets pelletized in the mixture," said Trish Backsen, who's also a veterinarian.
She says the omega 3 and 6 fats are good for animals' skin, hair and joints. "We felt it was the best oil to use for the amount of production we do."
The Backsens are building a plant to process the raw materials into the ingredients they use. They cold press the seed to express the oil and use the remaining mill separately as an ingredient in their feeds.
Why not canola?
Growers also have good reasons for not wanting canola in Jefferson County, which is why the Oregon Department of Agriculture made Central Oregon a protected district that prohibits canola.
"They (canola) love to cross pollinate," said Sunny Summers with the ODA. Cross pollination isn't necessarily an issue with the crops farmers grow in Central Oregon. Canola is a brassica, like cabbage, broccoli, mustard.
But the crop could raise seed contamination issues because the minute size, shape and density of canola seeds are similar to other specialty seeds.
"We actually grow a lot of specialty seeds in Oregon," said Summers. "(Growers) want to ensure genetic purity."
Ken Stout, manager of Central Oregon Seed, Inc., sees the importance of protecting the long-term integrity of seed production in Central Oregon.
"As a seed producing area, we always have to be good stewards," said Stout. He says a wild population of canola could stand in the way of other crops into the unforeseeable future.
"I'm not interested in being in opposition to a crop that can make money for growers," said Stout, but he added canola needs to prove it will make area farmers money before farmers roll out what could risk the viability of crops farmers already depend on for their livelihood.
"Experimental work to prove the viability of the crop would be a great place to start."
Starting with research
Jeff Cloud plans to put canola on 90 acres of his Madras property. "If there was a chance I would hurt another farmer by growing this crop, I would not plant it," said Cloud.
He's planting the canola this week, and says he'll harvest before the bees arrive to pollinate other crops in Jefferson County
Cloud hopes he can produce 4,000 pounds of canola seed. He has nothing to gauge it by, because he's unaware of anyone growing a non-hybrid form of canola in this area before.
He requested the research permit to see whether canola can help Jefferson County farmers make money.
"I'm excited that there's a possibility for another low-water crop," said Cloud, "with a local end user."
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