Grown for centuries, flax has been a source of feed and food. In recent history the popularity of the small grain has been in decline. In 1996, farmers in North Dakota, where 95% of the U.S. crop is grown, planted only 90-thousand acres. But since that time the number of acres has skyrocketed. In 2001, 546-thousand acres of North Dakota cropland were devoted to flax.
The reason for the increase, as David Miller found last autumn, is the oilseed's value as a good rotation crop, its eligibility for Government subsidies, and its documented health benefits.
Jan Topp, of Grace City, North Dakota is pulling in her family's part of the unusually large 2001 flax crop. But Topp's role in the Peace Garden state's flax-boom is greater than just the 800 acres she and her husband planted. Topp, who is also a nurse at a nearby hospital, sits on the North Dakota Oilseed Council as the representative for North Dakota flax growers. She is well aware that one of the big reasons for the increase in the number of acres of the commodity crop are the government subsidies available like Loan Deficiency Payments, or L-D-P.
Jan Topp, North Dakota Oilseed Council: "Because of the LDP program which also increases your baseline income, net income for the farmer, that is why the flax acres are increasing. We also see the increased awareness of the health benefits of flax in some of the projects and studies that we're doing."
65% of the crop produced in the U.S. goes for industrial uses like linseed oil. But Topp knows the only way to get farmers to continue to take advantage of the benefits to both humans and the land is to find ways to increase consumption before Government assistance is no longer offered. As her second three-year appointment on the Council begins, she is directing check-off dollars paid by flax growers to cultivate more consumers. As part of her plan, she received approval to launch a marketing agency at the beginning of 2001 under the name Ameriflax.
Jan Topp, Ameriflax: "That's our main job at AmeriFlax is to help the producer gain more money for their crop and by increasing awareness and increasing demand we are hopefully able for the producer to ultimately see an increase in their revenue."
When Ameriflax was in the planning stages, Topp turned to the 88 year-old Flax Institute at North Dakota State University. Professor Emeritus Jack Carter, the Institute's president, has spent the last 14 years promoting the small grain.
Dr. Jack Carter, The Flax Institute: "Well, the biggest hurdle in the past and continues to be informing the largest number of people about the benefits of consuming flax from the health and nutritional standpoint. Another problem is to create products that people like, that have good flavor and they will continue to eat over a period of a week, months and a lifetime really to get the benefits over a long time period."
One of the widely recognized benefits of flax is its ability to help lower cholesterol because of its high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. Recent studies also indicate that regular consumption of flax might help prevent certain cancers.
The "cholesterol fighting" characteristics have led to the start of several projects funded by the Oilseed Council. In 1994, scientists at both the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Texas A&M, were given funds to create feeding regimens that would allow hens that were fed flax to pass the Omega 3 benefits on to their eggs. Early in 2001, Omega Eggs, produced using the University of Nebraska's patented management system, were put on the shelves in the 200 supermarkets of the major Midwestern grocery store-chain Hy-Vee.
And there are more projects waiting in the wings. Food scientists at North Dakota State University are making vanilla and chocolate frozen deserts with flax oil. The frozen treats are joined by developments that include replacing the wheat in pasta products with flax flour. Cereal Scientists at NDSU report preliminary work indicates as much as 20% of the wheat can be replaced without compromising product quality. The pasta has been made with the two readily available varieties of flax, omega and brown. Pasta made with omega flax had significant eye-appeal because its yellow color blended more easily with the wheat and left no telltale specs. Though a full daily dose of flax will not be gained from consuming either version, NDSU scientists are quick to point out that tests show there are no nutritional differences between the two plant varieties.
Humans aren't the only ones receiving the benefit of current research. Since 1999, Kansas State University has been studying the effect of putting flax into cattle feed. The work indicates that replacing 10% of the standard ration with flax might reduce the incidence of shipping fever. And if the disease appears it may lessen the severity when combined with normal antibiotic treatment programs.
Another possible market for increased consumption is through the sales of flax oil. The current industry-leader of an all organic product is Barleans Organic Oils based in Bellingham, Washington. Bruce Barlean, the company president, buys his raw commodities directly from North Dakota farmers.
Bruce Barlean, President, Barlean's Organic Oils:"I don't even have contracts with virtually all these folks because they just realize that we stand behind our word, we pay when we're supposed to and year after year we just bring a few more farmers into the flax family."
Barlean has seen his business increase as much as 40% a year since the company pressed its first oil in 1989. This year, sales are expected to reach 20-million dollars. Despite the increases in sales of niche items and development of new products, the hardest part of opening new markets continues to be consumer awareness.
To that end, Topp rented space at the Natural Products Expo East, a tradeshow billed as the largest display of its kind in the world. The experience reinforced Topp's belief that the market for flax is growing.
Jan Topp, Ameriflax:"I think for the last several years there has been slowly an increase in an awareness of the importance of flax through the health stores, the nutrition people. So, our job has been made easier because it's been slowly awakening and people are slowly coming to the realization how healthy it is.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.