west coast canola – playing with the grain

this is a happy cross-post with http://www.guidetothegood.ca because this story is cool for both audiences!  if you’re a follower of both firstly thank you!, and secondly please forgive the duplication.

Dr. Vanessa Kavanagh’s twitter handle is @NLGrainDr, and that is just a hint of how she feels about growing grain.  She shares pictures of tiny vials of Newfoundland canola oil like parents share pictures of their infant – with love and joy and hope.  She cares because she sees grain generally and growth specifically as opportunities to create and innovate in ways that will make this place a more sustainable, food secure, and healthier province.

Born to Corner Brook, this Doctor of Philosophy in agriculture is the Research Scientist for the provincial government.  She was beyond thrilled with the opportunity to apply her academic research – she earned her PhD in Plant Science at the University of Alberta – to the first canola field planted in the province, in Pasadena.  The project brought together a community of farmers, researchers, and visionaries, and all are reaping the benefits.

Cooks, bakers and salad-makers know canola oil as the Canadian cousin of rapeseed oil, lesser known is that canola is of the Brassicaceae plant family where cabbage and turnip reside.  “We knows all about cabbage and turnip,” says my mother, and if you can project the return on the pilot year, it’s no great leap to reap canola.

me in canola fieldThe first fields were seeded on Hammond Farms in May of 2016, and it was the beginning of a glorious growing season.  A few weeks later, canola plants, pollinated by the local bee population (40 hives of some of the healthiest bees in the world), yielded acres of yellow canola fields.  The height shown in the photo is just when they were getting going!  (It would have been lovely to see how Gerry Squires would have interpreted those fields – but the visual wasn’t the point in this case, it was just a good step on the journey).  Harvested produce has three forms – livestock feed, edible oil, or bio-fuel.

The livestock feed is more important to food security than might first appear:  when counting the on-island food resources we count the chickens and pigs and cows, but if their feed comes from away, which it often does, then that resource is not food secure.   The livestock food source goes hand-in-glove with the edible oil, as the livestock food pellets are the little black seeds minus oil. Canola plants share properties of all crops in that their taste is influenced by the characteristics of the soil and the weather.  So opportunities for artisan cold-pressed canola oil adds another level of local to the wave of foodie excellence that’s making sustainable not only sensible, but fashionable and healthy.

And it’s going well!  Vanessa says, “We have indeed had some great success with the canola pressing and it is almost complete!  The oil is a clear golden honey colour with a really nice flavour.”

Bio-fuel means that the harvested oil can be poured into the engine of the diesel tractor.  At the pilot scale this is not an economically wise use, it does clearly illustrate the possibilities.

Another inspiring feature of the project is that there is zero waste.  Vanessa says, “The other material outcome after processing the plant is straw, and most of that was cut up and used as bedding for cows.  The straw that wasn’t bedding is disked into the soil to add organic matter.  Nothing is wasted.”

For the canola project in 2017 Vanessa et al have 20-40 acres secured in Cormack, and she says, “Our farmers there are really looking forward to their fields of gold!   I can’t at all say that we’ve perfected the system after only one season, but we know a tremendous amount more than before and I think this year is going to be better than last.”

Dr. Vanessa Kavanagh is part of the grain research team that is looking at new ways to scale sustainable. The canola project is one of several components of the research-based cereal grain and oilseeds program, which is leading innovation in the feed and food industries.



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