In 2006, the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan (CDCS) formed around a single purpose: to gain approval for the use of canaryseed for human consumption. Checkoff dollars and government programs funded extensive research led by food microbiologist, Carol Ann Patterson. For a decade, canaryseed was put through thousands of hours of toxicological, nutritional, and compositional tests.
In 2016, at its January 11 Annual General Meeting in Saskatoon, CDCS announced that its goal has been achieved: Canada Health has recognized hairless (glabrous) canaryseed varieties, both brown and yellow, as a novel food, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now classifies canaryseed as GRAS — Generally Recognized As Safe.
Cultivated in Canada since the late 70s, this Mediterranean crop has been sold almost exclusively for birdseed to the caged bird market, which changes very little and has constrained growth. Though it will take some time for the nutritious, high protein, gluten-free cereal to make it on to people’s plates, these approvals crack open the door to a new era.
Canada is the world’s top producer of canaryseed and almost all of it is grown in Saskatchewan. In the past three years, about 2,500 Saskatchewan farmers have planted canaryseed. In 2015, an estimated 149,000 tonnes of canaryseed with a farm gate value of roughly $90 million was harvested from over 300,000 acres.
It’s a volatile commodity. Since 2006, prices have ranged between 10 and 31 cents per pound. Prices don’t fluctuate because of demand but rather because of changes — or perceived changes — in supply. Canaryseed stores well so some growers hold on to it. Overproduction is possible. Lucas Sutherland, a grower near Eston and a director on the board of CDCS says, “It’s not like soybean or corn where we’re just a blip in the world market. In canaryseed and lentils, we are the market.”
Just as the CDCS intuited in 2006, there’s much to be gained by expanding canaryseed’s reach into the human food market.
What happens next?
Kevin Hursh, executive director of CDCS and a canaryseed grower, is already fielding requests from food processors who want to try out the product, but a dehulled supply won’t be available for a couple of months. Setting up food-grade facilities for dehulling will take time and attention.
Unless Oprah champions it or a major company decides they need a significant supply, the change won’t be immediate. Over the next while, food companies will be figuring out the best food applications.
Canaryseed flour is good for bread, cookies, cereals and pastas. Whole seeds can be used in nutrition bars or they can replace sesame seeds on buns. Canaryseed has a lot of potential because it is gluten free and it improves the taste and texture of gluten-free products. Unfortunately, it has a protein in common with wheat, which could affect people with wheat allergies.
While food processors and scientists are busy, what are canary-seed growers up to? They’re coping with yield variability and itchiness, and they’re trying to grow it better, in fact. There are challenges and advantages to the crop.
Sutherland likes having a different crop in his rotation. With a lot more fusarium in durum lately, canaryseed can be a good cereal option. Hursh points out that even at the current unexciting price of 25 to 26 cents/pound, the net returns this year “compete quite well with other cereals, wheat, and barley — but not durum.”
Canary seed agronomics
Bill May, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, has been working with canaryseed since the late 90s. He advises growers, both new and ongoing, to adopt good agronomic practices. Here are nine things to know about growing canaryseed.
- Seeding: Canaryseed grows best on heavy clay or clay loam and planting it is straightforward. Producers use conventional equipment with rates that vary 30 to 40 lbs./acre depending on the area. It doesn’t have to go in early, says May. “You want good seeding conditions when you’re putting it in — moisture but not mud. It doesn’t need to be too deep.”
- Moisture needs: Canaryseed tolerates early-season drought better; it’s more susceptible to late-season drought. Moisture earlier means it will tiller. Septoria leaf mottle, and later, lodging, can be problems. Canaryseed handles flooding almost, but not quite, as well as oats. There is a potential to increase yield with late season moisture. If it’s dry late in the season, seeds may not fully develop.
- Not so much nitrogen: Canaryseed doesn’t require a lot of inputs. And, May notes, once growers have developed the techniques they can usually get a reasonable profit out of the crop. Canaryseed doesn’t need a high rate of nitrogen. The recommendation is to start at 35 to 50 lbs./acre. Too much nitrogen will, Hursh says, “go into straw rather than grain production.”
- Chloride: thumbs up: But, as May’s research has shown, applying potassium chloride is key — for the chloride, not for the potassium! Chloride boosts canaryseed yields up to 30 per cent on clay loam. An application of 30 to 40 lbs./acre is recommended. Producers using a single chute seeder can broadcast potash on the surface in the spring.
- Fungi, wild oats and aphids: Producers must pencil in a fungicide treatment for septoria leaf mottle. Wild oat control can be an issue in canaryseed and Avadex — applied in the fall or spring — is the only registered product. Work is being done now to gain approval for in-crop herbicide applications. Broad leaf weeds are easily controlled in canaryseed. Growers also have to look for aphids.
- Later harvest: Canaryseed can handle the weather; unlike durum or wheat, the quality doesn’t downgrade. Sutherland harvests quality-sensitive products like lentils and durum first. May tells producers: “When your canaryseed is ready to combine, go away for a week and then come back.” It can be direct combined as normal. Producers must pay close attention to combine settings in order to avoid dehulling since hulled seeds are considered dockage.
- Straw overload: Canaryseed straw can be a pain. There can be a lot of it and it doesn’t go through the combine well. Sutherland cautions farmers — while thrashing canaryseed late in the fall can be an advantage, you might also back yourself into a corner if you can only go through it at two miles/hour.
- High yield variability: The biggest challenge with growing canaryseed is the high variability in yield. In the past five years, Sutherland has harvested as little as 650 lbs./acre and as much as 1,800 lbs./acre. The 10-year average yield in Saskatchewan is 1,000 kg/ha (900 lbs./ac). Sutherland thinks more farmers would grow it if the yields were more predictable and if there was more value. “If canaryseed was worth 40 cents/lb., the acreage would double.”
- Itchiness is awful: The traditional canaryseed has silica hair, which makes it difficult — and even risky — to handle both at the producer and processor level. Hursh describes it as a “miserable, itchy” product that you never want to have to shovel out of a flat-bottomed bin or load into a truck on a windy day.
The yield conundrum
While the itchiness is awful, the non-itchy (food approved) canary-seed varieties have lower yields.
With an eye towards gaining food approval for canaryseed, Pierre Hucl developed the first glabrous — non-hairy — varieties, starting with CDC Maria released in 2001. Despite the release of additional hairless varieties, almost two-thirds of the canaryseed grown is hairy. The older, itchy varieties yield better; the birdseed industry has never developed a premium for the glabrous.
Hucl recently developed a brown seeded non-hairy variety, CDC Calvi, that yields better than older non-hairy varieties, but still comes out at 15 per cent less than hairy varieties. Hursh acknowledges there isn’t enough incentive for producers to grow the glabrous varieties “until we can close that yield gap or we can show there’s a better price.”
The new food approval may help. Hursh has been pleased by the reaction since the January announcement. “When we look back in five years, we’ll see it was a good expenditure of government and producer money.”