Windsor

'A big field of gold': With rising prices, canola a prime opportunity for Ontario farmers

Winter crop that produces canola or vegetable oil increasingly popular in Ontario, say experts

Posted: May 17, 2021
Last Updated: May 17, 2021

Scott McLean, a farmer in Harrow in southwestern Ontario, looks out at his field of more than 11 million winter canola plants. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Fields of golden yellow flowers have been popping up across southwestern Ontario, and one of them belongs to Harrow farmer Scott McLean.  

The winter canola plant — a crop best known to produce canola or vegetable oil — is in bloom. It has been grown in the region before, but experts say Ontario farmers have shown increased interest in recent years. 

Last year, growers say, winter canola sold at $500 per tonne, but this year it's expected to go for somewhere between $900 and $1,000 per tonne, according to McLean.

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High demand for the products that come from the plant are the reason behind the boosted sales, said McLean. 

"There's been a big demand for vegetable oil and [also] a lot of that [demand] has to do with biodiesel... canola seeds [give] a very low fat oil, so it's helpful in cooking, but it is the biofuel market that is really driving it," he said, adding there's also been a shortage of rapeseed, a "sister crop" to canola. 

McLean, who has been growing winter canola for three seasons, said it has financially benefited him and also diversified his farmland, which helps keep the soil rich. 

Even on a grey day, the winter canola fields shine bright. (Submitted by Scott McLean)

In September, McLean planted more than 11 million winter canola seeds on his 18-hectare field off Dunn Road in Harrow. 

He said the crop is at its prime, with 50 to 75 per cent having bloomed. The plants are about 1.2 to 1.5 metres tall and might grow higher with more rain. 

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But the bright colour won't last long. 

When you see a big field of gold, people show a lot of appreciation, a lot of intrigue in local agriculture and that's a great thing to see. - Scott McLean, Harrow farmer

Within the next week or so, McLean anticipates the flowers will drop off and green pods will be left behind. The whole plant will then dry and turn into a straw colour. The canola seeds will turn black and be harvested in early July. 

McLean said the seeds are so small that they "make peppercorns look big." 

"It's a different crop. It provides a little bit of revenue diversity on the farm and it's something we enjoy growing — it adds a little bit of difference and it gives us a little less workload in the springtime." 

Rising interest in the crop 

McLean isn't the only one who will be out harvesting the plant in the coming months. 

Canola and edible bean specialist Meghan Moran, who works for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), said the crop has grown in popularity in recent years. 

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She attributes the rising interest to growers wanting to diversify their crops and the success of a new string of winter canola seeds. 

Winter canola in southwestern Ontario is at its peak flowering stage, according to McLean. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

"We're just seeing this now because of some local promotion and some of the research," she said, adding that experts in Kentucky have helped bring seeds to Canada that work better in the environment. 

"Historically there has been winter canola production in Chatham-Kent and Essex, but I think it was just older genetics and we weren't having as much success with it surviving the winter." 

A new seed, known as Mercedes, seems to be working better with Ontario's temperatures, she said. 

More than 1,600 hectares are now growing across the province, compared with 607 hectares a few years back, according to Moran. 

The plant also comes with the added benefit of allowing growers to double-crop — meaning the harvest is so early in the year that they can use the same field to plant another crop before the end of the season.

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Canola processing plants are also close to home, meaning farmers don't have to invest extra in transporting it hours away, said Moran. 

Locally, ADM Windsor and Bunge in Hamilton process the canola plant. 

Winter canola growing in the Essex County community of Harrow. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

The plant itself is not new to Canada, with the western regions known for growing spring canola. But because Ontario gets too warm, this crop doesn't usually thrive in the province. As long as winters remain mild, Moran said, winter canola will last. 

Winter canola is also being grown in Wellington County, Huron County and the Bruce Peninsula. 

It's good for Instagram too 

On top of the benefits farmers might see to their fields and pocketbook, the plant is earning praise for its esthetic. 

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"When you see a big field of gold, people show a lot of appreciation, a lot of intrigue in local agriculture, and that's a great thing to see, for people to connect the field to their fork or to their plate," said McLean. 

"They get to embrace agriculture, which I guess as there's fewer and fewer farmers in the communities having [people who] live in city centres be happy to come out and embrace agriculture, it's a good thing to see." 

But he said he hopes people remain respectful of the crop. 

"We have a wind turbine driveway here and we deal with enough people trespassing on a normal day, but yeah people are mindful. They just want a picture or selfie with the crop," he said.

"We just don't want them walking out into the field, and that's where the damages would occur." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer La Grassa
Reporter/Editor

Jennifer La Grassa is a reporter/editor for CBC Windsor. Email: jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca