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New special crops round-up

Hemp, quinoa, fababeans, camelina, hairy vetch, carinata and guar bean. Get the inside scoop

Some farmers love growing the latest “new” crop. Others drive by them in their neighbours’ fields and wonder what they are.

There is no definitive list of “special” crops. Many crops we think of as “new” are actually very old. Some that are “special” in one area are standard in another.

This is not an exhaustive list of special crops that Prairie farmers have been growing in recent years, just a run down on some of the crops you might be running into down your gravel road. Some on this list will seem like old news to you. Maybe there are some on your “maybe I should seed this” list for 2015 (see link to Gallery below).

Hemp

Hemp is of course famous, or infamous, for its resemblance to Cannabis, the drug. Hemp is part of the Cannabis family, however, it produces little or none of the drug its cousins are known for. Hemp has deep roots in Canadian agriculture (it goes back to 1606), and has been used for both food and fibre.

Health Canada has strictly regulated commercial hemp production since 1994. By 2013 there were 66,671 acres licensed for cultivation. Health Canada does not release the numbers until after harvest, so 2014 acres are not yet known, but some believe there could have been more than 100,000 acres in 2014.

Hemp seed is very nutritious, considered by some to be one of the so-called “superfoods.” It contains all nine essential amino acids, both omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids and is also high in magnesium, iron, potassium, fibre and a variety of antioxidants and phytochemicals. We see a range of hemp products in the store, including things such as Hemp Hearts (packaged raw, shelled hemp seeds), nutrient bars, dips, salad dressings and more.

Hemp is seeded mid-May to mid-June at 25 to 35 pounds per acre. Bin run seed is not permitted by federal regulations. Hemp requires about 110 days to mature.

The key to getting hemp off to a good start is to seed it into a clean, firm seedbed that has been pre-tilled or sprayed. Hemp does not like wet feet. Once emerged, hemp is a very competitive crop that quickly forms a dense canopy choking out weeds. At maturity, it reaches five to eight feet in height. Industrial hemp can be straight cut with a draper header and the newer varieties are much easier to thresh than in the past. After harvest, it requires drying to nine per cent moisture for storage.

Quinoa

According to Saskatchewan Agriculture special crops specialist Dale Rizula, quinoa is going off the charts. “Ever since quinoa was featured on Oprah, its popularity has grown,” says Rizula. “That very public clap-on-the-back to quinoa was all consumers needed to jump on the band wagon, and farmers are winners in that it provides them another crop in the rotation.”

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is often referred to as an ancient grain, but it is really a species of goosefoot, not a true grass. It is more closely related to beets, spinach and tumbleweed than to wheat. It is high in protein, has no gluten and performs well on dry soils. As for taste, some rave about its great taste and others liken it to sawdust.

Quinoa was originally cultivated by the Inca in South America, high up in the Andes, and was considered sacred, but now is cultivated in many areas of North America. It works in many areas of the Prairies, but especially in areas where heat stress in the summer is less likely.

Jeff Kostuik is a diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and he is seeing more interest than usual in quinoa. “We started dabbling in quinoa as a demonstration crop in 1997,” says Kostuik. “Recently, interest has definitely picked up giving this niche crop quite a boost. Pricing has gone from 20 to 30 cents per pound to 75 cents per pound.”

Along with this increased demand and higher pricing, there is some quinoa breeding on-going at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to develop varieties better suited to Prairie production.

NorQuin is a processor in Saskatoon that specializes in Canadian grown quinoa and is the only contracting agent on the Prairies for the crop. Find more information about NorQuin online at www.quinoa.com.

Fababeans

Fababeans are grown for both human and animal food markets. The human food market is primarily in the Middle East and Mediterranean area where fababeans are a traditional part of the diet. The human consumption fababean is often referred to as a tannin faba, whereas a zero-tannin or low-tannin faba is required in the animal feed market.

Fababean is a smaller seeded relative of the Chinese broadbean, but it is a large bean. They require a long growing season, 110 to 130 days, to achieve their maximum potential yield. The plant has an upright growth habit and can reach up to almost five feet. It can make an excellent silage for both beef and dairy cattle. The seed is high in protein and can replace soybeans in the ration.

Fababean does best in agricultural areas that receive good moisture and are relatively cool. Much like quinoa, it does not like heat, especially combined with dry conditions. It is a good option for irrigation. It is the most efficient nitrogen-fixing legume available in Western Canada and can be very useful in the rotation to break various pest cycles.

