An Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) specialist says there are a few points producers should consider before committing acreage to some of the less common cropping alternatives such as flax, camelina, pulses, and hemp.
“Every year we have the challenge of finding profitable crops to grow. The first step in crop planning is determining the various costs of production,” says Harry Brook, crop specialist, with the Alberta Ag-Info Centre. “By knowing your total production costs, you can find out where the combination of crop yield and price becomes profitable.”
Brook says it’s extremely important to select crops that are profitable and acceptable to both the producer and their banker. “Why grow something that guarantees a loss? Anyone can make money at $14 per bushel canola, but what about at $10 with a less than average yield? You can’t grow canola all the time. Once the production costs are all known, you can then use them as a tool to find cost savings without foregoing too much yield.”
With any new crop you try, start small. “Use the first year as a chance to learn the agronomics and particulars of the new crop. When growing a new crop, it is imperative to get a contract first before you grow it. You need to know there is a home for it,” explains Brook. “When there was significant acreage of borage in 2005, contracts only accounted for a small part of the crop. It took a long time to find a home for the majority of it. With hemp, Health Canada requires paperwork before you can grow it. There is also a requirement for inspection of the crop, and all harvest seed must be sold to the company you bought your seed from. If production contracts are not available, take that as a sign it may be hard to sell and not be readily marketable. You also need to consider storing that crop.”
Pulse crops are valuable to grow for their reduced fertilizer requirements and the additional benefits for following crops as they extract nutrients from the crop residue. Says Brook, “Peas, lentils, and faba beans all provide a nitrogen benefit and have established markets. However, recent trade issues with India have dropped the price of peas and lentils, making those less profitable. Peas grow throughout the province, but there are issues related to standability. Lentils grow best in the brown and dark brown soil zones. Faba beans will grow well in the black and grey wooded soil zones but they take a long time to mature and should be seeded early.”
Brook notes that there are two distinct and separate markets for faba beans. “The low tannin faba beans are almost totally marketed to the hog industry as a soybean replacement. There is also a human consumption market for the high tannin varieties of faba beans. Insect pests can be a problem with quality, as sucking insects mark the seed. Markets are up and down and you need to assure yourself there is profit from growing them.”
Above all, Brook advises caution. “Become informed on issues related to any new crop, both for growing and marketing it. Talk to people who already produce it. Crunch the numbers on anticipated costs and returns to make sure the experiment doesn’t end up costing too much. Learn from other’s mistakes, don’t make your own.”
“By taking care of the details when planning cropping changes, you can do everything you can to make ensure a profitable outcome, and not just a bill for the education.”
For more information, contact the Alberta Ag-Info Centre at 310-FARM (3276).