Flax acres slowly rebuilding
By Bruce Barker
Flax acres are rebounding after the crash of 2009. Photo by SaskFlax, Flax Council of Canada, FC2015 Inc.
If 1956 was the glory year for flax with over three million acres sown in Western Canada, then 2011-2012 was the bottom of the barrel with only 398,900 acres seeded.
The year 2009, of course, was the year of Triffid, when European officials found genetically modified material in two loads of Canadian flax. The material was identified as a gene from CDC Triffid, a variety developed in the 1980s and 1990s, but never commercially sold.
Somehow the gene made its way into commercial seed production, and when detected, flax exports to Europe were shut down. Flax prices went into free-fall, as the EU market is the biggest importer in the world, and accounted for over 65 per cent of Canadian flax exports before Triffid. Since then, the Canadian flax pedigreed seed industry has rebooted flax seed purity from the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan.
“Getting the system rid of Triffid took a lot of the industry’s time and resources, and it really set back the flax industry in Western Canada,” Don Kerr, president of the Flax Council of Canada, says. “So much of the focus was on damage control, and trying to clean up the seed supply and recapture markets. Triffid really had an impact on the industry.”
Flax trade with the EU has resumed, albeit with tight testing protocols at varying stages of shipment to ensure no GMO material enters the EU. Going back to 2010, the CDC and the seed industry committed to reconstituting CDC flax seed to ensure Pedigreed flax seed was without the Triffid gene.
The Flax Council of Canada’s Triffid Stewardship program recommends the testing of all flax seed intended for planting, and only flax seed that test negative for the presence of Triffid should be planted. The CDC and SeCan Association are co-operating on efforts to rid the seed industry of the Triffid gene. For 2015, supplies produced from re-constituted breeder seed of CDC Bethune, CDC Sorrel, CDC Sanctuary and CDC Glas were expected to be good.
Steady growth curve upwards
The 1999-2000 crop year saw flax acres in Western Canada hovering around the two million acre mark, having fluctuated between one million and two million since the big acres of 1956, a Statistics Canada Census year. A 1998 Top Crop Manager article stated that Canada was the world leader in production and export of flax with Statistic Canada’s 10-year average (1986 to 1995) production of 710,000 tonnes grown on 1.5 million acres.
In another Top Crop Manager article in 2014 post-Triffid, then Flax Council president William Hill said the goal for 2014 was one million acres. He conservatively missed the mark as acres hit 1.5 million, and today Kerr says the industry hopes to see 1.75 to two million acres in 2015. Those higher numbers could be on the mark if prices hold: going into spring seeding, new crop flax prices were in the $11.60 per bushel range. Compared to other crops, flax was looking quite profitable, so Kerr’s estimates may be fulfilled.
In the meantime, post-Triffid markets for Canadian flax have shifted. China is now a major customer projected to take about one-half of Canadian production, with the U.S. and Europe taking about one-quarter each. That’s a major shift from pre-Triffid when the EU took about two-thirds of Canadian production.
Kerr says the shift in exports to China is also shifting where flax acres are grown in Western Canada. Acreage has steadily declined in Manitoba, dropping from over a million acres in 1986 to 90,000 acres in the 2013-2014 crop year.
“Some of the drop in acreage is because flax is in competition with soybean for oilseed acres, and while prices can be similar, soybean yield is much higher, so farmers are putting their acres into soybeans,” Kerr says. “The other factor is the shift in exports to China mean higher freight costs for flax moving west from Manitoba.”
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan acres have rebounded to almost 1.35 million acres over the last five years with less competition from soybean. Alberta acres are creeping up, and have overtaken Manitoba as the second largest flax producer at 115,000 acres in 2013-2014.
Refocusing the industry
Kerr says that post-Triffid, the flax industry is embarking on a strategic plan to move forward over the next four years. While the plan is still in draft stage, he says the Flax Council is working with its stakeholders on strategies to grow flax production in Western Canada.
“The flax industry fell behind over the last five years because of Triffid, and we haven’t kept pace with other crops like canola, which has continued to improve agronomically. We have identified agronomics as an important goal and need to address factors like yield, yield stability and weed control over the next four years to keep the industry growing,” Kerr notes.
Kerr says the strategic plan will also address best management production practices for producers. Average yield for flax is 22 bushels per acre while soybeans are 35 bushels per acre in Manitoba. Average canola yield was 34 bushels in 2014 and the Canola Council of Canada has a goal of 52 bushels per acre by 2025.
The CDC’s flax program, which began in 1974, is actively involved with improving flax varieties for western Canadian producers. In the early years, CDC flax program founder and flax breeder Gord Rowland oversaw the development of 11 flax varieties, most notably CDC Bethune. Prior to his retirement in 2010, he also registered CDC Sorrel and CDC Sanctuary. More recently, CDC’s sole flax breeder Helen Booker has registered CDC Glas in 2012 and CDC Neela in 2013.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada closed their flax breeding program at the Morden (Manitoba) Research Station in 2014 and is transitioning the program into agronomy research over several years. The existing germplasm will either be transferred to other breeding programs or brought to registration, depending on the stage of development.
Kerr was excited and pleased when, in January 2014, Health Canada approved a health claim linking ground whole flaxseed to blood cholesterol lowering, a major risk factor for heart disease, after a rigorous review of scientific information presented by the Flax Council of Canada. With 39 per cent of Canadians aged six to 79 having unhealthy cholesterol levels that put them at increased risk of heart disease, Kerr says the flax industry is working to promote the healthy benefits of flax to nutritionists and consumers. “The flax health claim is one of the few in Canada, and is an important tool for us to help grow demand for Canadian flax.”
Moving forward, the Flax Council launched a redesigned website this past April, resulting in a more user-friendly and simple-to-navigate site. “This site is dedicated to our [Flax Council of Canada] stakeholders and members, recognizing the contribution from producer groups, industry, researchers and government in working together towards the common goals and objectives of enhancing the flaxseed value chain,” Kerr says.
He adds that despite the challenges the flax industry has gone through in the last few years, he is positive the industry will continue to grow, especially with the increasing Chinese and U.S. markets. Whether it can make it back to the glory years remains to be seen.
“Things are looking positive. As long as we can keep improving genetics and markets stay strong, flax acres should remain relatively high. If we could get things happening on the fibre side, that would be exciting potential for growers as well,” Kerr says.