North Carolina farmers Phil McLain and John Hart are among a growing number of North Carolina growers trying their hand at a second season of rapeseed production.
So far, so good, they say.
McClain, who farms with his son Phillip near Statesville, N.C., has been growing canola for a number of years and switched recently to rapeseed. Hart, who farms near Bolton, N.C., is a long-time grain farmer and also new to rapeseed production.
Both farmers grow rapeseed, called HEAR for High Erucic Acid Rapeseed, for Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Technology Crops International (TCI). Grower Relations Manager for TCI, Jeff Riddle, says his company has been in business more than a decade.
“We work with customers to provide them with specialty oils. Once the customer determines what type oil they want, we contract a price and quantity with them. Then, we contract with farmers to grow the crop and provide help to them to grow the crop successfully and profitably.”
The company grows 15 crops worldwide. One of their largest and most successful crop ventures has been with high oleic sunflowers. In North Carolina, their primary crop is rapeseed.
Rapeseed is very similar to canola — so similar in fact that most people can’t tell the two brassica crops apart. Biologically there are a few differences, but from a production standpoint there isn’t much difference, and even the name canola is an acronym for Canadian Oil Low Acid.
Canola has about 2 percent erucic acid and rapeseed has 40-50 percent erucic acid. The acronym for North Carolina-grown rapeseed is HEAR or High Erucic Acid Rapeseed.
There is a tremendous market in the U.S. for rapeseed, used primarily for industrial use. Currently, more than 90 percent of the rapeseed used in the U.S. is imported. “We know rapeseed will be a niche market in North Carolina, but it is a highly profitable and highly sustainable market for farmers who can grow it,” Riddle says.
The price offered by TCI to growers for rapeseed is closely tied to wheat prices. For the 2010-2011 crop, and again for the 2011-2012 crop, growers are expected to net about 20 percent more for rapeseed than for wheat, according to Riddle.
More profitable than wheat
Andrew Hebard, president and CEO of Technology Crops International says, “Rapeseed generates at the farm level about $100 per acre more profit than wheat. If you put that in dollars-per-acre total revenue, we would be looking at probably $650 per acre of revenue.”
Hebard says North Carolina grown rapeseed has values of about 25 percent over canola, making it too expensive for use as a feedstock or for fuel manufacture. The higher value comes from demand for rapeseed oil as an ingredient for various synthetic processes, he explains.
Oil from the North Carolina grown rapeseed is being used in the manufacture of polymers, petroleum additives, pharmaceuticals, foods and personal-care products. A derivative of the oil is used in the manufacturing process for almost all plastic bags.
“North Carolina is our demand area for growing the crop. That is where we are trying to encourage farmers to grow rapeseed, and, hopefully, make North Carolina the largest production region of rapeseed in North America, Hebard stresses.
North Carolina is the largest grain producing state east of the Mississippi River, but remains a protein deficient state, due to large poultry, beef and swine industries. In addition to the oil value of rapeseed, the crop also produces a highly desirable feed product for the state’s poultry industry. All the protein by-product produced from North Carolina grown rapeseed will be consumed by the state’s livestock industry. Keeping rapeseed meal in North Carolina retains dollars in the state and reduces freight costs for producers, who typically bring grain from the Midwest to feed their animals.
Pantego, N.C., farmer Buster Manning typically grows 800 acres or so of wheat. This year he is planting more than 60 acres of rapeseed in side-by-side testing with wheat.
“Obviously we always are looking at alternative or new crops,” Manning says. “Everything you look at does not always work. This one looks like it has potential. The contract prices that Technology Crops International is offering are fairly attractive.”
Manning says getting enough yield from rapeseed on the black soils of eastern North Carolina is a big concern.
Rossini is a rapeseed variety developed for use in North America and the variety of choice for TCI. In tests across North Carolina the past two growing seasons it has produced 15-20 percent higher yields than canola, or about 2,200 to 3,200 pounds per acre.
“Rapeseed is a brassica crop and typically this family of plants needs space to grow. If it’s planted too close together, each plant typically produces a single stem, which is loaded with seed. If given proper row and plant spacing and planted at 3 pounds of seed per acre, the newer hybrids will develop ‘side-arms’ or additional shoots that produce more seed,” Riddle says.
Row spacing important
The best success in North Carolina has come from using 7-23-inch wide rows. Planting much wider than 30 inches will cause yields to drop off. If you plant at higher seeding rates and closer row spacing, the plants will not only yield less, but they also will grow taller and be more prone to lodging problems.
Rapeseed in North Carolina is ideally planted 4-6 weeks prior to the first killing frost, usually late September until mid-October. It is harvested a week or so earlier than wheat, providing an ideal double-crop opportunity for soybeans.
Since it is a brassica crop, it also has a whole different set of disease, insect and weed pests, though all have been relatively minor is three years of testing in North Carolina.
The agronomic impact is to provide a different and better environment for double-crops, like soybeans. The additional few days of earliness of rapeseed gives growers an opportunity to get soybeans in earlier, which typically adds a few bushels per acre in addition to any agronomic benefits.
The old adage goes, “If it swims in water, waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck’ doesn’t fit with canola and rapeseed. The two crops look identical and that can be a problem for growers.
As part of their agreement with growers, TCI requires that rapeseed be separated at least 50 yards from canola. Avoiding cross-contamination of seed is a big concern, but one that current contract farmers in North Carolina have not found to be a big problem.
Another concern for growers has been the availability of local delivery of the crop once it is grown. In August, 2011 TCI entered into an agreement with Perdue Agribusiness, which will make it significantly more convenient to deliver rapeseed.
Unlike wheat, HEAR is grown under contract, so farmers have the assurance that all the rapeseed they grow will be purchased. TCI supplies the seed, agronomic assistance and purchases the end crop from growers. Perdue provides storage and processing.
"We are proud to partner with the experts at TCI because they have a proven track record of success in delivering premium specialty oils to the marketplace. This is a great opportunity, not only for agriculture in North Carolina, but for the state's economy as a whole," says Dick Willey, president, Perdue AgriBusiness.
The first year of production with Perdue has been successful enough that both companies are negotiating to put together a three-year plan that promises to add even more stability for farmers in the eastern part of North Carolina.
“We are looking for win/win situations in which our company can make money, farmers can make money, and keep the crop sustainable for both of us,” Riddle concludes.
(In South Carolina flax is starting to make some inroads in competition with the more traditional wheat acreage and a growing area of canola. To see that story, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/blog/winter-crop-competition-heating-south-carolina . To see why canola is making inroads, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/grains/canola-good-winter-crop-option-southeast  and http://southeastfarmpress.com/markets/canola-plant-spurs-interest-south-carolina-growers ).