Thoughts on canola to brighten a cloudy COVID day

In a world shaded by the cloud cast by COVID-19, I’ve been looking for shafts of light, bits of good news to lighten the mood.

And if you keep reading to the end, you’ll see that the mood can be not only brighter, but more colourful.

One glimmer I found comes from the Canadian Grain Commission weekly export report that shows canola shipment accumulations are now running ahead of last year at the same point.

Until now, the hole created by China’s import restrictions has been difficult to fill but recent stronger movement has closed the gap.

As of week 36 ending April 12, canola exports stand at 6.88 million tonnes, up from 6.58 million at the same time last year.

China instituted its restrictions at the start of March last year, severely impeding exports for a while.

For the six weeks following the start of March 2019, shipments totalled only 762,100 tonnes. This year in the same period they ran at about twice that pace at 1.508 million tonnes.

We don’t have the destinations of those March and early April shipments yet because the Statistics Canada International Merchandise Trade report for March comes out May 5, but likely we will see as we have for months that the European Union and United Arab Emirates are filling the hole left by China.

Last week, Sean Pratt wrote a story showing how European Union demand for imported canola and rapeseed might be hurt by COVID’s hammering of the European biodiesel industry.

With so few people driving and the price of crude oil so low, several biodiesel makers have temporarily closed, slashing demand for rapeseed oil. Some crushers have switched to soybeans to produce meal that can be sold to livestock farmers.

But aside from the weak biodiesel market, other factors support rapeseed/canola prices.

The EU is headed toward a winter rapeseed crop expected to be almost the same size as last year’s disappointing harvest, the smallest in 13 years. For two years now EU acreage has been down because of weather and the bloc’s ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments.

And Ukraine, which so far this crop year has supplied about 60 percent of the EU’s rapeseed imports, is suffering from dry weather.

“Regional-average spring rainfall to date since March 1 has been the lowest over the past 30 years in southern and eastern Ukraine,” said the United States Department of Agriculture’s weekly weather and crop bulletin for April 14.

Showers were in the forecast for this week, which might ease the situation.

But overall, given the weather risks, Europe could again be looking to import significant amounts of Canadian rapeseed in the coming year, although the amount will depend on how quickly the COVID virus is controlled and the speed at which the economy recovers and people get back to driving.

None of this is going to magically drive canola prices higher in the next few months, but it gives hope that year end stocks won’t rise to become a burden.

China, formerly Canada’s biggest customer for canola, is the world’s second largest producer of the crop.

Production in some regions takes place amid spectacular scenery that lends itself to the development of tourism.

Each spring millions of urbanites head for the countryside for photo excursions and rapeseed flower festivals. Some places appear to have built infrastructure such as graveled or raised pathways for tourists to get into the heart of the field for the best selfies.

Their spending is a major seasonal boost to rural economies.

A story at March 26 notes special procedures visitors must undergo this year to enter the Qianduo Cole Flower Scenic Area in the city of Xinghua, East China’s Jiangsu province. This is a historic agricultural area with fields built with soil dredged from surrounding streams and lakes. Visitors tour the area in boats.

The story says staff checked the “QR code” on the visitor’s phone. This is an app that gives users colour-coded designations based on their health status and travel history.

Staff also checked the visitors’ temperature and disinfected their clothing, according to the story.

The tourism value of the rapeseed fields around the country is enough to cause plant breeders at Jiangxi Agricultural University to develop varieties with a range of coloured flowers.

Breeder Fu Donghui and his team have used genetic engineering to develop 38 varieties in 22 colours including blue, red and pink. He says his goal is to achieve better colours and an oil yield at least the same as ordinary varieties.

Flower festivals are tourism generators in many countries around the world. Crops such as tulips, lavender, sunflowers, cherry and apple blossoms come to mind.

Could canola generate a blooming tourist market in Canada?

Certainly there are areas here of great natural beauty enhanced by the sea of golden canola, and maybe blue flax, reflecting the light from our big clear skies.

On the other hand Canada’s Prairies don’t have the benefit that China’s festivals have of being close to huge populations of urbanites looking for weekend rural getaways to shake off the stress of big city living.

Canadian producers would also have to devise strict sanitation protocols to ensure visitors would not spread clubroot disease.

But you never know.

With the right marketing, some entrepreneurial spirit might be able to turn what is a nearly ubiquitous prairie landscape into a sought after holiday experience.

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