Warden canola plant fills gap for area farmers

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 17, 2013 

Pacific Coast Canola's new Warden processing plant fills a gap for Eastern Washington farmers -- a local market.

And by providing that market, officials hope to see Washington's canola acreage continue to grow.

Washington farmers finished harvesting an oilseed crop this fall that more than doubled to 36,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And industry experts see more room for growth as farmers catch on to the benefits of using canola as a rotation crop with wheat and as consumers strive to eat healthier.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement that trans fats may not be safe for consumption may help the appetite for canola oil to grow, since it may be a substitute for food manufacturers.

With its production of food-grade canola oil, the Grant County plant is poised to fill the demand created by healthy eating.

Matt Upmeyer, Pacific Coast Canola chief operating officer, said the company, which opened at the end of 2012, hopes to be at full production by the end of this year.

At full capacity, the plant can process 1,100 metric tons of canola seed a day. It can create about 40 million gallons of canola oil and 220,000 metric tons of canola meal in a year.

It's the largest food-grade canola crush plant to open in Washington. Odessa did have a plant about a tenth of the size, but its focus was on crushing canola for biodiesel. The Odessa plant closed last year after the operator filed for bankruptcy.

The significance of Pacific Coast Canola is that it provides a local market for growers, cutting down on their transportation cost, said Karen Sowers, Washington State University extension and outreach specialist for the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences. Previously, most of the canola seed grown in Washington state was shipped to Canada.

Having a local market may help more farmers embrace the small oilseed, which is grown in more than 10 counties with the bulk grown in Adams, Grant, Douglas, Lincoln, Whitman, Okanogan, Garfield and Spokane counties, Sowers said.

It's a versatile crop that can be grown in areas with 10 inches of rainfall to areas with 30 inches, she said. Farmers have found that planting canola can increase the yield of their next wheat crop, improve soil health, control weeds and help break the disease cycle.

And the market price has held steady, at about 21 cents per pound, as it was earlier this week, Sowers said.

Upmeyer said Pacific Coast Canola officials see local production as the key to the company's future success.

This year, farmers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana grew about 163,000 acres, according to the USDA.

Even if the company bought all of the canola from those acres, and farmers had yields of 1 ton an acre, that would be less than half of what Pacific Coast Canola needs, Upmeyer said. The company will be buying canola seed from North Dakota and Canada during the next several years.

"Our goal over the next three to five years is to have 100 percent of what we crush grown in the four states," he said.

At Pacific Coast Canola's $120 million plant, the company uses the entire canola seed, producing both canola oil and meal to sell.

Canola seed goes through two sets of expeller presses -- a prepress and a double press -- to separate the oil from the protein-rich canola meal, Upmeyer said. The plant has two prepresses and 10 full presses.

The canola seed is heated up before entering the prepress, and then pressure causes about two-thirds of the canola oil to separate from the meal, he said. The seed is heated again, and the doublepress separates out the rest of the oil.

After this process, the canola oil is refined and the food-grade canola oil can be used for cooking, although some processors may add ingredients before bottling to increase the shelf life, he said. Pacific Coast Canola's oil also has been bought to be used in biodiesel.

While the oil is the most valuable product from the process, the meal also is sold to dairy farmers for cow feed, he said.

Upmeyer said they are also seeing a lot of growth in the non-genetically modified organisms market, or non-GMOs. The company does produce some canola oil that has been certified by a third-party as free from GMOs.

As a company, Upmeyer said Pacific Coast Canola doesn't take a stance on the controversial issue. "We think it's consumer choice," he said.

And there is a portion of the population that is concerned about GMOs in food, he said.

He said his company is paying a premium price, about $20 a ton, to growers for non-GMO canola seed.

There is also a demand for non-GMO canola meal, although at the moment, it's relatively small, Upmeyer said. Some farmers who want to be able to label their milk or meat as GMO-free are looking for feed to support that effort.

The Warden plant may run as many as 350 days a year, although there will be some downtime for maintenance, Upmeyer said. The company is working with grain dealers to buy and store canola seed for the plant.

Upmeyer said its current workforce of about 50 is enough to run at full capacity, although a few positions may be added.

And if Pacific Coast Canola needs to expand in the future, there is room at its current location, Upmeyer said.

-- More information: Want to learn more about canola? Washington State University's 2014 Oilseed and Direct Seed Cropping Systems Conference is Jan. 20-22 at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick.

For more information or to register, go to http://css.wsu.edu/biofuels/2014Conference/.

-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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