Crop diversity remains key to future sustainability

Western Canadian producers are among the most diversified crop growers in the world, successfully taking important market positions in pulses, canola, wheat, mustard and other crops.

This is no time to back off on that distinction. If anything, further diversification will be crucial in the years ahead to fight everything from bad weather to sclerotinia. Fortunately, new varieties and emerging market trends are providing opportunities that are worthy of serious consideration.

Diversification has taken a bit of a hit lately from the success of canola. Canola has been king over a large part of the Prairies for several years, but last year’s problems, ranging from widespread disease to high winds, may have dislodged its crown.

High prices for canola have naturally led to huge increases in acreage, but canola-snow-canola or even canola-wheat-canola will become rotations of the past if producers are to successfully battle herbicide resistance and diseases.

Adding profitable varieties will reduce production risk and potentially smooth market volatility for producers.

Flax, for example, is showing renewed promise. A plan has been initiated by the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and other flax industry stakeholders to flush all traces of the Triffid variety from the system. With Triffid out of the way, market opportunities look positive, particularly in human food. The healthy omega 3 in flax is showing potential in lowering blood pressure, among other positive effects.

Flax is not lagging in profitability, either. Shane Stokke, a producer from Watrous, Sask., recently said at Crop Production Week in Saskatoon that his flax crop was significantly more profitable than canola  last year. His flax crop brought a net profit of $280.04 per acre compared to $237.48 for his canola.

New soybean varieties will also expand producers’ options. Daylight sensitive varieties, as opposed to those reliant on heat units, will garner interest from western Canadian growers.

Even hemp, which has had an up-and-down history in Western Canada, is showing signs of becoming a strong crop. Nutritious hemp hearts, the main products, are gaining consumer interest, which has led to increased acres grown mainly under contract.

It’s also important to consider new crops when one sees the decline of oats, rye and barley. Traditionally among the five major grains, they are, or are in danger of becoming, specialty crops. Corn, for instance, is profoundly affecting barley sales, and unless barley growers address market demand, it could fall into specialty crop territory.

More research and market development are certainly required for small acreage crops, but the pulse story, with its international market success, shows this is entirely possible.

Unfortunately, most commercial money is poured into advancing big crop varieties, notably soybeans and corn, and smaller crops suffer by comparison. But no Canadian farmer would like to be at the mercy of corn and soybeans as are American farmers. These crops have been incredibly profitable, but will that continue if disease and weed resistance become insurmountable problems?

Western Canada does not want to duplicate the corn-soy story, although both crops may work well within rotations. Instead, farmers are better advised to seek several profitable alternatives.

Crop organizations must focus on advancing marketable and easy-to-grow crops. This will provide options for longer rotations and improved soil health, in addition to spreading out market risk.

At least one expert has said that the crop universe in Western Canada will be completely different in 20 years. That is likely a good thing, if new crops save the soil, survive the weather and still offer profitability.

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