Flax sector eyes Mexican market

The flax industry is attempting to become less reliant on its top three markets.

China, the United States and the European Union have dominated exports for many years.

Shane Stokke, chair of the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, said the industry needs to bolster demand from other countries in order to support prices.

Mexico is one country where the commission has been focusing its market development efforts for the past six or seven years.

SaskFlax is attempting to educate consumers there about the health benefits of eating the crop, but there is also another emerging target market in that country.

“We have found the feed market in Mexico has huge potential,” Stokke told growers attending last week’s SaskFlax annual general meeting at the CropSphere show in Saskatoon.

Representatives from the commission attended a feed industry meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, three years ago. It was an eye-opener because they had no idea how sizeable the livestock industry is in the country.

“I guess it was a little naïve on our part thinking that it isn’t that big, but it’s huge,” Stokke said in an interview following his presentation.

“If we can get the feed industry using flax, it would be a huge bump for flax demand.”

Mexico is already the sixth largest customer of Canadian flax. The country imported 2,329 tonnes of the product through the first 11 months of 2019.

The commission intends to initially target Mexico’s dairy, chicken and horse sectors. It hopes Mexican consumers will start demanding omega 3 milk and eggs.

South Korea is another target market for the commission. It was the fourth largest export market in 2016, buying 9,507 tonnes of Canadian flax that year.

The situation changed in a hurry when a consumer group told South Korean people that the crop contained cadmium, a toxic metal that could kill them. Sales plummeted to 725 tonnes the following year and have remained at that level.

Stokke has an idea about what group was behind that campaign, but he didn’t share his suspicions. He acknowledged that the crop does contain trace amounts of cadmium but not enough to warrant health concerns.

“You’ve got to eat so much flax, literally a train car load, to harm you,” he said.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe helped the industry set the record straight with South Korean media during a recent trade mission to South Korea and Japan.

Stokke hopes that will be the start of regaining the South Korean market.

“It was a fairly sizeable market that we want to get back,” he said.

Meanwhile, the industry is hoping to retain its top market. China purchased 181,381 tonnes of Canadian flax through the first 11 months of 2019 compared to 297,819 tonnes for all of 2018 and 292,500 tonnes for all of 2017.

Canada is facing “price challenges” in that market from Black Sea flax. Kazakhstan and Ukraine have a significant freight advantage over Canada in shipping flax to China.

“Hopefully we can still keep China as a good, solid importer of Saskatchewan flax,” said Stokke.

SaskFlax is also trying to figure out new ways to coax farmers into growing the crop. Straw management has been the biggest agronomic barrier for the oilseed.

One possible solution to the issue is short-stature flax, which is similar in size to a lentil plant.

“You’re probably asking yourself, ‘God, do we need another crop that’s right on the ground?’ ” Stokke told growers attending the meeting.

However, he thinks the crop could work with modern harvesting equipment such as flex headers. He plans to grow 20 acres of a short-stature flax variety on his farm in 2020 to see if it is a feasible crop to grow.

“It’s some out-of-the-box thinking that we’re doing at the board level,” he said.

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