Organic Flax Production Expands in Iowa

Kathleen Delate and Jerry DeWitt, Faculty, Horticulture and Entomology

Flax was once produced in significant quantities in Iowa but was replaced with increasing acres of corn and soybean. Flax has many uses, including industrial oils from oilseed flax, food-quality flaxseed oil, and linen products, fiberboard and paper products from the straw. In recent years, sales of organic flaxseed oil have increased in the U.S. and the world, both for medicinal and food purposes. Flaxseed oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with lowered risk of heart disease and lowered blood cholesterol levels. In 2004, we received various request for assistance at the Iowa State University Organic Ag. and Sustainable Ag. Programs from producers and processors to provide information on growing and processing organic flax.

In 2004-2005, we led a cooperative research and extension project supported by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Spectrum Organics/BIOWA Nutraceuticals, processors of organic flaxseed oil. Experiments were established at the Neely-Kinyon Farm in Greenfield, Iowa, in 2004 and 2005 to determine the best methods for organic production, including variety selection, weed and fertility management, and harvesting.  Variety selection identified CDC Bethune and Norlin as the highest producing cultivars. Harvesting methods were key to a lucrative harvest, with flax harvested by wind-rowing followed by combining yielding 80 to 90% more grain than straight combining alone. Initial fertility management schemes identified red clover and soybean as ideal crops preceding flax, with corn supplying insufficient fertility and maintaining the largest weed seedbank. Interseeding flax with red clover or alfalfa also provided a best management practice for weed management and meeting certified organic production requirements in providing a soil-building legume crop following flax. Yields were as high as 36 bushels/acre in Sutherland, Iowa. Flax was processed into flaxseed oil at BIOWA Nutraceuticals in Cherokee, Iowa, where essential fatty acid content met quality standards.

Five intensive winter workshops on organic flax were held across the state in 2005 for 150 farmers in conjunction with Practical Farmers of Iowa and Spectrum Organics/BIOWA Nutraceuticals, As a result of this cooperative project, organic flax production increased from 75 acres in 2004 to 300 acres in 2005.
Savings from avoiding petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides on these 300 acres amounted to approximately $30,000, in addition to countless environmental benefits, such as reduced nitrate leaching from the use of cover crops in place of highly mobile synthetic nitrogen. Revenue generated per farm averaged $500/acre, compared to $200/acre for conventional corn. A complete evaluation of benefits to the whole farm, including soil quality impacts, will be evaluated in the third year of the project.

147 -- Sustainable Agriculture

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