Organic Canola Finds Niche with Carolina Poultry Farms
September 16, 2011 | James Roberson
The continued growth of the organic meat industry is generating more demand for organically produced grains to feed these animals. Demand, combined with the current high prices for conventionally grown grains, is generating a premium price for growers willing to convert part of their acreage to organic production.
Though finding organic grain is difficult across the board, it has been especially difficult for small livestock markets, like egg producers to find organic grain to feed poultry layers that produce organic eggs.
One option for Nashville, NC-based Braswell Foods is organic canola. Though canola is very much a niche crop for farmers in the Tar Heel state, interest is growing among conventional grain producers who are interested in converting some of their acreage to organic crops.
Jackie Bunch, a purchasing agent for Braswell Foods, says her company is a major buyer of organically grown canola and says opportunities for expanded use in the future for both organic and conventionally grown canola look good.
“We’ve been in organic poultry production since 1998. We have about two million layers and about 55 percent of the feed that comes from our mill goes to feeding our animals. The rest goes to feed for swine operations and other poultry operations in North Carolina,” Bunch says.
She notes that organic poultry comprises more than 15 percent of her company’s total production annually. Most of the organic grain needed to grow organic chickens comes from local farmers.
Currently, the company buys a truckload of North Carolina grown canola every 3-4 days to use in layer diets for birds producing Eggland’s Best eggs, she adds.
In addition to organic canola, Braswell Foods buys organic soy and nearly a half million tons of organic corn from North Carolina growers. The high cost of conventional corn has driven up prices for organic corn, which is a primary reason some poultry companies are looking for other sources of protein to feed their flocks.
Competition for organic and conventional canola
The interest in organic canola has spread into South Carolina, though not for use as livestock feed. Georgia-based AgStrong opened an oilseed processing plant in Bowersville, GA in 2009 and expansion has generated a need to look northward across the state line in an effort to find enough canola to run their plant.
Already the AgStrong plant, located near the Georgia-South Carolina state line crushes about 50 tons of canola per day. The facility has a 500,000 bushel storage capacity and easy rail accessibility for growers in South Carolina.
The company recently hired Mike Garland, former Executive Director of the Georgia Seed Commission as their Crop Development Manager. Garland and AgStrong CEO Robert Davis recently met with a group of South Carolina growers to push for canola acreage in the state.
According to Davis, AgStrong’s cooperating farmers have been consistently achieving a favorable profit, in most cases exceeding winter wheat profit by approximately $80 to $100 per acre.
Davis says canola is grown in a three to four year rotation, so winter wheat continues to be the primary winter crop for most of their contracting farmers. Current contract prices are approximately $11.90 per bushel (50 pounds per bushel). He contends canola yields in South Carolina and Georgia, using their varieties, have been 50 to 70 bushels per acre.
NC State University program pushing canola
Chris Reberg-Horton heads NC State University’s organic crops program and is a big proponent of organically grown canola.
He says canola can be a good fit for grain growers, but there are some production problems, primarily on the front-end of production and at harvest time that growers should consider before jumping into production.
Horton, who works primarily with organically grown crops, says many of the challenges of growing canola in the Southeast are common, regardless of whether the crop is grown organically or conventionally.
“One of the biggest problems canola growers face in the Southeast is how and when to harvest the crop. With canola it’s easy to go from ‘we don’t think its ready’ to ‘it’s laying on the ground,'” Horton says.
In conventionally grown canola, some growers use dessicants, much like cotton growers use defoliants, to get the crop ready for a more uniform harvest. The problem is a lack of labeled materials for use as dessicant on canola.
Horton and NC State Extension Marketing Assistant Molly Hamilton have compiled an extensive list of organic grain growers and options for marketing the crop in the Southeast. They regularly publish an organic crops newsletter, which contains timely tips on production and marketing of organically grown crops in the Southeast.