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October 07, 2011   Email to Friend 

Canola: A Budding New Crop
Melissa Martin

Alabama farmers are venturing into a budding crop industry that until recently was thought of primarily as a staple in their kitchen pantries.

"Canola, a food-grade oil, is primarily used as a cooking oil and a base for salad dressings," explained Robert Davis, president and CEO of AgStrong LLC in Georgia, a firm that designs, builds and operates oilseed processing plants in the southern United States. "What many are starting to learn, however, is that the byproduct of canola, canola meal, makes a good protein source for poultry and dairy cattle rations. It's also a profitable crop that farmers in the South can grow as a winter alternative."

AgStrong is breaking ground on a new processing facility in Lawrence County this fall. Additional facilities are scheduled to open next spring.

This year marks the fifth season canola has been grown in north Alabama. Fifteen farmers from Colbert, Lauderdale, Lawrence and Limestone counties are growing it on about 4,000 acres. Though 4,000 acres isn't substantial when compared to wheat, cotton or soybean acreage in the state, Alabama canola farmers are discovering just how profitable the crop can be.

"In addition to its rotational benefits, studies show there can be more profit from canola, even though production costs may be slightly higher," said Alabama Farmers Federation Wheat and Feed Grains Division Director Buddy Adamson. "I think it's a crop that more farmers should take a look at as an alternative in their farming operations."

Though canola yields are less than that of wheat, canola prices usually are based on soybean prices. As soybeans increase in value, so does canola, making it more profitable.

"Right now, its value as an oilseed crop is 80 percent more valuable than that of wheat," said Davis. "Given that canola has been profitable to area farmers, we're fully expectant that acreage will expand here."

Canola can increase yields of companion winter wheat or summer crops like soybeans, cotton, peanuts or sunflowers when included in a 3-year rotation, said Davis. Some of its land-enhancement benefits include reducing disease and insect pressure and improving soil fertility and structure. Lawrence County Farmers Federation President Brian Glenn is among the state's farmers who took a chance on canola a few years back. Fortunately for Glenn, it's proven to be a profitable, land-improving venture.

"Unlike a lot of farmers in my area, I don't grow cotton," said Glenn. "By double-cropping soybeans, we are able to grow five crops in three years. We plant corn, followed by canola that's double-cropped with soybeans, then wheat double cropped with soybeans. Canola allows us excellent rotational capabilities and the ability to have growing crops on the ground two of three winters."

Glenn planted 500 acres of canola in September, an increase from the 125 acres he had originally planned. Though he already enjoys the benefits reaped from the new crop, Glenn is looking forward to having an in-state processing facility.

"We need a local processor," said Glenn. "Not only would it provide the convenience of processing canola, but it would also give a boost to the area economy. It also costs us a little extra to take it over to Georgia, and it'd be nice to get that back."

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Americans used just over 3 billion pounds of canola oil in 2010, with about 2.5 billion pounds of that imported from Canada. Canola offers the highest levels of unsaturated fat, the most omega-3 anti-inflammatory fatty acids and is trans-fat and cholesterol-free.

The national average yield for canola is 27 bushels an acre, but Alabama farmers are averaging 50 to 70 bushels per acre, said Davis. Canada is the largest grower in North America with more than 20 million acres each year. However, Assistant Director of the U.S. Canola Association Dale Thorenson said there's no reason that 4 to 5 million acres couldn't be planted from the Carolinas to the Great Plains. Currently, about 90 percent of the 1.5 million acres of American canola is grown in North Dakota.

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To learn more about Alabama-grown canola, contact Robert Davis at rbdavis@agstrong.com or visit AgStrong.com.



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