When talk to turns to “alternative crops,” there are several familiar options that come up in the conversation: oats, barley, dry (edible) beans, flax or rye are frequent mentions. But canola is often dismissed except in Ontario’s Near North region or at the very least, the northern tier of southern Ontario — northern Wellington, Dufferin or Grey counties, or parts of the Ottawa Valley.
Earlier in 2019, canola’s profile on the Canadian agri-food and international trade fronts moved closer to centre-stage with China’s trade restrictions on agricultural imports. Canola was the first food product that appeared on the list of embargoed items in the politically charged dispute between Canada and China. Initially, western Canadian canola farmers expressed outrage over the lack of action by Ottawa to either solve the crisis-in-the-making or at least provide financial support to offset expected losses.
Yet there are economies of scale within the situation, as well as regional differences that factor into the 2019 outlook. For one, Ontario’s canola sector is a fraction of the size of Western Canada’s production and value-chain impact. According to a Statistics Canada report from last July, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta each reported lower seeded acres with decreases ranging from 3.2 per cent to 12.9 per cent. Across the country, 21.0 million acres were planted in 2019, an 8.2 per cent drop compared to 2018, yet that same Stats Can report stated Ontario acres were down 26 per cent, to 46,600 acres.
According to executives with the Ontario Canola Growers Association (OCGA), the Chinese trade action hasn’t affected Canadian canola production as much as originally perceived. Lower Canadian prices for canola did sway grower decisions on whether to plant, but the good news for Ontario production is that what’s grown in the province is processed in the province, so there’s at least a partial cushion protecting them from the full brunt of the trade dispute.
“In some ways, Ontario canola may not be affected to as great an extent as western canola as most of our canola is crushed for oil and not exported as seed,” says Carrie James, general manager of the OCGA. “China is still buying both canola oil and meal, just not seed. However, China’s decision to discontinue its purchase of canola seed did result in the significant drop in price for canola across the country, which did affect Ontario growers’ decisions to grow canola in 2019.”
Another factor in growers’ cropping plans in 2019 was the extremely wet spring that delayed canola planting, not just in Ontario but in the West as well. Later-planted canola is at greater risk of damage from swede midge.
Near North’s corn
Still, canola’s importance is often underestimated in Ontario, particularly in those parts where warmer weather allows for the conventional three-crop rotation of corn-soybeans-winter wheat. For growers in the Near North, canola is still a focal point and a familiar crop that stabilizes the rotation.
Three years ago when swede midge became a greater problem in the Cochrane to Temiskaming region, growers were encouraged to drop canola from their rotations in order to break the midge cycle. When the pest’s numbers declined in 2018, experts in the area anticipated a return to higher acreages.
James notes that 2018 insured acres in the Near North totalled 18,032. In 2019, insured acres dropped to 17,170, but again, a wetter-than-normal spring didn’t help planting intentions or final numbers. In spite of the decline, canola holds a different level of importance for growers in the region.
“Canola in the north is like corn for growers in the south,” says Hubert Beaudry, current OCGA president and a grower from Cache Bay, Ont., west of North Bay. “Since canola is a cool-weather crop, it does really well in the northern climate. It’s also less of a challenge to grow than corn because of the risk of frost in the fall. Back when my dad had a dairy herd, he would sell his canola to buy corn for his cow ration because there was less risk.”
When asked about the challenges facing growers and the canola sector in expanding production in Ontario and Quebec, Beaudry suggests convenience and familiarity might be the issues. Even though the climate of the Near North is better suited to canola, there’s still a need to overcome “what’s easiest.”
“It’s convincing growers to grow and manage a crop that requires a bit more attention than a cereal crop,” says Beaudry.
In spite of advisors and agronomists saying that three-crop rotations are better than two, and four are better than three, the options for including spring canola in the rotation are limited in southern Ontario’s higher heat unit areas, given spring canola’s sensitivity to heat and humidity at bloom. Pricing is also an issue this year and there are insect problems: swede midge is the primary culprit and James says that growers must be willing to commit to a four-year rotation at all times to help break their cycle. The same can be said for disease issues, including clubroot, which was confirmed in Ontario in 2016.
One change that may be developing for southern Ontario growers is a shift in focus on new winter canola hybrids. There has always been a small number of eye-catching winter canola acres in the south, including fields in Chatham-Kent during the late 2000s. Now, new winter canola seed genetics with improved winter survivability and significant yield potential are drawing even more attention.
“The re-introduction of winter canola is still in its trial stage with a few adventurous growers trying it to test the new winter canola seed genetics,” says James. She adds that for the past three years, the OCGA has helped fund a winter canola trial conducted by Dr. Eric Page at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research station at Harrow, Ont. “Eric’s research has focused on winter survivability, optimal planting dates and rotation options.”
Although there may be more options for winter canola in the near future, there are also challenges with growing winter canola, including cabbage seedpod weevil. James says that pest has not affected spring canola hybrids in Ontario in recent years since the pest pressure seems to dissipate as spring canola flowers. Only the earliest planted fields of spring canola have suffered damage from cabbage seedpod weevil in the past few growing seasons. But if winter canola acres increase, there could be a potential for higher weevil populations and damage.
“The major economic advantage of winter canola would be double cropping options with winter canola and soybeans, among other crops,” says James. “Agricorp does offer a $140 per acre re-seed benefit for issues with winter survivability. The OCGA also hosts an annual Canola Challenge that for 2019 included a few winter canola grower entries. As of mid-September, yields were coming in and there were several outstanding winter canola yield contenders — in the 4,000+ lbs. per acre range.”
The other advantage for southern Ontario growers is the proximity of processing facilities, hence lower trucking fees. Where most growers in the north, central and east ship to Bunge Milling in Hamilton (with a few in Northwestern Ontario shipping to Richardson’s in northern Manitoba), winter canola growers would be able to ship to ADM in Windsor. James states that Bunge in Hamilton is also accepting winter canola.