Flax: small seed with a big story

More and more food products contain flax oil and seed because of their excellent nutritional properties. As a result, demand for flax, an oilseed grown in Canada and the upper Midwestern US, is growing tremendously, offering farmers, including organic, good income opportunities.

Flax has been valued for its nutritional benefits for centuries. Greek physician Hippocrates used flax as a medicine. Eighth century emperor Charlemagne considered flax so healthful that he passed a law requiring its consumption.
During the 1950s and 1960s, flax’s industrial uses became more prominent. The versatile seed was crushed to make oil-based paints and coatings and linoleum flooring material. Even today, 80% of flax grown goes to such industrial uses.

Today, flax’s nutritional value is driving increased demand. “The 20% (for food and feed) is continuing to eat into the 80% (for industrial uses),” says Barry Hall, president, Flax Council of Canada.

Nutritional benefts
Flax packs a big nutritional punch for such a tiny oilseed. As Kaye Effertz, executive director, AmeriFlax, says flax is “a small commodity with a big story to tell.”

One of the key nutritional benefits of flax is its oil. Flaxseed contains 40% to 45% oil, 55% of which is Omega 3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that supports heart health, reduces cholesterol and inflammation, and improves cellular integrity. Flax is one of the best plant-based sources of ALA.

But Bruce Livingood, technical director, Heartland Products, Inc., says, “Omega 3 fatty acid is a small part of the total picture.”

Flaxseed is the best-known source of plant lignans, which are phytoestrogens and anti-oxidants. There is evidence that one of these phytoestrogens may inhibit certain cancers, particularly breast and prostate cancers. A study at North Dakota State University showed that flaxseed reduces lung inflammation.

Flax also contains 28% dietary fiber, one ounce provides 32% of USDA’s reference daily intake of fiber. It is also 21% protein and contains high levels of essential nutrients, such as folic acid, vitamins, and minerals.
As a result of these benefits, food manufacturers are incorporating flax into many food products, including cereals, granolas, chips, crackers, pasta, energy bars, drink mixes, and baked goods, such as bread, bagels, and muffins.

According to the Flax Council of Canada, the use of flax in baked goods has tripled demand for flax in the food industry in North America this decade.
Flax’s nutritional benefits also make it an excellent feed for animals, such as poultry, swine, beef, dairy cows, horses, and pets. Flaxseed is known to give horses and dogs a shiny coat.

Flax is grown in Canada and the upper Midwestern United States, thriving in the northern growing season’s long days and cool nights. Canada is the world’s leading flax producer and exporter, planting 2 million acres in 2005, which produced 1.035 million metric tons. Flax is grown in Western Canada with Saskatchewan producing 65% to 70% of that amount and Manitoba and Alberta producing the rest. Last year, the US produced 955,000 acres with a total production of 19.7 million bushels. North Dakota produced 91% of that amount, and other states, including Montanan, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa produced the rest.

Organic flax opportunities
The majority of flax grown is conventional, but demand for organic is increasing, according to Mark Shuett, president, American Natural Soy. Shuett’s company processes a nutraceutical-grade flax oil for Spectrum Organic Products using a proprietary cold pressed and cold filtered process. Spectrum sells a range of flax oil products as nutritional supplements. Spectrum contracts organic farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska to grow flax.

Shuett says flax is new to organic farmers in these states, but it offers good opportunities. “It’s more profitable than a small grain crop,” he says.
Shuett sees acreage increasing. “We’d like to see 2000 to 3000 acres next year.”

Ernie Hoffert, manager, Reimers Seed Co., also sees increasing demand for organic flax. “Demand for flax seems to be increasing all the time,” he says. “More and more people see the value of Omega 3 and other nutritional benefits.”

Based in North Dakota, Reimers contracts 45 organic farmers in Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota to grow flax that is processed into nutraceutical grade oil for Barlean’s. Like Spectrum, Barlean’s sells flax oil and capsules as nutritional supplements.

Organic flax is now 70% of Reimers business. “We only started producing organic in 1998, and we’ve gone from zero to a large business,” says Hoffert.
Hoffert also wants to develop organic flax farmer networks in Montana and Washington.

Organic farmers can earn $17.00 to $19.00 per acre growing flax, says Hoffert.

No genetically modified flax is currently grown. An herbicide-resistant GM flax was introduced in 2001, but was soon taken off the market because European importers refused to buy it.

Aragen, a biotechnology company, tried to introduce a GM pharmaceutical flax in North Dakota two years ago, but faced massive opposition from farm groups, major processors, and North Dakota State University. Opposition was based on concerns the GM “pharma” flax would contaminate conventional flax. “There is no peaceful coexistence (between pharma crops and conventional),” says Hoffert. “(Biotech companies) say they are going to save agriculture, but they could cause tremendous problems with local economies and markets.”

© Copyright 2006. The Organic & Non-GMO Report (September 2006).