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What to do with that flax straw

Many farmers think flax looks good this year. The downside? All that straw

If you’re already growing flax as a part of your rotation, or you’re thinking of starting to include flax at your farm, you might already know that the flax seed market is good. But, the question always comes up: what can be done with the straw? Often flax straw is seen as a waste product that is burned after harvest, but there are some markets for it, especially if it is good quality. Here’s what you need to know if you want to grow flax and sell the straw.

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“Just like any other crop,” says Wayne Thompson, executive director of the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission (SaskFlax), “flax should be planted earlier to give the crop more time to produce yields, and get seeds set and matured before the first frost.” On the plus side for flax, it has a strong straw and therefore you have some flexibility when harvesting it, says Thompson. The straw doesn’t rot as quickly or as easily as wheat, barley, or even canola, so you have a longer window come harvest time. If you can’t harvest flax right away, you can come back to it a few weeks after your other crops and it’ll still be standing.

Roughly 800,000 tonnes of flax was produced in Western Canada in 2014. The current flax seed market is strong, even with increased production over the last couple of years. “Prices for seed are remaining good and reasonable, there’s significant demand on the industrial and feed sides, in pet food, and the human consumption side is growing as well,” says Thompson.

Though there are many uses for processed flax straw — in Europe, for example, they grow flax mostly for the straw and use the processed fibre in woven materials, paper, and so on — it is a still a bit of a struggle on the straw side of the flax market here. Part of this has to do with transportation costs if processing plants aren’t close to farmers. But there are companies in Western Canada that buy flax straw — SWM in Winkler, Man., for example, has bought the most flax straw over the past couple of years, volume-wise, says Thompson. They use almost all of the processed fibre for cigarette paper. SWM didn’t buy much flax straw in 2014, but that was because they had enough supply from the previous two autumns.

New uses for flax straw

There are other companies researching how to further develop the flax straw market here. For example, mats (made of natural material like flax straw) have been proposed as a form of natural erosion control for use in ditches at the sides of roads. Flax straw can also be used for animal bedding and duck nesting, straw-bale buildings, insulation and so on.

As it stands now, if you’re already growing flax for the seed market, the money you make from the straw will likely just be that little bit of extra income, provided you can secure a buyer (more likely if you’re closer to a processing plant) and, importantly, if you take the extra steps to ensure that your straw is good quality.

Biolin Processing, a small flax straw processing plant outside of Saskatoon whose mission “is to utilize 100 per cent of the flax straw for commercial end uses so that the straw, traditionally burned or chopped in the fields by farmers, becomes a viable and profitable product, completing the natural recycle circle,” is headed by Alvin Ulrich.

Ulrich has several suggestions for keeping flax straw high quality. “For all end uses, people don’t want weedy straw,” says Ulrich, “that’s the single biggest thing to consider. For specialty end uses, like cigarette paper, they don’t want any plastics (i.e. twine), or any litter. Stony fields can be a problem because stones can end up in the processing machines.”

Certain processing plants have specific requirements. For Biolin’s purposes, they want taller straw, straw that’s not been damaged too much through a combine (or straw hasn’t gone through a combine at all), as well as straw that has been retted. Biolin hasn’t bought much straw to date because they started as a research facility for higher end uses, but this coming fall they might buy 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes, which they will process and sell to buyers who want good quality fibre. At this point, Biolin is trying to scale up so they can provide fibre to interested parties. Some companies they are connected with are looking to using flax fibre to replace the fiberglass used in plastics, says Ulrich, others are looking to use it in mats, as mentioned above, or even replacing some of the plastic-based mats used in cars.

“Think long beforehand,” says Ulrich, if you want to do something with your flax straw, and make sure you know what markets are close to your farm that might be interested in your straw, what kind of flax straw they are looking for, and whether you’re able to provide it. Don’t look for a use after harvest, emphasizes Ulrich, start looking for uses now.

For example, maybe there is someone who would buy little square bales of flax straw — but you need to know that in advance so you can find someone with a little square baler to bale it. Or, if you contact potential buyers in the spring, they could provide you with more information and ask questions like, “Could you harvest the straw in a different way? Could you hire someone to cut it or rake it?” This kind of conversation can be fruitful for both parties. “If you call me in October, and there’s going to be snow next week, nothing much is going to happen.”

Putting a dollar amount on flax straw is very difficult too, says Thompson, because right now, “it’s up to the buyer to determine the price, because they know what they’re looking for, they know what their market is. There isn’t a general market for straw in Western Canada right now. If you’re close to the plant, then yes they’ll pay you; if you’re far from the plant, good luck.”

It’s safe to say that the flax straw market is still only emerging in Western Canada, though Thompson emphasizes that there is lots of research going on behind the scenes to develop the market and there is potential.

“In the future we will probably have people planting flax just for fibre — that could be quite viable,” agrees Ulrich, but “you’d have to think about it as a fibre crop. And you have to think ahead of time.”

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