Why canola’s so different

Here’s what the canola crop looked like last Friday:

I’m not kidding. That’s a pic of the canola crop taken by a colleague of the fellow sitting beside me at the Canola Council of Canada convention in Washington and emailed to him.

It’s winter canola growing in test plots down in Oklahoma. They’re integrating canola into the wheat wheat wheat wheat rotation that is common down there, and which has a few disease challenges, to say the least.

To me, this situation says a lot about how and why the canola industry and canola acreage can probably grow quite a bit more: there are so many good things that happen for farmers when they grow the stuff these days, why wouldn’t you try to do more? Even in weird places. The Oklahoma canola crop, which is tiny but has real potential, is just one of the thousand little things you find out more about at conferences like this, even if it wasn’t on the agenda. (Thank you Heath Sanders for sharing that pic with me, and thanks for putting up with all my dumb questions over lunch about Okanola.)

I always notice the contrast between covering a booming, rich, optimistic, cheery, dynamic industry like canola, and covering a stagnant,  undynamic, settled industry like wheat. With canola every year, there always seem to be big gains in some area and an overwhelming trend of growth and progress. With something like wheat, not so much.

This difference is nobody’s fault, because canola’s success is largely based on its naturally superior oil qualities and its easy-to-work-with genetic structure. Canola’s still newish as a crop, so there’s a tonne of development that can still be done, whereas wheat, which has been grown forever, has already been developed, is hard to genetically modify or breed, and which isn’t on the front of a wave of a worldwide health movement.

But the mood the good fortune creates is radically different. You can see why farmers are excited about growing canola: they make money. You can see why canola seed companies get excited about canola: they make money. You can see why food manufacturers get excited about canola: they make money.

So you get what you see today: farmers growing more and more canola; companies continuing to invest tens of millions of dollars into genetic modification and developing new varieties; food processors trying to get more and more canola into their products.

This year’s likely 20 million acre crop will be a doozy, but it’s not at the upper limit of what can be seeded, canola agronomy experts told me in Washington. Farmers need to be careful about their rotations, but there are still more acres out there that could work for canola.

And canola’s healthy profile means it’ll probably keep gobbling up consumer dollars, even if modified soybean oil give it a run for the healthy buck. With some of the genetic innovations in the pipeline, it should keep getting healthier and adding new attributes.

So even though some of us keep wondering when canola will stop expanding and expanding and expanding, we’re probably wondering a few years early.

So for a few more years, with luck, we’ll be able to be cheery about canola.

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