Canola interest cropping up in Iowa, too

Winter canola in full bloom in May at the Iowa State University test plot. (Photo courtesy Stefan Gailans/Iowa State)

You only have to drive a few miles in Iowa to see that the state's two main crops are corn and soybeans. But a new project from Iowa State University's agronomy department is investigating whether the increasingly popular canola could thrive here. 

As Harvest Public Media's Eric Durban has reported, farmers are already having some success growing the crop in western Kansas.

At Iowa State, agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft and graduate student Stefan Gailans are hopeful that incorporating canola plants into Iowa's cropping system could help to diversify farmland that's typically sees a two-crop rotation. 

"Just by having another crop, we can look at maybe some economic advantages, we can look at reducing some pest problems, we can change up the system so we might be able to manage weeds better with less chemicals," said Wiedenhoeft, who is also the chair of the Iowa State University graduate program in sustainable agriculture.  

And Wiedenhoeft said that because canola is a winter and spring crop, having roots in the soil overwinter would help prevent erosion. It's too early in the project to quantify all these effects, but so far their first crop has produced a fair yield, Wiedenhoeft said. 

"One of the main goals is to investigate whether or not the canola can perform well in a climate such as Iowa's, because it's used to a drier and cooler climate, such as the Dakotas or the Canadian prairies," said Gailans.  

Even if canola could grow in parts of Iowa, I wondered if farmers would really risk shifting from the known-successful pairing of corn and beans  -- especially when they're fetching such high prices.  Gailans said some farmers he's talked with have expressed interest in canola.  

"Some of them have remarked to me that working with spring annuals or winter annuals like spring canola and winter canola that are either planted at times that are different than corn and soybean or harvested at different times than corn and soybean is that that spreads labor out."

Currently only a few Iowa farmers grow canola, and the majority of U.S. production is in North Dakota. Gailans and Wiedenhoeft have been experimenting with growing the canola in rotation with a wheat crop and with clover, and then ultimately rotating back to corn. 

If canola takes to Iowa's soil, there is a market for canola in the state, said Wiedenhoeft. 

"There's also an oilseed processor in northwest Iowa who is processing canola oil, so we already have someone who could process the grain; we just don't have the grain here. And there's a great demand for canola right now."

Across the U.S., farmers planted 75 percent more canola acres in 2010 than the previous year. Gailans said canola is used for more than just producing cooking oil.

"One thing that I want to look at down the road is also the potential for the canola to be used as a biodiesel, an on farm energy source," said Gailans.

The research project is testing a non-GMO canola plant, and Gailans and Wiedenhoeft said there is a strong demand from the non-GMO and organic niche markets. So far the researchers have only been growing the test plots for a little more than a year, and say it will take a few more years before they have solid data. Their research is funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.