Canola prospects brightest yet for Georgia farmers

By for CAES News

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

Paul Raymer's fields of dreams have canola growing in them all over Georgia. After 15 years of seeing sputtering starts a few acres at a time, he's convinced it's on the verge of happening now if it's ever going to happen at all.

"We'll have a small crop this year," said Raymer, a crop scientist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "I expect the acreage to continue to grow fairly rapidly if the market opportunities come."

The next year will likely decide the fate of the fledgling Farmers Oilseed Cooperative and Raymer's vision of a substantial canola crop in Georgia. The FOC will soon begin selling stock in an effort to raise the capital needed to build an oilseed crushing facility in the state.

Huge market

The new crushing plant would be a huge market for Georgia-grown canola. If the plant becomes a reality, Raymer said, so will canola in Georgia.

"It's an 'if you build it, they will come' kind of thing," he said.

The problem with growing canola in Georgia has always been the sporadic market. Raymer, who has worked with the crop since the late 1980s, knows Georgia farmers can grow canola.

"It's at least as stable as anything else we grow," Raymer said. "In the 15 years I've worked with canola, I've only lost a handful of trials. I've lost a lot more corn, soybean and even wheat trials. Canola has been pretty consistent over the years."

The problem

The problem has been finding a market. For the past few seasons, that's meant shipping it by rail to Windsor, Ontario. Shipping costs leave little room for profit.

"For the coming season," Raymer said, "we're looking for whole-seed export markets. We haven't capitalized on the state's excellent ports."

Such markets would enable Georgia farmers to ease back into the canola-growing business while the crusher is being built.

The FOC facility would provide a canola market for farmers throughout the state. "Arrangements need to be made for consolidation points to allow growers statewide a nearby delivery point," Raymer said. "The co-op board members agree with that in principle, but the details need to be worked out."

'New' crop

Canola is a relatively new crop, though its predecessor, rapeseed, has been grown for a ground cover, animal forage and its lubricant oil for centuries.

In the early '70s, Canadian scientists bred new varieties with low levels of erucic acid, which makes rapeseed a good lubricant, and high levels of oleic acid, which makes olive oil so good.

They renamed the plant canola (for Canada-oil-low-acid). And the crop has taken off. With a myriad of uses, the oil is most popular with health-conscious cooks for its low levels of saturated fats and high levels of monounsaturated fats.

The toughest thing about growing canola in Georgia is its narrow planting window. "You've got four weeks, from late October to late November, to seed it and get it established," Raymer said.

Glorious view

Once established, fields of canola become glorious expanses of bright yellow flowers over green foliage in March and April. The seeds can be harvested by late May. That's early enough for farmers to plant soybeans or cotton after them in a double-crop scheme.

Raymer has been breeding varieties for a decade. He released a new UGA variety, Flint, three years ago. Flint is a proven performer, topping the field trials before and since its release.

"It has improved cold tolerance, resistance to blackleg (a critical disease in canola)and is well-adapted to the upper coastal plain," he said. "It provides about a 10-percent improvement in yields over the varieties planted in the mid-'90s."

A new UGA release this year will be available to growers in 2004 (to a limited extent, in 2003). "It's comparable to Flint in yields and other traits," Raymer said. "But it matures earlier."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.