Canola Plows New Land in Canada Prairies : Agriculture: With the lowest saturated fat content of any oil, the ‘wonder’ plant has become the darling of health food enthusiasts, and industrial uses are growing.


It’s been a long time since Canadian farmers here in Saskatchewan were caught smiling, but these days it’s nearly impossible to wipe the grins from their faces. A “wonder” plant is sweeping prairie agriculture.

The new game in town is a fragile looking little oil seed called canola, a genetically altered version of a plant with the unfortunate name of rapeseed. With the lowest saturated fat content of any oil, about 6%, canola has become the darling of health food enthusiasts, and industrial uses are growing.

The Agriculture Department expects that when farm receipts are toted up for 1994, canola will have overtaken wheat as Canada’s biggest agricultural earner.

“The crushing industry in Canada and exporters have asked us for 8 million tons,” said a gleeful Doug Sword, a canola farmer and president of the Canadian Canola Growers Assn. “We can’t supply it.”


Perhaps even better news: Canola likes cool weather. That is something Canada has plenty of. Though some canola is grown in the north-central United States and the Pacific Northwest, warmer temperatures generally make it an unsuitable crop for farmers south of the border.

Don Dowdeswell farms 3,500 acres around Pennant, a village in southwestern Saskatchewan. Growing canola in his area is very new, even scary for beginners used to more traditional crops like durum and barley.

Canola is more difficult to grow than wheat. It is more fragile, vulnerable to more diseases and pests, harder to seed and difficult to harvest. The recommendation is to plant canola in a rotation of one year in four.

Dowdeswell jumped into canola in 1992, driven to it by low wheat prices in recent years. He now has 400 acres of the yellow-flowered oil seed.


“We have been limited in the crops we thought we could grow,” Dowdeswell said over a cup of coffee on a frosty autumn morning in the office of his small seed company. “Wheat prices drop and we all wring our hands.”

This is really wheat country--the place where they take those National Geographic photos of waving fields of grain. Ironically, wheat prices are up, which may entice many farmers recently into canola back into the crop they really love. But Dowdeswell says canola is the crop of the future.

“I see canola being able to offset some of the big ups and downs in wheat. A good part of the world is getting on the health wagon and industrial uses of canola are increasing, which will make it a bit of a stabilizer for a farm operation. It’s about as exciting as grain farming can get,” he said.

Rapeseed has been around for a long time, grown in the more northerly reaches of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. Its oil was first used as a marine lubricant during World War II.


Then, about 20 years ago, Canadian researchers came up with a new rapeseed variety that could be processed into a cooking oil. They dubbed it canola--coined from the words Canadian and oil--to give it a more marketable name than rapeseed.

Canola produces seeds in a pod, similar in shape to a pea pod but about five times smaller. The seeds, like small buckshot, are crushed to obtain oil, about 40%. The remainder of the seed is processed into meal for livestock.

With 6% saturated fat, canola is comfortably ahead of corn oil at 13%, soybean oil at 15% and peanut oil at 18%.

Apart from edible oils, canola is now also used as an ingredient in cosmetics, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, inks, plasticizers and fertilizer as well as a fuel additive.


“Like one guy said, if you don’t want to eat the stuff, I’ll put it in your fuel tank,” said Sword, who farms about 2,000 acres near Unity, on the Alberta border west of Saskatoon.

Canola production is exploding in Canada. In 1994, 14.4 million acres were planted, shattering the 1993 record by 40%. The 7.39 million tons expected to be produced in 1994 is 75% more than the previous high.