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From flax in the field to shirt sleeves

Meet a Nuffield Canada farmer scholar with a vision for a value chain for Canadian-grown linen

[UPDATED: Jan. 11, 2021] Josh Oulton and his partner Patricia Bishop have grown flax on their Nova Scotia farm for nearly a decade, but not with an eye to the market that most Canadian flax growers are after.

Instead, Oulton and Bishop grow varieties of flax that produce the plant-based fibre used to make linen, and they process it into spinning yarn, making fabric with small-scale equipment they built themselves.

The question is, how much bigger can they grow? And can other Canadian farmers grow flax for linen too?

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Maybe their timing is perfect. As Oulton has discovered, the world’s clothing industry is responsible for eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s under intense pressure to find natural replacements for its petroleum-based synthetic fibres.

What other natural fibres could a country like Canada grow to become green in clothing?

And there’s another market factor too. Other international sources of linen are small and isolated, and there are even fewer active trade channels.

In short, says Oulton, there’s room for more Canadian linen. Consumers want greener clothing. Processors want dependable supplies of higher-quality flax fibre. And Canada has the land, the farmers and the climate to grow it.

TapRoot Farms at Port Williams, an hour west of Halifax, is one of the largest organic farms in Atlantic Canada, producing a wide range of organic vegetables and fruit. Oulton and Bishop also operate a retail store and CSA there, and raise animals for meat and fibre.

They began growing fibre flax in 2011 after hosting a natural fibre symposium on their farm that year, which got them interested in how fibre flax might become an innovative farm product to add to their product list.

“When I close my eyes and dream of the future of agriculture for Canada, it looks very different than it looks right now." – Brad Oulton. photo: Light & Lens Studio

In 2017, they decided to ramp up that query and Oulton appled to become a Nuffield scholar. Now he has wrapped up two years of study under the Nuffield program, travelling the globe to investigate the world of linen. In 2019 he visited Belgium, Poland, Egypt, India, Singapore and Guam, learning all he could from flax industry experts there on where and how the crop is grown, how it is processed, and how it is sold.

Oulton came home with whole new ideas about how their own farm — and other Canadian farms too — could grow and market this virtually forgotten crop by setting up a value chain for Canadian-grown linen.

Yes, “growing clothes” does sound odd to farmers in this part of the world, Oulton admits. But flax and linen production flourished here over a century ago. So why not now?

“When I close my eyes and dream of the future of agriculture for Canada, it looks very different than it looks right now,” Oulton writes in his newly released report published through the Canadian Nuffield Agricultural Scholarship Association and available in full on its website.

Each year the program sponsors farmers and aggies who have successfully pitched a research initiative that will add to their own expertise and help them learn about something that could ultimately deliver benefits to other farmers and Canadian agriculture as a whole.

In From Seed to Shirt: Flax to Linen in Canada for the Local and Global Market, Oulton shares what he learned seeing this crop grown, processed and traded elsewhere in the world, and the approaches he believes could be models for the startup of a fledgling industry here at home.

Canada does, in fact, have a history of fibre flax production, although all attempts at it, he writes, had been shelved by the 1950s. His research uncovered experimental plots established to test for yield and fibre quality in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the 1930s, and a demonstration mill also once operated at Kentville during that period. Today, he notes, the vaults in Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Plant Gene Resources seed bank in Saskatoon contain varieties of fibre flax tried but no longer grown in Canada.

A key learning is that climatic regions such as those of Atlantic Canada and parts of southern Quebec, Ontario and B.C. may be best positioned to grow flax for long-line linen production. Their growing conditions are very similar to southwestern Europe, and in particular, Normandy, France, where top-quality fibre flax is produced.

Linen production requires in-field retting, which basically means pulling the crop and laying it on the soil surface, often for about three weeks, so the combination of dew and soil micro-organisms can help to release the long fibres in the flax stems.

These fibres are then gathered in a milling process called scutching.

After researching the scale and different kinds of value chains that turn flax into a high-value crop elsewhere in the world, Oulton has become convinced there are opportunities for farmers here, too.

“I came back to our own farm in Canada reinvigorated about our idea that we can produce quality long-line flax for fine fabrics, of the quality that they achieve in Normandy, and which is highly valued for flax spinners and weavers,” he writes in his report. “In addition to gaining knowledge about growing and selling flax in similar climatic conditions, I gathered information about what to do with the other products that result from flax processing, such as the tow (short flax fibres) and shives (flax straw) so that I might understand how to optimize both our production and sales ecosystems.”

