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Flax: What’s old is new again

Fibrevolution aims to bring fiber flax back to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

By Margarett Waterbury

For the Capital Press

Published on May 17, 2018 9:21AM

Last changed on May 21, 2018 1:39PM

Shannon Welsh hand-pulls fiber flax from a test plot. Pulling rather than cutting or combining helps preserve the entire length of the fibers, increasing their quality.

Courtesy of John Morgan

Shannon Welsh hand-pulls fiber flax from a test plot. Pulling rather than cutting or combining helps preserve the entire length of the fibers, increasing their quality.

Alvin Ulrich evaluates historic linen samples made from Oregon-grown flax at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Ore.

Margarett Waterbury/For the Capital Press

Alvin Ulrich evaluates historic linen samples made from Oregon-grown flax at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Ore.


SALEM, Ore. — Over the past 70 years, fiber flax, once a major crop in the Willamette Valley, has virtually vanished from Oregon. But a new initiative called Fibrevolution aims to revive this once-thriving industry and bring fiber flax cultivation back to the Northwest.

Headed by farmer Angela Wartes-Kahl and textile designer and nonprofit leader Shannon Welsh, Fibrevolution is a new company allied with Fibershed, a nonprofit that supports local fiber production. Wartes-Kahl and Welsh have partnered with Oregon State University and Ralph Fisher of Fisher Farms in Sublimity, Ore., to explore the idea of reviving Oregon fiber flax, with the ultimate goal of establishing a regional long line flax processing center and positioning Oregon as a new center for sustainable textiles.

Why go to the trouble to revive a moribund industry? Interest in natural fibers is growing. Consumers are becoming more aware of the waste associated with the “fast fashion” textile industry, and companies are seeking new ways to demonstrate a commitment to waste reduction.

“Starting around 2008 or 2009, everyone in the textile industry started talking about sustainability,” said Welsh. “Designers, fashion brands, even companies like Columbia were starting to think, wow, this system we have is just insane.”

For farmers, flax has appealing versatility and fits well within grass seed or grain rotations. Its byproducts can also be commercialized. Tow, the short or broken fibers produced during long line processing, is demanded by the plastics industry and has potential for building insulation.

Last year, the team grew just over four acres of fiber flax on multiple test plots in the Willamette Valley. Because no harvesting equipment was available, they pulled and processed the entire crop by hand — not a viable option for a commercial grower, but a good way to get a sense of the crop’s potential in Oregon. Alvin Ulrich, president of Biolin Research and a longtime consultant to the natural fiber industry, evaluated the team’s 2017 crop and deemed its quality excellent.

This year, Fibrevolution is working to eliminate the major agronomic barriers to fiber flax: low seed supply and the lack of harvesting and processing equipment.

OSU breeder Jennifer Kling is launching a full fiber flax trial at OSU’s Lewis Brown Research Farm to compare irrigated and non-irrigated crops. At Common Treasury, Wartes-Kahl’s farm in Alsea, Ore., a plot is designated for testing field-retting (an in-field processing technique) and fiber quality. Welsh is developing fiber flax workshops in conjunction with GeerCrest Farm in Salem, Ore., including a demonstration garden.

In June 2018, Wartes-Kahl and Welsh are planning a trip to Belgium and France (two areas known for fiber flax cultivation) to meet with seed companies, observe the harvest and processing machinery, and visit a flax farm cooperative.

Harvesting equipment remains a significant issue for Northwest growers. Top quality fiber flax is pulled rather than cut or combined, which preserves the full length of the flax fibers. Mechanical pullers exist, but they’re nearly nonexistent in the U.S. The only pieces of machinery Wartes-Kahl and Welsh have been able to find are historic flax pullers that are no longer functional.

Fisher will grow approximately 18 acres of flax during the 2018 season at his farm in Sublimity. He says fiber flax is well-suited to western Oregon’s climate, and an appealing alternative crop for commodity growers.

“You look back on the historical data, and in 1920, we had the best flax in the world,” says Fisher. “I think we can do it again.”

Fisher says he’s seen other efforts to revive fiber flax fail, but he thinks this time may be different.

“Past times, the crop was grower driven, but this time, it looks more like the supply side is asking to grow flax,” says Fisher. “I don’t know what the potential is, whether it’s 200 acres or 20,000 acres, but I think we need to understand the supply side and what the supply wants, and see if we can make it agronomically feasible.”

Online

For more information about Fibrevolution or Oregon flax, visit www.fibre-evolution.com



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