The enticing — and sometimes scary — world of alternative crops

Crops like fababeans and hemp don’t command huge acres, 
but have been successful alternatives for Alberta producers

Farmers are nothing if not optimistic — optimistic that Mother Nature will be kind; that prices will be good; and that today’s work will pay off a month, six months, or a year down the road.

But for all their hopefulness, only some are willing to stray far from tried-and-true crops.

“There is always some interest in new or alternative crops, but few gain momentum,” said Mark Cutts, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “Large producers tend to grow crops they are familiar with given the number of acres they need to cover. Smaller producers might be more willing to take the time to try new crops as they may have more time to learn how to grow these crops.”

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And after all, sometimes a lack of enthusiasm for jumping into new and alternative crops pays off.

Five years ago, camelina was touted by some as a new wonder crop — hyped as hardy, easy to grow, and forecast by some to be the next big biofuel. In 2010, Great Plains Camelina Company out of Cincinnati, Ohio — the major player in the camelina biofuel market — contracted 60,000 acres of camelina in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The company’s vice-president painted a picture of a rosy future, saying they were looking to grow more and could, even then, handle almost twice as many acres.

Unfortunately, time proved him wrong. Many producers complained camelina is, in fact, very difficult to grow. And a combination of weather and bad luck (flooding, rail transport backups, and a promised but undelivered biofuel blender’s tax credit) caused Great Plains to renege on contracts for camelina grown in 2010 and 2011.

Though producers eventually received most or all of the monies owing, their enthusiasm for the new crop was understandably dampened. Today, camelina has virtually dropped entirely off Alberta’s cropping map.

“Five or six years ago, we got some questions at the crop info centre on camelina,” said Cutts. “Now, nothing.”

Pennycress, another potential biofuel, may suffer a similar fate.

“Some people are dabbling in it up in the Peace region but they aren’t getting too far,” he said.

But some novel crops are making headway.

Quinoa, mostly contracted to companies in Saskatchewan and Ontario, is gaining limited acreage.

And new and improved varieties of fababean and soybeans are drawing second looks because of their low disease incidence and pest problems, easy harvestability, and good potential profitability. Fababean acreage in Alberta rose from 6,000 acres in 2012 to about 80,000 acres in 2014 before levelling off this year.

But the biggest success story in recent years has been spring-seeded legumes. Lentils, in particular, made a huge jump in acreage in 2016.

“The value of lentils was very, very high last year so a lot of people jumped into them,” said Cutts.

That said, this year’s wet weather in many key lentil-growing areas will likely spell limited success for this crop this year. But interest in pulses remains high, and some are planting peas and lentils in the fall. Fall planting results in less spring planting pressure and a wider fall harvest window since fall-seeded crops are harvested earlier. As well, research plots have produced as much as 39 per cent more yield than spring-seeded crops — although high management requirements have limited uptake among producers so far.

And a changing climate and improving genetics mean some crops once considered impossible to grow in more northern climates now bring farmers success in areas they’ve never been grown before. Corn, for example, is now fairly common in central Alberta, and winter wheat is being grown right up into the Peace Country.

And finally hemp, banned as a crop in Canada from 1938 to 1998, is making a comeback in Albertan fields. Acreage peaked at 108,000 acres in 2014 before falling to 76,000 acres this year. The drop is the result of a shortage of processing capacity, and not because of a lack of producer interest, according to Jan Slaski, a crop scientist with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.

“There is huge interest among producers but because this crop is grown 99 per cent on contract, we need the processors to get up and running,” he said. “We’re in the transition phase right now. More processors are coming on stream now.”

There are also more markets for hemp products, he said.

“Until last year, hemp was grown almost exclusively for seed for human consumption. But fibre demand is about to become reality and explode. Substantial acres of fibre-specific varieties will be necessary.”

There is also potential for non-narcotic cannabinoids which are being tested for a range of medical conditions, including epilepsy and diabetes. A single hectare of hemp can produce between one and three kilograms of pharmaceutical-grade non-narcotic cannabinoids, with each kilogram currently valued at $20,000. However, this is a federally regulated product and is not yet legal to produce in Canadian fields.

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