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Monday, May 7, 2012

Canola? Dale Can…

field of golden c“…through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”

[the night preceding the funeral of Jose Arcadio Buendia, beloved patriarch and founder of Macondo]

One Hundred Years of  Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Maybe they were canola flowers….

Drivers crossing the Lewis Street Bridge might be tempted to reach for their sunglasses when they glance east up the south riverbank toward the mountains. A splash of tropical sunshine, as if someone had taken a giant paintbrush and daubed the landscape a brilliant yellow, bathes the riverbank. It’s a wonder drivers don’t cause “gaper’s block” as they slow to take in the spectacle; or rear end other drivers who abruptly flip on their left turn signals to turn down the side road for a chance to photograph the four acre swatch. It is a yellow found only in nature; there’s no such thing as a Crayola “canola yellow.”

Dale Reiner likes to talk; he especially likes to talk about farming. I called him the other evening, and we talked for over an hour about canola, the crop now yellowing his four acre parcel of riverbank.

Canola, along with its cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale cousins, is a biennial belonging to the plant family Brassica. The mustard plant, the same whose seeds you find in the spice section at the grocery store, is a near relative as well. When it seeds, a canola stalk produces hundreds of slender, finger-like pods, each, when mature, contains several 1-2mm seeds.C Before The seeds are harvested for their oil content which is pressed from the seed. Canola oil may find its way to your kitchen or into the gas tank of your diesel-powered vehicle. (That canola is a valued source of bio-diesel fuels proves its high demand and further explains its higher cost as a food product in the supermarket.)Brassica seed pods

A half dozen years ago, Dale continues, Snohomish County in cooperation with five County farmers, funded by some Federal grant money, embarked on a feasibility study of canola as a County cash crop. Reiner was one of the five. Canola’s appeal to Dale is its two season productivity: first season, a silage crop; seed crop the second. (Reiner is even mulling over the possibility of double cropping canola and field corn.) Because canola is a biennial plant, its first season yield is primarily leaf matter, vegetable material. Summer and fall of Year 1, the plant can be chopped for silage like pasture grass every thirty days. During the winter months surface growth slows but our temperate climate allows canola’s root system to flourish and store the nutrition that come the following summer, produces vigorous stalks, an abundance of blossoms (plus the current virtual study in yellow) which seed out into hundreds of thousands of pods of oil-producing seed, doubling one crop for the farmer’s effort.field of yellow

In the fall I have shelled out the seed from my summer garden broccoli plants and wonder at the ability of a machine harvester to separate these miniscule 1-2mm seed from pods and stalk. Modern combines, Dale replies, can be calibrated to separate just about any seed or grain crop (according to Reiner, even sunflower seeds). It took a bit of experimenting to find the most efficient way to harvest the seed. Combine and header were used at first, but because of canola’s numerous side bracts, too much seed was lost or knocked to the ground. Dale decided to cut the field with a side swather first, rake the stalks into windrows, and then combine the downed stalks.

I’m curious about harvest time in our short season, rainy climate. Seed maturity needs to be closely monitored. When the majority of seed pods present brown or black seeds, the field is ready for harvest. Doesn’t our typically rainy Octobers make harvest difficult? Certainly, Dale replies: our climate has its special challenges for canola. Isn’t it easier to produce grain or seed in a drier, arid climate like Eastern Washington? It’s all our annual moisture, I’m surprised to learn, that makes Snohomish County ideal for the biennial plant.mellow yellow As earlier mentioned, our mild winters allow canola’s root system to grow and flourish. Not so in arid regions where single season crops are the rule. Dale tells me Eastern Washington canola yields average 1,500 pounds of seed an acre whereas in our County the yields per acre ranged from 2,500 to 3,000 pounds. What about marketing, I ask Dale. I learn the first seed crop was transported to Hermiston, Oregon, but most of that season’s crop went to waste: the seed hadn’t been properly cured (dried) and most of it sprouted. For the portion of the crop that was salvaged, Dale tells me he was paid thirteen cents per pound. The second crop sold for fourteen cents. Today’s going price for a pound of canola is double that: a whopping twenty-eight cents a pound. Reiner continues, explains how the County and the Canola Cooperative with the aid of grant monies, built a seed/grain drier on the old Cathcart landfill. Methane is collected from the fermenting site and used to fuel the drier which now serves the County growers. Curing the seed eliminates premature sprouting and preserves the crop.

For your information, that four acre splash of yellow will not be harvested. “Not cost effective,” Reiner says. “By the time you figure in the cost of harvesting—machinery, marketing expenses, fuel—I’d lose money on the deal. Now if more acreage were involved, it might be worth it.” Equally interesting is the fact the field of yellow is all volunteer; Dale did not sow a single seed of it. What a crop, that canola! Not only does it yield two crops in consecutive years, but it seeds itself as well!Closer inspection (Dale cites some figures: it only takes three pounds of seed to plant one acre. For a 2,500-3,000 pound yield, that’s a tremendous return on your capital.) Because of canola’s propensity for self-seeding, no canola crop is allowed north of a certain point in Snohomish County. Fears that it might hybridize with other Brassica seed crops in Skagit County restricts the crop to certain areas of our County.

Reiner shares that cropping canola has yet another advantage. Because of its long root system and profuse vegetation, a crop of canola plowed under can rejuvenate over-cropped farmland, replenish the nutriments in depleted soil. When I ask Dale what’s the future of canola for him, he says the five farm cooperative has learned a lot about the crop, and as he’s a firm believer in diversified cropping, canola continues to be among the crops in his inventory.                  

For a storyteller like Dale, it’s no surprise he has a canola story or two. He chuckles as he tells about trying to “shrink wrap” his first silage canola, put up the crop in those white plastic pasture muffins you often see in County hayfields. The crop was so full of moisture, the resulting bale was like a giant water balloon; when Dale tried to pick it up and transport it, the bale slipped off the forks like a waterbed mattress. “We only baled two,” Dale laughs, “and left the rest of it in the field to compost.” One sunny weekend day when the field was bursting with color, Dale drove down to tend to his cattle. He was surprised to see an entire Hispanic wedding party using his four acres of sunshine as a backdrop for their wedding pictures: a white wedding gown against a field of yellow! Canola…now there’s an original wedding flower for your future bride!

In gathering material for this post, I learned something else. While I was visiting Reiner’s field, taking pictures for my blog , I picked a blooming flower spike and took it with me. The flower buds and four-petal flowers seemed familiar and I wanted to do a floral comparison. My last summer’s crop of collard greens wintered over and is now in bloom. The buds, flower spikes, and blossoms are identical to the sprig of canola blossoms from the riverbank acreage. A little research tells me why. Collards are Brassicas, too, a near cousin to canola. Can you tell which is collard, which canola?Brassica blooms

Canola blossoms

(Canola on the right.)





The Skagit County may boast tulip fields but Tualco Valley has its own floral spectacle: canola…and just right up the road.

Dale said the yellow bloom is waning. The golden petals will sift down, leaving nothing but nondescript green stalks flush with pods. If you are planning a wedding and want your wedding album to spotlight you and your blushing bride silhouetted against a field of flowers so yellow it hurts your eyes, I wouldn’t wait till June; by then you might as well pose next to a cow pasture. Every day I drive by Reiner’s field, the yellow seems more pastel, more washed out, less and less a spectacle. If you wish a photo op, it fades away day by day, for as Robert Frost observed, “Nothing gold can stay.”visiting collards

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