December 23, 2003

SIUC Country Column Research may lead to increased canola production

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Canola could make a comeback in the heartland's fields.

"The biggest problem has been to identify winter-hardy varieties that would stand up consistently to Midwestern conditions," said Anthony W. Young, associate dean for research in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"We have just now gotten to the point where we are consistently getting good survival rates for 10 or 12 varieties. Our mission over the next few years is to increase the acreage grown."

Young heads the Midwest Regional Canola Research Program, one of six such programs set up a decade ago by the U.S. Canola Association to solve regional production problems. His region consists of 19 states -- from Michigan down to Kentucky and east to Virginia -- with scientists from SIUC, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University and Virginia State University conducting the research.

Canola, a type of rapeseed that looks like wild mustard when growing in the field, can be crushed to extract a low-fat oil or milled into livestock feed.

"There's a high demand for it, but we simply can't meet that demand -- we (in the United States) import virtually all the canola that we use," Young said.

Canola got a bad rep in this area during the late '80s and early '90s when farmers lost virtually their entire crop several years running. That won't happen again, Young believes.

"We have taken about 400 lines developed out of the Kansas State University breeding program and tested them under local conditions," he said.

"We are also taking the best of these and making crosses with some of our local varieties -- in fact, here at SIU, we're on the verge of releasing one into the national variety evaluation trials.

"With all that effort and the success we've had, we are now ready to go back to the producers and say, 'We will work with you to get the right varieties for your situation.'"

The research group is also looking to solve the market problem in the short term by forming a co-op that could ship grain to Canadian processors.

"When we get enough growers raising canola again, we may be able to process it here," Young said.

"A lot of crushers have told us they would be willing to get back into canola processing if we could get them any kind of supply. It's the old chicken-and-egg problem. If you don't have the canola, you won't have the processor. But if you don't have a processor, producers don't want to produce canola.

"That's why our big, overall objective is to see that we get producers producing canola. Growing it here would be a win-win situation."