Canola taking root in the Flathead

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Miles Passmore, a 24-year-old farmer stands in a field of canola on Thursday morning, July 19, near Bigfork.

The bright yellow fields seem to be everywhere in the Flathead Valley this summer, and while they add a scenic swatch to the landscape they’re also evidence of a substantial upswing in local canola production.

Canola, a registered trademark of the Canola Council of Canada, is a modern, high-quality form of rapeseed, an oil-bearing grain that dates back to the 13th century.

Its seeds, when crushed, contain as much as 40 percent oil. Canola was developed as the first edible rapeseed in Canada in 1956.

Demand for canola oil was heightened when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for the oil, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Canola has the lowest saturated fatty acid level of any vegetable oil on the market, making it a close substitute for other oils, the Center said. Canola oil also contains a high level of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Buoyed by the health benefits, canola oil consumption is expected to continue to rise until it exceeds corn and cottonseed oils, a Center report indicated. Fast-food giants such as Taco Bell and McDonald’s already have switched to using canola oil.

In the Flathead, it’s a great rotational crop for farmers, said Mark Lalum, general manager of CHS Kalispell.

“It’s a good crop for this valley,” he said. “It works well with the temperatures here, and it’s Roundup Ready. It’s a good alternative for these guys.”

There are about 6,000 acres planted with canola this year, Lalum said, about a thousand more acres than last year. Just two years ago only 1,600 acres in Flathead County were planted with canola, Montana agricultural statistics show.

Most canola production in the U.S. traditionally has taken place in the northern-tier states of North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota, but Oklahoma recently became the second largest producer of canola in the U.S.

The U.S. canola crop in 2011 was 1.5 billion pounds, valued at $357.6 million.

Lalum said there are about 35 to 40 major producers of canola in the Flathead, but close to 80 farmers include it in their crop rotation.

Miles Passmore, one of the biggest local producers of canola, has 405 acres of the grain in production this year at the Passmore farm south of Creston. He’s been growing canola for seven years.

Passmore said the Roundup Ready crop has enabled him to “get rid of a lot of the weed problems” on his acreage. Roundup Ready refers to crops such as canola that have been genetically modified to tolerate the chemical herbicide. He plants winter wheat in the canola stubble as an alternative to summer fallowing those fields.

“It makes it cheaper because it’s not tied up in summer fallowing for a year,” he said.

Passmore likes the rotational aspect of canola and uses it in a four-year rotation pattern with his other crops, which include wheat, barley and alfalfa.

He also does custom canola swathing and plans to swath about 1,700 acres during the first part of August. Canola is wind-rowed for 10 days, then combined like other grains.

Doug Manning, who farms north of Creston, is in his fourth year of growing canola and has 340 acres in production this year. He also likes the rotational benefits of raising canola and is working it into the rotation with spring wheat, peas and barley.

“It breaks up the cycles for disease,” he said.

While Manning said he hasn’t had any trouble with insects this year, he anticipates the need for disease control will increase as more farmers begin raising larger quantities of the grain.

Passmore also acknowledged that as more acreage is planted with canola, more bugs will show up. Cabbage seedpod weevils and diamondback moths tend to attack the crop during the yellow flowering stage, while flea beetles can cause damage as the plants are just coming up, or if the stand is thinner than normal.

WITH SEVERAL NEW canola processing plants coming on line, Lalum said he expects that in the short term there will be a shortage of canola.

“It will take awhile to ramp up,” he said.

Pacific Coast Canola is building a new canola oilseed processing plant at Warden, Wash., that could create annual demand for as much as $200 million in new canola seed purchases. The plant should go online in early 2013 and will be the first commercial-scale crushing operation west of the Rockies.

Northstar Agri just opened a canola crushing plant in Hallock, Minn., not far from the Canadian border that’s capable of processing 1,000 tons of canola seed per day.

Prices for canola remain strong.

“Prices should be as good or even better than wheat,” Lalum said.

Manning said the new plant at Warden gives growers one more option to get the best price for their canola. He typically stores his grain, putting it in bins until the price is right.

Passmore likewise stores his canola and ships it later.

Where it ends up all depends on the market, Lalum said. Last year some of the canola crop was trucked to Canada for processing, while other shipments went and some to North Dakota.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at

Canola flowers silhouetted against the setting sun on Tuesday, July 17, in West Valley.


A field of canola at Rebecca Farm on Tuesday, July 17, in West Valley.

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