Flax provides rotation option for Idaho farmer
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Jason Howell used to plant exclusively malt barley.
Farming in Ashton, Idaho, where many of his fields are above 5,600 feet, frost damage posed too great a risk to go with spring wheat. Any winter wheat not planted on fallow ground typically succumbed to diseases supported by continuous cereal residue.
Nowadays, however, he has a three-crop rotation, made possible by his decision three years ago to experiment with flax.
The flowering plant has been an ideal dryland fit for his challenging growing conditions. And with the combination of disease-resistant new wheat varieties and flax to break his cereal rotation, he's resumed planting winter wheat.
Based on Howell's success, Bill Meadows, owner of Mountain States Oilseeds in American Falls, is seeking to contract more flax acreage in the Ashton area, touting the crop as a price-competitive rotation option for high-elevation farms. For now, Howell remains the sole flax grower in his region.
"I tell them it's not too bad to grow and it works good, but they're kind of sitting back and watching me still," Howell said. "Right now the wheat market is going down and flax is highly competitive. Flax is right on par with what barley was this year."
In his first season, Howell planted 40 acres of flax. He's up to 240 acres this season.
"Bill (Meadows) told me I could pretty much grow what I want to grow for him," Howell said.
Howell has also found a proven method of hastening the maturity of flax for a short season. He swaths flax 10 days before harvest. Otherwise, his combine has a hard time with the crop.
Meadows pays 27 cents per pound for flax, plus a 65 cents per hundredweight transportation allowance to deliver it to American Falls. He estimates his flax sales have doubled from last year, and he'd like to contract for anther 1,000 acres. Flax oil is high in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and is often fed to chickens to improve egg nutrition or blended with dog and cat food.
"Dog and cat food mixes are the stellar point. They're probably three times what they were a year ago in terms of total pounds they want," Meadows said.
Flax yields well under irrigation and on dry land, has a deep taproot to loosen soil and leaves an ideal residue for direct tillage, Meadows added.
"It's quite adaptable to the (cool) climates they have in the Ashton and Driggs area and also the warmer climate they have in Preston," Meadows said.
He said broadleaf and grass herbicides can be used with flax, making weed control easy.
In general, Meadows said oilseed prices are 10-15 percent higher than they were last year. Yellow mustard prices are historically high at 39 cents per pound. Having neared his quota, Meadows has reduced safflower contract payments from 28 cents to 26 cents per pound.
"We do have growers that have increased their acres significantly, 25-30 percent, because they want the rotation we can offer them," Meadows said.