Benton-area farm diversifies with canola

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Barry Urhahn, farm manager for Heartland Potato Farms near Benton, looks over the canola crop growing in the farm's Scott County field. (Tim Jaynes, Standard-Democrat)

BENTON, Mo. — Nestled between Route H and Interstate 55 in Scott County sits the state's only commercial acres of canola — a plant used to make cooking oil and biodiesel.

Seventy acres and four varieties of the crop were planted in late September but were only recently noticed — mostly by motorists commuting across I-55 — after the plant's bright yellow flowers bloomed.

The scene is so vivid, it even prompted curious passers-by to contact the operation growing the canola, which is Heartland Potato Farms near Benton.

"Nobody knew what it was," said Barry Urhahn, farm manager for Heartland Potato Farms. "They just thought it was a bunch of yellow flowers."

People have even called and stopped by the field to take pictures, Urhahn said. "We've had so many questions," Urhahn said.

In a region where wheat, soybeans, corn, rice and cotton are the traditional crops, Urhahn said Heartland decided to grow canola to diversify the crop rotation and to tap into another market. Plus, Urhahn said, the crop is believed to slow the growth of nematodes, parasitic worms, which are a pest to most crops grown in the area.

"We're hoping by throwing a non-pest crop into the crop rotation, we'll actually break down the life cycle of some of these nematodes," said John Wilson, a crop consultant for MRM Ag Service in East Prairie, Mo., who is assisting Urhahn with the canola crop.

"It seems more of the pests growers battle this time of year in wheat don't seem to favor the canola," Wilson added.

Using canola in the crop rotation is something being done in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. For the most part, canola could be raised anywhere winter wheat is raised, Wilson said.

"This is still pretty young in itself. It's definitely one of these things where we're learning as we go," Wilson said.

Canola competes for acres of wheat because it, too, is a fall-planted crop, Wilson said.

The canola seed, which is about the size of a pinhead, proves challenging, Urhahn said.

"When it comes to planting and harvesting both, but strictly at harvest time, you have to adjust your combine so much differently, and the seed is so small that if you have any leaks at all in your combine, they show up," Urhahn said.

They've even used duct tape to seal off any cracks, Urhahn and Wilson said.

With canola, growers plant four pounds of seed to the acre versus 120 pounds of wheat seed per acre, Wilson said. It takes a little bit of adjusting seeding equipment, he said.

Urhahn said the canola grown in the Heartland field will go to a canola crushing plant located in either Minneapolis; Windsor, Ontario; or Georgia.

"While there's no local processor, there is a huge market in the United States for this particular type of oil," said Brian Caldbeck, innovative product and service manager for Miles Enterprises in Owensboro, Ky., who is also assisting Urhahn and Wilson.

Soybean crushing plants in the area aren't geared up to handle canola; however, they can be retrofitted to do so, Caldbeck said.

Growing canola requires thinking out of the box, both Caldbeck and Wilson said.

Wilson said he's been questioned by other farmers about growing canola now when wheat prices are the highest they've ever been.

"Yeah, for the short-term that's great, but years down the road, when it [the wheat price] gets back down to $3 a bushel, the value of canola compared to wheat acres will stick its head above it," said Wilson, adding the price of canola reflects more of the price of soybeans than wheat.

Growers will get a higher percentage of oil out of an acre of canola than they do a soybean plant, Wilson said.

"We're not looking at this crop to replace soybeans or wheat, just to complement them," Wilson said.

And who knows? If there's a good canola crop this year, it may generate interest from growers for next year, Wilson said.

This is actually the second year Heartland is growing the crop; however, last year wasn't a good year to judge because of the hard freeze that occurred in April, Urhahn said.

"The freeze affected canola just like it did the wheat," Urhahn said.

But Wilson, Urhahn and Caldbeck said they remain optimistic about this year's canola crop.

"We know there's a profitability in the crop," Wilson said. "The question is, can we get the yields high enough? Hopefully, we'll be able to find that out this year."

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