For the past 25 years, Wade and Janice Flegel have made a living off the land. Before them, their parents and their parents’ parents did the same. And the Crook County couple hope that their five children will also find happiness working on a farm. But at the heart of keeping the land viable for future generations, the Flegels believe, is innovation.
That’s one reason the couple is applying for a special permit from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to grow a test five- to 10-acre plot of canola for oil.
Currently, Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson county farmers are prohibited from growing canola for oil.
The Flegels’ long-term hope is the experiment will make economic sense, eventually help offset their $75,000 annual fuel bill by turning the oil into biofuel, and help their farm become more sustainable.
Two years ago, Wade Flegel applied for a similar permit but was denied. There was too much uncertainty surrounding the impact of canola on the area’s $14.9 million seed crop industry.
Bees are naturally more attracted to canola, which worried farmers that canola would compete for the pollinator’s attention, and the high-value vegetable crops would lose.
But a trial plot at the Jefferson County Oregon State University Extension Service a couple of years ago showed that canola planted in the fall would flower at a different time than the vegetable seeds, avoiding competition for the bees’ attention.
There is still a concern that the canola crops could end up pushing out vegetable crops. But now, it looks likely Flegel will receive the permit and become the first farmer in the area to experiment growing canola for oil, starting this fall.
“It’s part of farming that if you try something and you see it’s successful, there are a lot of rewards,” Wade Flegel said.
The prohibition on canola was initiated by the area’s vegetable seed growers more than 20 years ago, according to Mylen Bohle with the Crook County OSU Extension Service.
“It should be interesting,” Bohle said of the Flegels’ endeavors. “There are other growers who want to see him do it before they jump in and try.”
Taking a chance
So far, carrot seed farmers are willing to let Flegel take a shot at growing canola, as long as he sticks to using conventional seeds. If genetically modified canola entered the area, the impact on crops could be devastating. The GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds have been chemically altered to be herbicide tolerant.
“The seed industry is afraid of cross pollination with GMO canola in the seed lot,” Bohle said. “If that gets to Europe or Japan and someone finds it, there goes the market. They won’t want to come back here ... If there is even the perception that GMO is raised in the area, they may not want to buy from the vegetable seed industry here.”
Randy Gamble, a farmer in Crook County, who grows carrot seed, along with several other crops, said he’s willing to let Flegel experiment, but proven crops, he said, should take priority.
“We make our living with carrots, it’s a big part of our income,” Gamble said. “If we couldn’t grow carrots and onions, we would be out of business. To risk that for something that could be down the road is kind of silly, but at this point what he’s doing isn’t really affecting anything.”
Dan Hilburn, with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said if the Flegels get a permit, it will be a stipulation that he work with OSU researchers.
“We’re trying to work with Wade so we can get data on yield and pest disease issues and timing of the flower relative to carrots,” Hilburn said. “If we can learn something from him giving it a try, we can see if it’s possible to grow canola for oil in the same area where there is carrot seed production or not.”
Hilburn said he’s hoping to resolve the question of whether canola can be controlled.
If canola sprouted up in crops after it had been harvested (a volunteer), or alongside a ditch, it would be difficult for the vegetable seed industry to keep its fields clean for high-quality seeds. Eventually, it could push out the more valuable crops.
“If it becomes weedy, it becomes a problem and wouldn’t matter if it was GMO or not,” Hilburn said.
“We haven’t answered the volunteer question,” Hilburn said. “If you grow a crop and harvest it normally and a volunteer comes back in the crop, or in surrounding fields, it’s bad for the long run. You would have canola spreading in the wild ... You can’t control the flowering time, and you have a potential problem forever in the future. We don’t want to do that. If canola is a problem ... We need to be able to shut it down.”
Flegel said it’s important to him that he’s not only a good steward of the land but also a good neighbor.
“Our intent isn’t to drive vegetable seed out, but to get some more crop availability here,” he said.
Seeds of a new industry?
Richard Affeldt, with the Jefferson County Extension Service, is skeptical about how canola crops would fare in the long run.
“The key question that has been part of the discussion in Oregon is — Oregon has an established industry that is feasible and economically viable,” Affeldt said. “And it’s not clear whether canola is going to be economically viable, and most of the indicators based on research would say it’s not going to be, so why would you jeopardize a specialty seed industry.”
Flegel’s plan is to crush the canola seed and produce the biofuel on his own. If successful, there could be opportunities beyond solely using it on their farm.
Lou Torres, with the Oregon Department of Energy, noted the tax credits available for those trying to grow oil seed crops.
“We want to develop a homegrown industry here,” Torres said. “Right now, we import almost all our transportation fuel from out of state and most from out of country ... We’re certainly trying to encourage more agriculture producers to take a look at feedstocks that can be used for biofuels.”
On a Thursday afternoon, three of the Flegels’ children were working with their parents in the field, moving irrigation pipes. All three of the boys have an interest in farming after college. For Wade and Janice, leaving their land in better shape and financially sound for their children is key.
“I like to work with the ground, and I want it to be better than when we started so it can be left improved for the next generations,” he said.