Today, the global flax-linen crop stands at about 750,000 acres, with an annual harvest of about 220,000 tonnes of long fibres. (Short fibres and other byproducts are also produced, but the money is in the high-quality long fibre.)

The big producers are in western Europe (France, Belgium and the Netherlands), but there are also production pockets in Belarus, Russia and Egypt.

There are also about a dozen fledgling groups in North America attempting to evaluate and launch flax initiatives here.

From Seed to Shirt also lays out Oulton’s ideas for how growers could collaborate on creating mid-sized processing sites, thereby making a Canadian seed-to-shirt value chain a reality.

Oulton knows it’s a long shot. It hasn’t been tried before, or at least, not in many decades in Canada. He’s certainly heard from the naysayers, too.

“I’ve had quite a few people say ‘you can’t do it,’ he said in an interview with Country Guide, adding he’s also well aware how difficult it can be to attract farmers who have learned to be wary about new crops without proven revenue projections.

So Oulton spent the last two years finding the answers, and he now looks forward to sharing what he’s learned via webinars and hopefully at future farm conferences.

Meanwhile, having gained an in-depth understanding of fibre quality requirements, he and Bishop are building a detailed business plan to produce linen products on their own farm, and hope doing so will demonstrate the potential in it for others. “All around the world, when you begin searching, you will find collectives of people for either industry, survival or hobby, working with fibres,” he writes in his report. “Fibre production is everywhere.”

"There is a really good opportunity for sustainable fashion and sustainable fibre in the clothing industry.” photo: Light & Lens Studio

Q & A

A Nuffield scholarship was a significant commitment for Josh Oulton and Patricia Bishop, not only with travel away but writing an in-depth report. Country Guide asked Oulton to talk about what attracted him to the Nuffield Canada program, how he organized himself to participate, and what new skills he’s gained from it.

Q. How did you hear about Nuffield?

A. I got involved in a program out of what used to be the George Morris Centre called Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management or CTEAM with Larry Martin. I did CTEAM with one Nuffield scholar, who introduced the program to me. Through CTEAM I was also introduced to a lot of Outstanding Young Farmers, and then Patricia and myself were also selected to represent Atlantic Canada in OYF in 2010. Through that network I then met more Nuffield scholars and that just really got me thinking about Nuffield as a next step in the learning process and building my network.

What really sealed the deal for me was meeting a scholar on his travels from Australia. He was really inspirational. Then I was just biding my time to make the application process.

Q. How were you able to manage your time away and still run your farm? And how much time did you have to commit to Nuffield?

A. I did two big trips. Both were about seven weeks. The first was at an annual event held as a blast-off for each Nuffield Scholar. The entire group gathers together for one time only, spending eight days exploring agriculture with the host community, learning more about themselves and each other, and engaging with leaders in agriculture who help reinforce the Nuffield vision and values. It was held in Zeewolde, in the Netherlands. The second (trip) was my independent travel. That was more in February so it was good timing in terms of vegetable production. Trish and I manage the farm completely together on a daily basis so that made it definitely a lot easier. The first time I went away was probably the most difficult because I was away for the start of planting.

Q. Talk to us about how you began to plan your studies. How did you figure out who you needed to talk to and what you needed to know?

A. It’s not like you pick a topic out of a hat. If you’re not involved in it already, you’ve definitely put a lot of thought towards it. In the application process they really want to make sure this is a passionate question for you. Patricia and I had already been growing flax and had had a symposium at our farm and tried to glean as much info as we could. Trish had done a bit of travel through our county plus made a few trips around exporting potential, including some trips to Europe through Nova Scotia Business Inc. Plus, we already had some contacts in place, so we felt like we had a pretty good handle on the growing of flax, or thought we did, but I certainly learned a lot on my travels about growing. We were really trying to focus in on spinning and we didn’t have the knowledge of where to even start with that. For a first step, we went to the Linen Biennale in Northern Ireland with the premise that while we were there, I would plan out my personal pilgrimage. It was awesome. When we were there we met Dr. Malgorzata Zimniewska with the Institute of Natural Fibres and Medicinal Plants. She agreed that I could come and spend a week at her institute and I would learn in their laboratory where they do testing of the fibre. That was for a week. Then we sort of framed everything around that week.

