McMillan: Prairie flax acres rise, shift

It may have fallen short of the initial estimates for this year, but flax has seen its first increase in acreage since 2010.

Initial estimates by Statistics Canada in its April seeding intentions repor saw farmers indicate they may seed 1.24 million acres. However, based on the June 25 Field Crop Reporting Series from Statistics Canada, 1.14 million acres were sown.

Earlier in the season there was some concern that an anticipated increase in acreage — combined with industry efforts to remove any remaining traces of Triffid genetics from the seed supply — would lead to shortages of seed. In the end there was strong demand for certified seed, but no shortfall in supply.

The June report also showed the majority of acres were sown in Saskatchewan. Until the late 1990s, the majority of acres were found in Manitoba, but according to the June report, Manitoba flax acres continued their free fall. StatsCan reported the area seeded in Manitoba to flax at 85,000 acres, the lowest since 1939.

Some in the industry are not so certain about the accuracy of that estimate. “Based on conversations we have been having with seed dealers they have seen more flax seed sales than the past few years.” said Anastasia Kubinec, oilseed specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives at Carman, Man.

Additionally, she had not heard of significant returns of flax seed from farmers back to dealers. Her discussions with flax industry participants suggest between 120,000 and 150,000 acres will be seeded in Manitoba this year.

A few thoughts have been put forward to explain the shift in flax acres. William Hill, president of the Flax Council of Canada in Winnipeg, said producers in Manitoba have a lot of crop choices currently, with some of the flax acres lost to corn and soybeans. As one moves further west, the number of potential crops declines.

Hotter weather in recent years has also hit flax yields harder in the east, and left some growers uncertain about the performance of flax relative to other crops.

Plus, in past years, the majority of flax exports were going to Europe out of ports in the East. “Now the majority of offshore exports are going to China, via Vancouver,” Hill said. “This provides Saskatchewan and Alberta growers a freight advantage for the Chinese market compared to Manitoba.”

Year-to-date flax exports have been ahead of the previous year, with sales moving into China, U.S. and Europe. “The demand side is good for both industrial and food use” Hill explained.

Part of the increase in Chinese demand is driven by the same factors elsewhere. “There is a growing demand for heart healthy oils in China and other Asian countries.”

Hill felt another area of strong opportunity was in India, where there is demand for omega fatty acids, but with a significant vegetarian population, fish oils were not suitable.

Chinese demand was also being driven by the industrial sector, as the country has a huge existing infrastructure for transforming industrial oils.

Elevator prices for flax over the winter and spring have been strong. In response, farmers have been moving out old-crop inventory. Kubinec felt all of the signals were there for farmers to sow more flax this year.

“I am not willing to say Manitoba acres will never return. I don’t think we will see Manitoba to go back to the point where they have 40 to 50 per cent of acres,” Hill said, but added “it would not surprise me to see some growth in the next few years.”

The Flax Council, in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan and SeCan, continues its work to rid the Canadian flax system of Triffid. They plan to relaunch four CDC varieties in 2014 and testing to date has found 100 per cent of this new breeder-level seed free of Triffid contamination.

Triffid, genetically-modified (GM) flax variety bred in Saskatchewan in the 1990s, was deregistered in 2001 and was never commercialized, as the flax industry feared losing access to Europe if a GM flax were introduced.

But several countries closed their ports to Canadian flax in 2009 after a number of samples tested positive for markers of Triffid, which were soon found to have made their way into some breeder seed.

— Stuart McMillan writes from Winnipeg on weather and agronomic issues affecting Prairie farmers.

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