A few years ago, Stuart McMillan got a call about organic canola acres in Western Canada. Considering there are 18 to 22 million acres of conventional canola across the Prairies, the caller couldn’t believe online data showing that organic canola was less than 2,000 acres.
“I was contacted by an organic data company, saying surely there must be a glitch in your data,” McMillan recalled. “To which I responded: no that’s not a glitch, that’s probably accurate.”
McMillan, who used to work as an organic inspector and now manages a 5,000-acre organic farm near Kamsack, Sask., said organic canola is a rare sight on the Prairies, scarcer than a vegetarian restaurant in rural Saskatchewan.
“As an inspector I would see one or two (canola) fields in the course of a year.”
Recent Canadian Organic Trade Association data confirms that organic canola is rare.
There were 77,870 acres of oilseeds overall on the Prairies in 2018, comprising:
- 60,645 acres of flax
- 14,058 acres of mustard
- 3,168 acres of other oilseeds
Assuming some farmers grew organic camelina, organic canola acres were likely 2,000 to 2,500.
In the 1990s, canola was a significant crop for organic farmers in Western Canada. The oilseed essentially disappeared when herbicide tolerant canola entered the market because the risk of outcrossing meant the genetically modified genes could spread to organic fields.
Organic regulations require organic canola to be seeded at least three kilometres from the nearest GM canola field to prevent outcrossing. That’s a huge buffer zone considering it’s hard to drive a mile in Saskatchewan in July without seeing a yellow field of canola.
“The (buffer) distance for corn I think is 100 metres,” McMillan said.
The buffer zone and lack of organic canola seed pushed acres to near nothing and most organic growers stopped thinking about canola.
But now, some organic growers may be willing to try the crop again.
“There was a handful of organic producers … that said herbicide tolerant canola had taken their market and wanted to fight that, but (they) were not looking for ways to adapt or co-exist,” McMillan said.
“I would say there are more (organic) producers … who are thinking, is it possible for me to crop canola as an intercrop, or a standalone crop? I would consider it, myself, this spring, even not contracted, knowing there should be demand.”
It seems like there is demand.
A number of companies sell organic canola oil on the internet and it’s available in some organic food retailers.
Highwood Crossing, an organic food business in High River, Alta., cold presses and sells organic canola oil. Demand is growing but sales are mostly local in Alberta, a company spokesperson said.
Demand is stunted because North American acreage and production is almost non-existent, said Laura Telford, organic specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.
“It’s one of those things: if you grow it, it (the market) will come,” she said. “The market isn’t there right now because nobody thinks it’s possible to (produce organic canola).”
As organic farms get larger, producers could adapt to the three km buffer zone. It might be possible to grow canola in the middle of a 5,000-acre organic farm, away from neighbouring canola fields.
Or they could grow it on patch of land that’s surrounded by trees, reducing the risk of wind drift.
Having canola as an option would be helpful because organic growers rely heavily on cereal crops. In 2018, there were 622,000 acres of organic cereals grown on the Prairies and only 78,000 acres of oilseeds.
“We are cereals dominant,” McMillan said. “We are not growing the one oilseed with the greatest competitive ability, from a weed standpoint…. We are missing a good rotational crop.”