Canola was rapeseed, wheat king

LACOMBE, Alta. — There is a certain satisfaction for Keith Downey and Phil Thomas when they see millions of acres of nodding yellow canola blooms across Canada.

Downey is known as the father of canola and was part of a small group of breeders to develop the modern oilseed that now grows on 20 million acres a year in Canada.

From rapeseed to the development of canola, the crop has firmly established its importance to the farm economy.

“It was very gratifying to see,” Downey said at the canola showcase, Canolapalooza held at Lacombe, Alta. on June 28.

“I certainly never expected to see this much. I always saw it as an important rotation break with cereals.”

When Phil Thomas grew the crop on his family farm near Bentley in central Alberta in 1961, the neighbours scoffed and said he was growing weeds.

“We were the fourth farm in the County of Lacombe to grow rapeseed and I have been growing it ever since,” the former Alberta Agriculture oilseeds specialist said.

It was worth $2.65 a bushel. I worked on the rigs for less than that.”

Canolapalooza featured rows of plots with early varieties of rapeseed next to the most modern canola crops. The seeds came from a germplasm bank in Saskatoon.

The early crops look more like their relative the cabbage and were not blooming, compared to the showy stands on the other side of the field.

“We’ve really improved the production capabilities in these varieties, especially in the hybrids,” Thomas said.

Modern canola is now grown around the world and Thomas has seen it adapted for different growing conditions from South Africa to Canada.

“We have made so many advances,” he said. “The first year when I grew it our average yield in Alberta was 16 bushels per acre. In the Peace it was 14.”

Thomas, who now works with Agri-Trend as an adviser and trainer, said some growers achieved 85 bushels per acre last year.

Those early, leafy varieties were the stuff Downey had to work in 1957, when he took over the rapeseed breeding program in Sask-atoon for Agriculture Canada.

He retired in 1993 and is now a research scientist emeritus living in Okotoks, Alta.

The crop was nearly abandoned after the Second World War when rapeseed oil was replaced with diesel.

The federal government guaranteed a price of six cents a pound during the war years. Seed went to Moose Jaw, Sask., for processing, but interest in the crop was waning.

“The market was disappearing so the acreage dropped to less than 1,000 acres,” Downey said.

“The economists in Ottawa said there is no future in this crop and get rid of the program. Fortunately we had more agriculturally related minds that said this thing has real potential.”

He and breeders like Baldur Stefansson of the University of Manitoba were determined to make it a viable crop.

They eventually changed the crop from rapeseed to a low erucic acid canola, or Canadian oil.

Downey said the crop was interesting from a breeder’s perspective.

“It is a very malleable crop to work with,” he said.

“It is able to accept genetic variation very easily. You don’t get a lot of disruption in the plant growth, even though you are changing the genetics of the plant considerably.”

The early breeding programs did not have the ability to explore the plant genome to connect traits to particular genes.

Today, single genes can be manipulated to offer a wide range of agronomically stronger crops capable of producing different kinds of oil.

Downey knows this precision work is a hard sell for the public, who may not understand that nature also genetically modifies plants.

“Nature has been doing it since the world began,” he said.

For him, these genomic programs take the crop to the next level, where canola can be made more efficient with the ability to tolerate drought, insects and disease.

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