Existing apparel market helps get crop off the ground in Willamette Valley
By MITCH LIES
AURORA, Ore. -- A Canadian company is contracting with Oregon grass seed growers to produce a new rotation crop that is as old as the hills.
The company, Naturally Advanced Technologies of Victoria, B.C., said the Willamette Valley's temperate climate is ideal for growing flax.
Grown primarily for seed these days, flax dates back to ancient Egypt and has a history in the Willamette Valley as well. It was an Oregon staple from 1930 through 1950 when it was produced on about 20,000 acres annually. The company's interest in flax as a fiber crop could spark a revival of flax in the valley.
"The market is there for 100,000 acres right now," said Jay Nalbach, chief marketing officer for NAT.
The valley, meanwhile, needs rotation crops, said Ralph Fisher, a grass seed grower working with the company.
Naturally Advanced Technologies, a publicly traded company with an office in Portland, is hinging its hopes for success in the apparel market on a new process for turning flax into fabric, called crailar. The process turns the straw-like fibers of flax into soft, white material that is as comfortable as cotton but more absorbent and more durable, according to the company.
Because it takes minimal water and pesticides to grow flax, and less dye to color crailar flax than cotton, companies can market the material as eco-friendly, Nalbach said.
The company already has contracts with several large apparel companies, including Target, Hanes, Levi Strauss, Carhartt and Georgia Pacific, Nalbach said.
The ready market eliminates what has been the major hindrance for getting new crops off the ground in Oregon, Fisher said.
"The stumbling block when you develop a new crop or an alternative has always been: Is there a market?" Fisher said. "This time there is good evidence that the market is ahead of the production."
The crop appears to do well in the valley.
Naturally Advanced Technologies last fall contracted with Oregon State University and a grower in the south valley to experiment with the crop. Flax is thriving in both instances, Fisher said, despite a wet winter and despite the fact the flax wasn't planted until November, much later than a desired planting date.
"Flax survived the winter very well," said Dan Curry, director of seed services at OSU, who is monitoring the crop at Hyslop Farm in Corvallis. "It is about 4 to 6 inches tall, and we've had to drain the water off the field at least twice."
According to Russ Karow, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Science at OSU, flax doesn't exhibit the agronomic concerns that plague canola, a crop banned from production in much of the valley.
"There are no cross pollination concerns, no cabbage maggot concerns, which is a big issue for the root vegetable people, and not a lot of indication of white mold issues at this point," Karow said. "It removes several of the issues that have been a major concern with canola, so that would be a plus."
Ultimately, Nalbach is confident growers can harvest 4 tons of flax straw per acre in the valley with minimal inputs, and get 15 to 20 bushels of seed per acre. Flax seed is used for industrial-grade oil and bread products.
Growers might be able to double crop with flax, Fisher said, depending on how early flax can be harvested in the spring.
Asked what NAT anticipates paying for flax, Nalbach said: "Our payment terms are very favorable to the grower. You're dealing directly with us. There is no speculation. Prices are in the contract. They are guaranteed per ton, per bushel."
The company shows losses of just under $13 million over the last three years in Security and Exchange Commission filings, but Nalbach said the losses were expected.
The company ceased production of its apparel business in 2009, he said, "to focus on the opportunity at hand, which is the fiber market.
"The investors, the market and our partners are all on board that research and development will continue through this year, and revenue is just around the corner," Nalbach said.
Asked how many flax acres he foresees in Oregon's future, Nalbach said: "The sky's the limit."