Canola appears to be catching on in the Northwest.
It's Washington's most common oilseed crop, grown in Adams, Grant, Douglas, Lincoln and Spokane counties. It can be used in food-grade oil and biodiesel.
Right now, the demand appears to be for food-grade oil for healthy eating, rather than the biodiesel, according to Karen Sowers, Washington State University extension and outreach specialist for the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences.
Washington farmers are expected to increase acreage by about 67 percent this year, to about 25,000 acres.
Jeff Schibel of Schibel Farms near Odessa started growing canola in 1999. He doubled his acreage of winter canola this year to two circles, a total of about 250 acres, he said, citing rising prices and the opportunity to change his crop rotation.
"The last two years, it's been a good crop to be in," Schibel said.
Schibel planted this year's crop last September and will harvest it in mid-July. Canola has helped improve his wheat crop by breaking the disease cycle, he said.
Canola also is a water management tool for Schibel, who uses deep-well irrigation. Canola needs water earlier in the year than wheat and potatoes.
Farmers in Oregon and Idaho also are expected to add acres, according to information recently released from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oregon farmers plan to grow about 13,000 acres, a 78 percent spike, while Idaho farmers may grow about 45,000, up 18 percent.
Tyson Raymond of Raymond & Son Inc. near Helix, Ore., harvested his first crop of canola last year and is doubling the acreage to 1,000.
Rising prices made the crop competitive with wheat, and as a rotation crop it helps control disease and weeds that afflict dryland wheat, Raymond said. The area gets about 12 inches of rain a year, limiting the options for rotation crops.
"It's economically viable as a rotation crop," he said.
Because of moisture concerns, Raymond said he plants winter canola from the end of June to early July. The canola stays in the ground a year, and is harvested toward the end of July.
While the Northwest is adding acreage, national acreage is expected to shrink by 6 percent to about 1.65 million acres, according to the USDA. Farmers in North Dakota, the nation's top canola-growing state, cut acreage from 1.5 million acres in 2012 to 1.2 million acres this year.
Sowers said some of the acreage growth in Washington can be attributed to increased education, demand and the right price. For some farmers, canola has even become their cash crop.
Washington's 14,500 acres of canola produced 27.6 million pounds in 2012, according to the state.
Some farmers have seen record canola yields in the past two years because of cool and wet weather in May, which helped extend the flowering period, Sowers said.
Pacific Coast Canola opened a new food-grade oil crushing plant in Warden in January, Sowers said.
The biggest areas of potential growth for winter canola acreage in Washington are the Odessa Aquifer sub-area and the winter fallow region, she said.
Winter canola is already up and growing, and spring canola is being planted this month, Sowers said.
The canola plant grows yellow flowers, and then forms a pod that lengthens up to 6 inches, Sowers said. The pod holds the seeds, which are harvested using a combine. The seeds, each only a little larger than a dull pencil point, are crushed for oil and meal.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com