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Making the grade for food-grade flax

Food-grade flax seed has a very appealing feature for growers: they can receive a significant premium for it compared to industrial-grade flax seed. Producing food-grade flax takes good agronomic practices, some luck with the weather and a few steps to ensure a clean, safe food product.


June 18, 2009
By Carolyn King

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Food-grade flax seed has a very appealing feature for growers: they can receive a significant premium for it compared to industrial-grade flax seed. Producing food-grade flax takes good agronomic practices, some luck with the weather and a few steps to ensure a clean, safe food product.

flax  
 Flax seed oil, capsules, seed and powder.
Photo Courtesy of Bioriginal Food & Science Corporation.


 

“The premium involved can be anywhere from $20 to $40 per tonne. In addition, the price is usually negotiated as it’s picked up in the yard,“ says Randy Ellis, crop production manager for Bioriginal Food & Science in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “Even though a buyer’s facility might be close, the trucking cost would still probably be about 25 to 50 cents a bushel. So you get a premium of about 50 cents to one dollar a bushel and you don’t have to pay the trucking.“

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The demand for food flax products is increasing. “The market for food-grade flax has had steady growth, as consumers become more aware of the health benefits,“ says Brian Johnson of Johnson Seeds in Arborg, Manitoba. Flax seed’s nutritional composition includes omega-3 fatty acid, lignan, fibre, protein, potassium, magnesium and vitamin E.

Ellis and Johnson both recommend that growers who want to aim for food-grade flax begin by talking to companies like theirs that buy flax seed. Every company has its own requirements and its own approach to working with growers.

Johnson Seeds markets food-grade flax seed and other specialty crop seeds, as well as forage seed, worldwide. Bioriginal is a leading supplier of essential fatty acids – like borage, flax, pumpkin seed and fish oils – as nutritional supplements and functional foods. Although Bioriginal primarily uses organic flax, it does use conventionally grown food-grade flax for some of its products.
Both companies prefer to buy from growers with whom they have developed long-term working relationships, so their growers have a full understanding of how to grow flax and what is required for a food-grade product.

For new growers, Bioriginal has a crop advisor on staff, and Johnson Seeds can link new growers with an experienced grower, often someone in their own area. Growers can also seek other information sources, like the Flax Council of Canada’s production information available at www.flaxcouncil.ca.

For food-grade flax, the seeds need to be a uniform colour with little or no immature (white or green), black, discoloured, frozen or damaged seeds. Poor weather, especially cool, wet conditions at harvest, plays a big part in causing unacceptable seed quality. “The seed has to be fully developed before the first fall frost hits to cure the straw. Otherwise you’ll get darkened or discoloured seed,“ explains Ellis.

He adds, “That’s why our highest quality seed for food-grade flax generally comes from certain areas. In Saskatchewan, everywhere south of a line from Kindersley to Saskatoon to Humboldt is generally a very high food-grade flax area. But if you go too far east into the Canora-Yorkton area, typically it’s harder to get food-grade flax because of the weather challenges in the fall.“

Along with uniform colour, buyers want flax seed with very little dockage and no odour. They also examine the seed for such characteristics as oil quality and quantity, and for contaminants like chemical residues, excreta and pathogens, to ensure a healthy, high quality food product.

Johnson and Ellis emphasize the importance of using good agronomic practices, like following a sound crop rotation and applying nutrients to meet the crop’s needs, to produce a strong, healthy flax crop. Even if the crop does not make food-grade, the grower can still get good yields of industrial-grade flax.

In terms of seeding tips, Johnson notes, “It’s in growers’ best interest to use good quality seed because they want even germination, seed that is relatively free from seedborne diseases, and so on.“ And Ellis suggests managing seeding dates to maximize yield and quality. He says, “If you seed flax early, then the chances of having it damaged by weather in the fall is lessened.“

Growers can check with their buyer about any flax variety preferences. Ellis says, “It’s almost like malting barley, every company has specific characteristics that they are looking for, a variety that appeals to them or that they can handle or process very well.“
Good weed control is important to minimize the amount of weed seeds in the flax. In particular, you need to control weeds with seeds that are very hard to separate from flax seed, like small buckwheat and lady’s thumb (also called smartweed).
Bioriginal tells its conventional flax growers that they can use any registered product other than a desiccant. Ellis says, “We say no desiccant because every time we turn around it seems like the microscope is getting bigger and able to detect more things in smaller amounts.“

Harvesting flax as soon as it is ready will minimize the risk of quality loss due to weathering. Johnson explains, “Once the flax bolls (seed pods) open up and moisture gets in, then you get black seeds. What happens is the seed becomes moist and the protective layer on the flax is softened. The oil moves to the outside and it oxidizes in the air, giving the oil a rancid taste. That’s why flax with a lot of black kernels can’t be used for human consumption.“

Other harvesting suggestions are to use straight cutting rather than swathing to minimize dirt, mould and other contaminants in the seed, and to adjust harvesting equipment to reduce damage to the seeds.

Because growers are dealing with a food product, trucks and augers must be clean, and bins must be clean, tight and rodent-proof. Johnson says, “Growers should never use an auger that has been used for treated grain, and they should never use a bin that has been used for storing fertilizer or anything else like that because if it’s detected, the seed is rejected.“ Some growers have one bin for food-grade flax and another bin for the rest of their flax.

Johnson stresses, “Growers have to switch their hats and realize that they are growing a food product and not an industrial product.“ With a little extra care, growers can make that switch and earn a substantial premium for their flax.


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