Camelina

Camelina, or False Flax, has become an oilseed of interest on the Prairies primarily driven by the bio-diesel industry. It can also be used in fish feed, human consumption oils and bio-lubricants. It has very a very stable oil with high levels of omega-3 essential fatty acid and Vitamin E.

There was a high level of interest in 2005-06, when camelina acres peaked, in using camelina in jet fuel. A U.S. company received U.S. military funding to take this project further, but when some U.S. and Canadian farmers didn’t receive any or all of what was owed to them, they were left with a bad taste.

Since then, Three Farmers, a farmer-owned food company in Midale, Saskatchewan has been producing camelina oil and marketing it nationwide.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada also has a joint Camelina breeding program with Linnaeus Plant Sciences Inc. out of Saskatoon. The goal of this program is to breed for qualities that suit industrial oil markets like lubricants, motor oils, hydraulic fluids and polymers including increased oil content and larger seed size.

Camelina is a member of the Brassicaceae family. It’s an annual or winter annual, short-season crop. It responds similarly to Polish canola and mustard and yields somewhat similarly too. Research in Saskatchewan shows that it might be possible to seed camelina in the fall, but further study is needed.

Hairy vetch

Hairy vetch is a nitrogen-fixing legume native to Europe and Western Asia. This new crop is a favourite of Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Melita, Manitoba. “Hairy vetch is impressive because it doesn’t compete with other crops for resources,” explains Chalmers. “It can be successfully double-cropped or intercropped with winter wheat or sunflowers to choke out weeds and fix nitrogen.” Chalmers also noted that hairy vetch appears to share nitrogen with the companion crop through root rhizosphere exudate associations.

Hairy vetch needs to be planted in the fall if it is to produce seed the following year; it will only produce vegetative growth if planted in spring. Chalmers is doing trials intercropping hairy vetch with sunflowers. “So far, it appears to be neutral to profits even taking into account the price of the seed,” says Chalmers. “What was really interesting was that it left 60 pounds of nitrogen in the soil versus only 12 pounds in the sunflowers-only plot.” Chalmers is also looking at the potential to produce hairy vetch seed in a winter wheat crop. “We need to understand if we can support a hairy vetch seed industry in Manitoba,” says Chalmers. “It looks at this point as if we can, and very profitably as well.”

The vegetative growth can be hayed or ensiled just like alfalfa, but the seed can be toxic to animals.

“There’s more research to be done with hairy vetch,” says Chalmers. “At this point, it does look like it has a good fit in a number of situations. We think it will work very well for organic producers as well.”

Carinata

Brassica carinata is an Ethiopian mustard that can grow on marginal lands and is finding a use in bio-fuels because of its high oil content. Agrisoma Biosciences is commercializing carinata for use in jet fuel. The first flight using jet fuel produced from carinata occurred in 2012 and research and development continues. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has a carinata breeding program with the goal of improving yield, disease resistance and other factors to make it successful for Prairie farmers.

Carinata agronomy is similar to that of canola and mustard making it a relatively easy crop to adopt into the rotation. It is well suited to those areas of southwest Saskatchewan and southern Alberta where canola is not a reliable performer. An important distinction between carinata and canola that may have greater importance in the future is the fact carinata is immune to blackleg and clubroot.

Guar bean

Sometimes a crop comes along that just doesn’t work… maybe more often than not. Guar bean is one of those. Just as consumer demands for healthy foods can drive production, so too can industrial demand.

The fracking oil industry uses guar gum extensively — the guar gum turns water into a very thick, viscous gel. Pumping high viscosity water down a well fractures the subsurface rock and releases the oil and natural gas trapped there. Additionally, sand is mixed with the high viscosity water and gets pumped into the fractures. When the pumping is stopped, the sand grains, known as proppants in the fracking world, hold open the tiny fractures in the rock and allow the oil and gas to continue to flow out of the rock and into the well.

Guar beans are annual legumes that are grown in India and Pakistan, and more recently, Texas. It’s a long season crop suited to hot, dry climates. Diversification specialists tried growing guar bean obtained from Texas in Manitoba — with spectacularly unsuccessful results. The seeds took three weeks to emerge and then remained in the cotyledon stage for three weeks. Six weeks later hardly a plant could be found among the mess of weeds that proliferated. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that Prairie farmers will be able to supply the fracking industry with the guar gum they so desperately need, but it’s interesting to understand how new crops can come to be tested for Prairie production.

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