Is that canola growing in almond and pistachio fields?

California research team sizes up the possibilities of using canola as a rotation crop or cover crop on fruit tree farm

California canola. California canola.

It’s one of those phrases that just rolls off the tongue.

While it sounds great and could be a fantastic brand, growing canola in California is mostly a concept right now.

Steve Kaffka, a University of California at Davis plant scientist, hopes that changes soon.

Kaffka and his team have been studying the potential of winter cropping canola and camelina for about seven years.

He’s convinced the brassica crops, particularly canola, make agronomic and economic sense for farmers in the Golden State.

In a paper published in early March in the journal Crop Science (PDF format), Kaffka said canola could aid California farmers struggling with droughts and irrigation constraints.

“(Water) may become more uncertain due to climate change. To adapt to these changes, more cool-season crop options that require less water than summer annuals are needed,” the paper said.

Starting around 2010 California’s department of food and agriculture funded Kaffka’s canola and camelina research, partly because the state is seeking alternate feedstocks for biofuels.

Kaffka and his team have grown canola in test plots throughout California, from the Imperial Valley near Mexico, to the coastal valleys north of Santa Barbara, in the Central Valley and in the northeastern corner of the state.

They mostly grew varieties from Australia because growing conditions there are comparable to Australia.

Canola, in turns out, may be suited for California.

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“With appropriate variety selection and management, mean seed yields of 3,000 kilograms per hectare could be expected for canola when grown as a cool-season crop throughout most of California,” the study said.

A yield of 3,000 kg per hectare equals about 53 bushels per acre.

In a telephone interview from his office at UC Davis, Kaffka said canola could be grown in several geographies and farm production systems across California.

For one, California farmers grow 500,000 to 700,000 acres of winter wheat as a rotation crop, mostly on irrigated land following the production of tomatoes or another crop.

“The big acreage in winter in field crop production is wheat … often not at a great profit,” Kaffka said.

“So canola and potentially camelina … would offer an alternative (to wheat).”

Another possibility is acres that are idled during a drought. Kaffka said about one million acres were taken out of production, during the worst of California’s drought, due to a lack of irrigation water.

Canola or camelina might make sense on a portion of idle acres in the Central Valley.

“These winter annual crops, which have relatively modest water demands, can help with that problem (idle land).”

There may also be opportunities for canola and camelina in California’s massive fruit and nut industry.

Almond, pistachio and walnut trees must be replanted and weeds grow between the trees as they mature. Instead of growing weeds, producers could seed canola or camelina in the ample space between the non-bearing trees, 
Kaffka said.

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With potentially robust yields across a large geography, California farmers should be jumping into canola.

So far they haven’t.

A small number are trying it near Delta, a town between San Francisco and Sacramento, but most remain reluctant.

One obstacle is that California doesn’t produce a large volume oilseeds, with the exception of safflower and sunflowers.

There are only a few toll-crushing plants in the state, Kaffka said.

If crushing plants did exist, the potential market for locally grown canola could be huge. California needs sustainable feedstocks for biofuel and a high-yielding canola might satisfy environmental requirements around biodiesel.

Selling the canola meal shouldn’t be an issue.

“You’ve got the biggest dairy industry pretty much in the world here,” Kaffka said.

There are challenges but Kaffka and his team will continue their work. UC Davis has a detailed agronomy and research webpage for canola and its scientists will soon publish a production manual.

It’s impossible to predict how many acres could be grown in California, but Kaffka thinks the crop might be a solution for the effects of climate policy and drought.

“And it will be potentially supportive of new businesses and industry in the state,” he said. “Particularly in rural areas where the effects of the state’s expensive climate policies have mostly costs rather than benefits.”

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