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Agriculture This week - Niche markets need varietal research

Often we are reminded of good ideas which just never quite lived up to the expectation.

Often we are reminded of good ideas which just never quite lived up to the expectation.

The September issue of the Government of Saskatchewan’s ‘Agriview’ had my mind going back to all the hope and expectation just a few years ago surrounding flax straw as a fibre source.

The story in Agriview was actually on how flax straw requires careful management. Dealing with flax straw has always been an issue for farmers. You can’t just turn it back into the soil where it becomes a resource for future crops as it breaks down, like you do with wheat or canola.

Flax straw by its constituent nature is very slow to break down in the soil. If left on the field it is simply a nuisance which will hamper farming operations in the next year.

That is why you often see flax straw burned in the field as an expedient method of getting rid of it.

But the reasons why flax straw does not deteriorate in the soil also means the fibres in the plant material have properties which can be used in a wide variety of industrial applications.

It was with that in mind a flax straw processing facility was established near Canora, SK. a number of years ago.

Those behind the facility initially were local producers and entrepreneurs who were aware flax straw was a difficult to deal with residue when farmers grew flax for seed.

They also realized there was a fibre market into which flax had a position, albeit with varieties more focused on fibre production than seed. It was still reasoned the shorter fibre of seed flax varieties could find niche markets.

The facility would ultimately fail, but not without significant effort to make it work, including Cargill coming on-board as a partner, and with Sask. government dollars.

What happened would likely be a course study in economics, but factors such as logistics, building markets and supply at the same time, and limited varietal option for producers all played a role.

In the latter case varietal development of already niche crops to facilitate development of even more niche markets.

There is little ‘company’ incentive to invest in varietal development of small acre crops, and limited public dollars either.

So while a longer fibered seed variety of flax might have been a boon to the now gone fibre plant, it was not likely to come down the pike.

And that will be a continuing barrier to creating new markets for crops as research will increasingly only become involved in lucrative developments, be they mass acre ones such as corn, soybeans, wheat and canola, or niches which add significant value to a crop. In the latter case it might well take new varieties to create the market, but they won’t be developed as the market does not yet exist. It’s the old chicken and egg conundrum and that is never easy to overcome, just ask the supporters of the aforementioned flax plant.

Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.