Q. It sounds like you networked and made connections with people who then could recommend others for you speak to.

A. Part of Nuffield is to go to the Contemporary Scholar Conference and there we spent seven days together with all the other scholars. They coach us on how to perform this scholarship and it was drilled home pretty hard that when you’re on that learning pilgrimage, you can’t have too rigid a schedule because sometimes things pop up and you’ll meet somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody you should go see. That’s what happened to me in Poland. Someone knew the manager of probably the best flax spinning mill in the world. So then it was a four-hour train ride in the middle of the night to spend the whole day with them. There definitely needs to be flexibility on your schedule.

Q. What steps might you now be taking to pursue fibre flax production and processing on your own farm?

A. Before I did the journey we had created some primary processing equipment, small scale. We had some prototype equipment that we were using but we wanted to build the real thing for our farm. So that’s what we’ve been doing this summer. We’re just getting to hooking up the electrical so we can start processing. Now that I’ve done my travels I understand the quality of the long fibres that we need to have. You can’t really see that quality until you can break it and scutch it, and at that point you need to send it to people who can see what the quality is like. That’s the next step. I’m pretty excited about it. Two years ago we grew what I thought were pretty good fibres and they’re just sitting in storage waiting for us to process. It’s going to be pretty exciting to get a snapshot of where we are in terms of growing and the quality of it.

Q. You may be one of the very few or even the only person in Canada who has developed this kind of in-depth understanding of this industry. What will you be telling other farmers about it?

A. What I saw is that there is a real big demand, and growing demand. Flax is only about two per cent of the textile industry, but with one per cent growth in that two per cent, the present growing area couldn’t handle it. I think there is a really good opportunity for sustainable fashion and sustainable fibre in the clothing industry. There is an opportunity coming up as people get more educated about the textile industry and basically how awful it is and what we’re doing to the environment by the clothes we’re wearing. But there’s a real sharp learning curve in the knowledge of Canadian farmers. It’s going to have to be a multi-stakeholder situation.

Q. How would you say your Nuffield experience changed you personally?

A. My understanding of the world is much different than three years ago. I believe I’m much wiser as to how the world works. I’ve just seen so much. Personally, that has given me a lot of confidence. Oftentimes, you’ll have an interview with somebody and you’ll have half an hour so you need to jump right in. To meet new people and have a meaningful conversation right away has been a big push for my confidence. And I had an opportunity with Nuffield to go to the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). Probably three years ago I’d have likely struggled to even say what the FAO was about. Going to that was an opportunity, seeing how other people are producing food and fibre and all the challenges around the world.

Q. Your report talks about how you came home with new ideas and a better understanding of how to optimize your own work in fibre production. How has being a Nuffield Scholar enhanced your business skills, especially your critical thinking and decision-making skills?

A. It’s made me think about how there’s so many different ways you can do something. I’ve always been someone like that, who didn’t need to stay inside the box, and Patricia says “You were sort of like that when you left.” But in farming there’s always is so much emphasis on getting bigger, and through my travels I did talk to a lot of people on the importance of small scale, too. I do get caught up still in (thinking about) “How are we going to make it all work and we’ve got to go bigger” but now it’s like, no, you don’t have to. It has helped shaped a lot of my decision-making knowing that there is another way besides getting bigger.

Q. What will be the most lasting personal and professional benefit you’ve gained taking part in Nuffield?

A. It’s definitely the relationships I’ve built and hopefully can maintain. I met some great people around the world who are doing amazing stuff and I feel like I’ve done a really good job to maintain those relationships. I’ve already had people call and ask me for contacts or ideas and that interaction is stimulating. That will be what ultimately gives us success, I hope.

*Update: This story was updated to remove incorrect farm income projections. For income estimates, please see the original “From Field to Shirt” report on the Nuffield Canada website at www.nuffield.ca.


The Canadian Nuffield Agricultural Scholarship Association (Nuffield Canada) is part of Nuffield International, a non-profit global organization that inspires individuals around the world to travel, study and shape the future of agriculture and their local and global communities. Scholars devote months of their time digging into a topic of interest to them, developing expertise in their area of study that then makes them an invaluable resource to others. These are farm leaders who provide the kind of strategic business thinking Country Guide always aims to highlight to our readers.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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