Oilseeds successful crop for Northwest farmers

By Kristi Pihl, Herald staff writerJanuary 23, 2013 

Canola has been the successful result of some Washington and Idaho farmers' search for a crop with a better return.

Adams County farmer Curtis Hennings told about 225 people Tuesday that he has made more money on canola than wheat for the past several years.

He was speaking during the Washington State University Oilseed Production and Marketing Conference at Kennewick's Three Rivers Convention Center.

Hennings of Ralston and other farmers explained the benefits they have found in growing oilseeds like canola, including improving soil quality and preventing erosion during the event.

"It's a rotational crop with return," said Hal Johnson, who farms near Davenport.

Dan Bernardo, WSU's dean of the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences and director of WSU Extension, said he sees a developing vibrant biofuels sector in Washington, from growing oilseeds like canola to crushing them and processing them into biofuels like biodiesel and aviation biofuel.

"We can grow biomass as well or better than anybody in the country because of our unique climatic conditions," he said.

There's a need for more oilseeds, said Mary Beth Lang, Washington State Department of Agriculture's bioenergy and special projects coordinator.

Washington has the infrastructure for biofuels production, she said. There are four biofuels plants, including one in Odessa in Lincoln County.

Lang said Washington saw a 40 percent increase in production last year from the previous year.

Washington's 14,500 acres of canola produced 27.6 million pounds of canola in 2012, according to the state.

Most of Washington's biodiesel has gone to Oregon and British Columbia, Lang said. Both have renewable fuel standards calling for such fuels in the marketplace.

In Canada, canola is more than a $15 billion industry, said Phil Thomas of Alberta, who has worked with canola and rapeseed for 51 years. Canada has about 20 million acres of canola.

In the '60s, Canadian scientists developed canola from rapeseed. The canola name comes from "Canadian oil, low acid."

Canola plants, which are related to mustard, Brussels sprouts and turnips, stand 3 to 5 feet tall. Its pods hold the seeds that are crushed for the oil, which then is used for cooking and biodiesel.

Canola is part of the economics of adding diversity to a farm, Johnson said.

Newer combines and headers have made a huge difference, he said. The insurance programs have improved, and the University of Idaho has developed varieties to withstand winter better.

Canola can be forgiving in some ways, said Scott McLeod, a farmer from Nezperce, Idaho. It is tough and will try to come back after it is hit by hail, while most other crops won't.

During harvest, it sounds like a thunderstorm because so much is coming in, he said.

"I like to grow canola because it's pretty," McLeod said.

People will stop and ask about the crop, which has yellow blooms. He said that is good for the farming industry.

For irrigated Eastern Washington, which includes Benton and Franklin counties, adding canola into a crop rotation can help keep yields up and disease down for wheat, said Jenny Ringwood Connolly, WSU School of Economic Sciences associate in research.

Rotations that include canola see higher returns overall, she said.

In general, Connolly said researchers have found that while growing canola increased a farm's input costs, it results in higher returns. Canola may not be the most profitable crop in a year, but it complements other crops, she said.

She said WSU researchers are creating budgets for different growing regions that will be released online so farmers can adapt them to their specific circumstances.

The conference, which continues today, is meant to allow growers who have not grown oilseeds to interact with those who have, said Karen Sowers, WSU extension and outreach specialist for the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences.

"There is a real need to increase the knowledge base of both growers and the ag industry," Sowers said.

Washington has taken a number of steps to encourage a biofuels industry in the state, including earmarking $1 million a year for WSU for research for bioenergy, including cropping systems, Lang said. While budget cuts have meant fewer dollars, the support remains.

The state Legislature also has asked state agencies to use biodiesel, she said. Washington ferries and ground vehicles are using some biodiesel.

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