Canola, Flax, and Sunflower: The Hidden Power of Oilseeds
Oilseed crops could help Midwestern farmers reduce costs for fuel, fertilizer and animal feed — at least, that’s the idea that researchers at The Ohio State University are exploring.
Grown for their seeds, which are rich in vegetable oil, common species of oilseeds differ in look and cultural origin, from dark leafy plants like canola (closely related to turnips), to short spindly ones like flax (also grown for the linen fibers along its stalk), to long-forgotten crops like camelina (once considered a weed), to familiar ornamentals like sunflowers.
The oil is released when the seeds are passed through a mechanical press. The farmer is left with two end-products: raw oil, which can be processed into edible oil or biofuel or products like linoleum, and the pulverized seed remains (the “meal”), which are full of protein and are usually fed to livestock.
Oilseed crops, especially canola, flax, camelina, and sunflower, are drawing commercial and academic attention because of several converging trends. The first is interest in renewable fuel, especially biofuel derived from vegetable oil. Several organizations, including Organic Valley, are even helping farmers produce their own tractor fuel by growing oilseeds.
Then there is the hype around omega-3 fatty acids, which modern Western diets often lack, and which are essential for immune response and brain health. Flax and camelina oils both contain enough omega-3 fatty acids that rival highly touted fish oils.
And finally, oilseeds fit the bill when it comes to the mounting interest in reducing reliance on resources like water and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Camelina, for example, grows in poor soils, which makes it appealing in regions expecting drought or other severe conditions fostered by climate change. Bee-friendly canola and sunflower blossoms can help support threatened farm pollinator populations. Canola and sunflower roots break up compacted soils. And perhaps most importantly, the practice of alternating diverse species like oilseeds with other crops to create more complex yearly rotations improves soil health and reduces weed and pest build-up.
And it turns out that many of oilseeds’ attributes have as much potential to reduce external costs (such as, livestock feed, fuel or nutrient/pest control) as they have to generate new profits.
These benefits are at the core of OSU’s interest in oilseeds. Ohio and other states with similar growing conditions are unlikely to become centers of oilseed production (these crops grow best in the arid northern prairies), but oilseeds could become a valuable resource for small to mid-scale Midwestern farmers who want to reduce off-farm inputs while diversifying their production. This past summer, researchers at OSU’s Agroecosystem Management Program, in cooperation with Organic Valley, planted demonstration plots of canola, flax, camelina, and sunflower to explore the suite of benefits that oilseeds could offer area farmers. It was the inaugural project at a new OSU research farm that is dedicated to studying small to mid-scale agriculture.
In a twist of fate, the farmers who worked that very tract of land two centuries ago also grew flax. They spun the resulting fibers into linen fabrics, which they used to produce elaborate home furnishings. Imagine if they knew that flax was growing on their land again — not for bedspreads, not for tablecloths, but for oil and animal feed and fuel and just about everything else.