Flax reaches new heights as rotation

John OÕConnell/Capital Press Martin Sanchez fills bags with ground flax seed while Luis Sanchez seals them at Mountain States Oilseeds in American Falls, Idaho.

Crops grow well at high altitudes, break disease cycles

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Wheat doesn't grow well at the high elevation where Jason Howell farms in Ashton, Idaho, leaving him with few options for rotation crops.

But he believes he may have found a winner in flax.

In Eastern Idaho this season, growers will step up production of three oilseeds that grow well in the local climate, fit ideally in rotations with more traditional crops and are fetching high prices -- flax, mustard and safflower.

Howell started with 40 acres of flax in 2010 and planted 100 acres last season. Based on his success, he intends to plant 300 acres this season.

Bill Meadows, owner of Mountain States Oilseeds in American Falls, buys all of the yields from the region's oilseed growers. Meadows said the roughly 2,000 acres of flax he's contracted this season are nearly double the 2011 acreage. Meadows said his growers will also plant 20 percent more mustard and 10 percent more safflower than last year.

"It's a good dry farm rotation to break up a straight barley on barley type of situation," Howell said of flax, adding it also left a "mellow" bed before potatoes. "It breaks up the wireworm cycle a little bit."

Howell has grown mustard for Meadows but dropped it this season, believing flax poses less risk. He noted his flax withstood a hail storm in his first year of planting it.

"From a money perspective, flax outperformed barley side by side, both irrigated and dry land," Howell said, adding input costs of flax are comparable to barley.

He acknowledged harvesting flax, which has straw that stays green and doesn't tend to cut easily, is a challenge. He's had better luck since reading advice on an Internet forum to replace guards and maintain a sharp knife on the header of his harvester.

Based on consumer demand, which has consistently risen by 20 percent each year, Meadows hopes to be contracting 20,000 to 30,000 acres of flax within a decade.

"It's got a wide variety of acceptability both in animal nutrition and human nutrition," Meadows said. "We're selling twice as much (flax) for dog food as we did last year."

For flax, chemicals are registered for spraying weeds post-emergence, making it a better direct-seeding option than mustard and safflower, Meadows said.

Growers like mustard because the chemical that makes the seed taste hot breaks down in soil to form the active ingredient in the fumigant Vapam. He advises mustard growers to plant under irrigation and flatten plants after harvesting. If they apply water and fertilizer, he said farmers should have sufficient time to grow a second volunteer crop to incorporate into the soil as "green manure."

This season, he'll have his first mustard field in the Twin Falls area.

"The growers we've had before have seen the benefits. We're seeing an expansion," Meadows said.

For next season, he intends to reintroduce garbanzo beans, which fix nitrogen into soil, to Southeast Idaho.

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