Travelers driving through the rolling hills of the Palouse this summer may have noticed more fields that glow bright yellow. The yellow blossoms belong to the canola plant, which has become a hot commodity for Eastern Washington farmers.
Canola production and planting acreage in Washington has increased steadily over the last 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2011, around 11,000 acres were planted with canola, compared to more than 118,000 acres planted in 2021. In Whitman County alone, canola acreage doubled year-to-year in 2021.
Karen Sowers, executive director of Pacific Northwest Canola, said she has seen the interest in canola grow significantly over the last few years. In her role with the canola advocacy group, Sowers helps connect potential growers with resources, whether it’s tips from longtime growers or new research from institutions like Washington State University.
“The acres have just blown up,” Sowers said. “You can see it in Whitman County where it doubled and even Spokane County just about doubled, too. There’s definitely more acres out there.”
The modern canola plant is a genetically modified descendant of the rapeseed plant developed in Canada in the late 1970s. Through selective cross-breeding, researchers significantly reduced two components found in rapeseed seeds, glucosinolates and erucic acid. The name canola stems from the plant’s history, as it is an abbreviation of “Canada oil low acid.”
Modern canola is grown for the seeds it produces, which are crushed for their oil. The oil can be used for cooking and biodiesel, depending on the processing plant, while the spent seeds – what’s left after the oil is extracted – are high in protein, and are often used for livestock feed, Sowers said.
Ian Clark is a fifth-generation farmer in the Pullman area and has been growing canola for about 10 years on his family farm he operates with his cousin and uncle. Clark said they planted about 2,500 acres with canola this year, a number that’s stayed consistent for the past four years as it’s just about all he can grow right now.
“We’re kind of maxed out,” Clark said. “So we don’t increase our acreage anymore, but I would say around us, people increase their acreage quite a bit.”
Clark said the rising popularity of canola in Washington can be attributed to a few factors. For one, farmers now have somewhere to sell their canola harvest locally.
In 2012, the largest commercial-scale canola processing facility west of the Rocky Mountains opened in Warden, Washington. Owned by Canadian agribusiness Viterra, a subsidiary of Glencore International, the crush plant is one of only two large-scale canola processing facilities in North America using expeller-press technology. This means the oil is extracted through a physical press, rather than a solvent.
The opening of the Warden crush plant was a big motivator for Clark and his neighbors to start growing canola, as well as deciding to increase his acreage. He said it is easy to get the product there, and he gets a fair price. Sowers said most of the canola processed through the Warden crush plant stays in the U.S., whether it is the cooking oil, or the meal, which has become popular among Pacific Northwest dairies that say it improves milk production in cows.
For Clark and his neighbors, canola also has become a popular rotation crop, particularly among wheat growers. Italian ryegrass has become an increasingly common and problematic weed in Eastern Washington, and since it comes from the grass family just like wheat, Clark said growers can not use herbicides that will combat the weed without killing their crop. Opting for the broad leaf canola plant as a rotation crop allows growers to spray their fields with herbicides that will knock down the ryegrass without affecting the canola plants.
“In the last two years, as Italian ryegrass has become worse on the Palouse, the oil seed market has really blown up,” Clark said.
For Dusty Walsh, who runs the 4,000-acre family farm TD Walsh Farms, Inc., in between Spokane and Deer Park, canola is primarily a rotation crop. He said his grandpa started farming in the area in the 1950s. Walsh returned to run the family farm with his dad in 2010. They have grown canola for the last five years, and have around 1,000 acres planted with canola.
“The general idea is that we use a fallow year, and then we go into winter canola, and then follow that with winter wheat,” Walsh said. “Then we’ve been doing sunflowers the year after that, and then back to fallow and then start the rotation over again.”
Walsh said adding canola into the rotation has helped them combat Italian ryegrass and disease cycles and has helped them ensure the soil has the proper nutrients plants need. The benefits of canola as a rotation crop is one of Sower’s main selling points when speaking with potential growers.
“The canola root is a tap root,” Sowers said. “Wheat, just like the grass in your yard, has a fibrous root system. Canola has that tap root that is essentially poking holes in the soil and that in turn helps with water infiltration.”
Canola has replaced garbanzo beans and other legumes on the rotation cycle for many Eastern Washington farmers, Walsh said. The market for legumes crashed dramatically a few years back, due to high production and little demand.
“The price went down pretty hard,” Walsh said. “So then the incentive to grow that wasn’t as good, so guys were looking for something else and canola was there.”
Although canola production has risen significantly over the last decade, the crop’s future in Washington remains uncertain due to climate change. Clark said canola plants, especially when they are flowering, are sensitive to heat exposure. As summers in Washington continue to get hotter, it will become harder to grow canola that yields a worthwhile amount of seeds for oil.
“As we keep getting really hot summers, canola is going to be like all of our crops in that it is going to suffer – especially if we get big heat waves like last year,” Clark said.