History of Canola

Canola has both winter- and spring-adapted germ-plasm. The predominant production of this crop in the U.S. which developed following FDA approval in the mid-1980s for canola oil in the food chain has been focused on the fertile soils of the Northern Great Plains.

In this region, spring canola is planted in April/May and harvested in August/September. Spring canola has not migrated further south into the corn belt due to its inability to tolerate relatively high mid-summer temperatures during critical pollinating and seed fill stages.

The successful adaptation of winter canola in the U.S. has developed at a much slower pace since the mid-1980s. Several regional attempts to commercialize the crop failed due to a variety of reasons including poorly adapted germplasm, failure to refine production practices that simultaneously meet the needs of the farmers and the crop, handling and storage infrastructure limitations, fluctuations in global pricing, and demand for vegetable oil and competition of other crops in the rotation. These challenges combined to discourage oilseed processors from viewing winter canola as a reliable crop with a consistent annual supply for dedicated processing facilities.

A recent resurgence in domestic interest in winter canola in the 21st century can be attributed to two main sources of demand: 1.) Mitigation of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels through the use of renewable feedstocks for fuels such as renewable diesel (RD), sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and platform molecules for chemical synthesis industries, and, 2.) Recognition by the medical profession of the health risks linked to the consumption of trans fats associated with hydrogenated vegetable oils. Canola oil is both an excellent feedstock for renewable fuels and a consumer-friendly food oil not requiring the trans-fat-generating hydrogenation process like soybean oil. Principle regions with excellent potential for rotational winter canola in the US include wheat-producing and/or double-cropping regions of the Southern Plains, Midwest, Southeast, Great Lakes, and the wheat production areas of the PNW.

Canola Growth

In recent years, significant areas of winter canola production have developed in the Southern Plains, Midwest, and Southeast. However, widespread adoption has remained elusive as recurrent problems with consistent markets, general swings in commodity canola prices, and competition with competing crops have tempered enthusiasm. Despite the excellent productivity of the crop, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast where yields of 1.5 to 2 times the national average (38bu), the area under the crop remains limited. In the PNW, the area devoted to winter canola has steadily increased as farmers adopt it as a rotational crop to diversify monoculture winter wheat rotations. Interestingly, the PNW is unique in both winter and spring canola can be produced, although the winter type significantly outperforms the spring type in most seasons.

Farmer interest in the crop is predicted to continue in these and other regions driven by profitability and rotational benefits in following crops such as soybeans and wheat (See double-crop soybean study depicting a 5.3% bean yield increase). Farmers in the Southeast, Southern Plains, and the PNW have witnessed 10 to 20 bu/acre yield increases in winter wheat following canola over typical rotations.