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Approximately 60% of Sunburst area farmer Don Nagy canola field was in bloom earlier this month when he took this photo.

A new advisory committee for oilseeds met for the first time June 18, via Zoom, to begin the work of creating a checkoff that will fund research, marketing, and advocacy for six oilseed crops: canola, flax, mustard, safflower, sunflower and soybeans.

The new Oilseed Advisory Committee is reflective of growing interest in oilseeds as rotational crops. The committee is organized according to the Agricultural Commodity Research and Market Development Enabling Act, which allows for producers of a certain crop to petition the Department of Agriculture to form a checkoff for a commodity grown in the state.

While oilseed acreage is still dwarfed by cereal grains such as barley and wheat, farmers have increasingly been drawn to oilseed crops but have also been stymied by lack of close locations to sell the commodities and lack of current research.

Don Nagy, who has been raising canola on his farm east of Sunburst and Sweet Grass since 1992, said additional research dollars would fund work that could go into finding “better varieties for Montana producers, varieties that have higher yields.”

Nagy is one of five producers on the Oilseed Advisory Committee. Along with Nagy, other area producers on the committee include Casey Nickol, who farms near Shelby, and Pat Field, who farms near Dupuyer. Members of the committee applied for their positions and were appointed after submitting their applications to the Department of Agriculture.

Like Nagy, Field and Nickol speak of having success with oilseeds but also looking for easier and cheaper ways to get the commodities to market and hoping for more robust research.

 “Research would get more chances to get varieties that work in our climate,” Nickol explained. 

Montana State University agricultural researcher Dr. Patrick Carr has similar questions to Nickol. Carr also sits on the advisory committee as a research representative and is the superintendent of the Central Ag Research Center in Moccasin. According to Carr, studies on canola are underway in Moccasin and at the Western Triangle Ag Research Center in Conrad, but more research on oilseeds is needed.

Currently, Carr and his team are working on multi-year rotation study that is seeking to measure the impact of subsequent crops if canola is seeded in a field. Another study, coordinated by Simon Fordyce, is testing a hybrid variety of spring-seeded canola. Such research would be valuable to producers who are looking for answers to their questions about rotation, which varieties of crops to grow, and how to maximize yield and quality of the crop.

Future research needs to be done in testing of specific hybrids or varieties of a particular crop, and where those hybrids or varieties do best and under what conditions – including dryland versus irrigated land, seeding date, what types of seedbeds crops do best in, seeding rate, weed control, herbicide resistance, and others factors, according to Carr. He also added that the existing research on some oilseeds is old and needs to be updated.

The work Carr and other state researchers do could be funded by checkoff dollars, Carr said.

According to Andy Fjeseth, Montana Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Development and Marketing Bureau Chief, the advisory board is tasked first with determining how the checkoff will be levied. When producers bring a commodity to a point of sale, a portion of the sale will be held back to fund the committee’s work in research, marketing and education. All producers have the option of not participating, meaning the portion of the sale that would have gone to the committee’s work would be refunded back to them.

“The checkoffs are voluntary, so producers can request to get those dollars back,” said Fjeseth. “But in Montana, we’re lucky that we have a low refund rate.”

Exactly what form the checkoff takes – how much money is held back at the point of sale and how it is determined – is proposed by the members of the committee. Then, that proposal goes to a vote by state producers of the commodity. 

If producers do not approve the checkoff, the committee goes back to the drawing board to determine a different way to levy the funds or decide not to proceed. If the producers approve the proposal, the checkoff is a go. Typically, producers of a given crop are identified using Farm Service Agency data, Fjeseth said.

 “It’s an exciting thing,” Fjeseth said. “The whole idea is to pool the money and put it toward things like research, marketing and education.”

For oilseed producers and researchers, it’s already an exciting time. 

Producers have noticed an overall increase in demand for oilseeds, and prices have gone up as well. But raising oilseeds represents an interesting challenge for farmers and also help keep all their crops healthy.

 “I like it from the agronomic side for the farm,” said Field. “I try to do a three-way [rotation]: cereal grain, oilseed, and pulse crop is my goal... For my farm, it’s been a nice rotational way to help manage disease and chemicals, help rotate chemicals and all those things.”

Field has “dabbled with sunflowers and flax, and years ago we did canola,” but has found a niche with camelina, which is high in omega-3, -6, and -9. Field invested in a cold oil press several years ago to press the seeds on his farm before shipping the oil out to customers that make everything from cosmetics and soap to oil supplements for horses. 

“I’ve always been intrigued with value-adding out stuff,” Field said of the decision to invest in his own oil press. The decision has helped cultivate customers from as far away as New Zealand and is leading to more business opportunities all the time, including a new project that would produce supplements for human use.

In Shelby, Nickol has grown canola, but he knows other producers who grow flax and mustard as well. 

“Oilseed rotation really helps with your soil structure and overall soil health too. Guys are starting to see the benefits. On my own farm, it’s really made a difference,” Nickol said.

Still, Nickol says he is hoping the checkoff can indirectly lead to additional and closer locations to sell oilseeds in the future. 

“There’s only a couple places within a hundred miles to get rid of canola,” he said.

Likewise, Field, who sometimes grows sunflowers, has to get them all the way to North Dakota to sell, “so the freight kills you there,” he said.

Recently, two crushing facilities owned by Montana Specialty Mills, one in Great Falls and one in Conrad, have opened. They do not buy and process all oilseeds, however.

Producers hope the existence of the advisory committee can add momentum to the growing enthusiasm for oilseeds. Overall, seeded acres of canola in Montana are generally trending upward, with about 31,000 acres planted in 2011 to about 150,000 acres planted in 2019. But other oilseeds such as flax and mustard are also growing in popularity. Planted acres of flax went from 17,000 acres in 2011 to 99,000 in 2019, and safflower went from 14,000 acres in 2011 to 53,000 in 2019, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture. 

The next meeting of the Oilseed Advisory Committee will be Thursday, July 16, at 8:30 a.m. Email Dani Jones at danielle.jones.mt.gov for instructions on how to attend the virtual meeting.

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