ROMNEY, IND. -- The county surveyor called farmer Paul Kerkhoff recently from the local coffee shop. "Hey Paul," he said, "the guys here want to know what that stuff is growing next to your house. There's a $25 bet on it."
Who knows who won the bet, but the Technicolor blossoms that spring from the landscape next to Kerkhoff's house like poppies on the road to the Emerald City are canola. The fastest growing oil-seed crop in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, crushed and refined canola seeds yield an edible oil with the lowest saturated fat content of any oil currently on the market.
"It's a health product, and beautiful to look at, too," said Kerkhoff, who with his wife, Alma, and son, Jerry, are experimenting with 50 acres of canola on their 2,500-acre corn, soybean and wheat farm here in western Indiana.
In America, where soybean oil is king, canola is making a courageous dent. Approximately 58 million acres of soybeans are grown in the United States and crushed into 75 percent of the country's edible oil. By comparison, estimates place current canola acreage at a mere 100,000.
Nevertheless, those 100,000 acres of domestic canola don't approach the demand. In 1989, the equivalent of 500,000 acres of canola was imported into the U.S. Much of this came from Canada, the world's largest canola producer. Canola is also the largest oil-seed crop grown in Western Europe.
In the U.S., however, a major hurdle in increasing domestic acreage has been convincing farmers to simply hear about canola. Seed companies have been sponsoring seminars in the hopes of drumming up interest and some farm bureaus have been promoting it as well. But growing a new crop can be risky.
"Farmers are real conservative," said Harold Watters, who consults with farmers as an agronomist with Ameri-Can Pedigree Seed Co. It's "the open-minded types" who are growing canola, said Andrew Baum, president of Ameri-Can, which markets canola seed and is a subsidiary of Calgene, Inc., one of the country's leading biotechnology firms.
"A lot of people won't try something new because of fear, because they're afraid they'll get laughed at by their neighbors," said Irvin Furrer, a farmer in Wolcott, Ind. "Maybe they're laughing at me for growing canola."
Furrer tried canola on 120 acres of his farm because it spreads out his workload and cash flow. He can plant canola after his wheat and harvest it in the summer before corn and soybeans. Crop rotation is also good for the soil, he said.
The Kerkhoffs, who have also experimented with growing buckwheat, were intrigued by the healthful properties of canola and are avid promoters of the crop. Alma Kerkhoff, who is on the board of directors of the St. Elizabeth's Hospital Auxiliary in Lafayette, Ind., helped coordinate a fish fry for the auxiliary at which 50 gallons of canola oil were used. "And 800 people came!" she said.
North in Baroda, Mich. (a billboard on the way into town says "Home of 1989 Miss Blossom Time Julie Starbuck"), farmer Jim Nitz's lush field of long-stemmed canola is just starting to burst into tiny canary-colored flowers. The still-green florets are similar in taste to broccoli and the stems, crunchy and sweet, taste like they would be good steamed or saute'ed in a little oil -- canola oil.
Discussing his reasons for planting canola, Nitz said, "If there's any money in it, it'll be in the first few years. The odds are better if you're a charter member."
Being a charter member isn't new to Nitz, who has tried a number of alternative crops on his 1,700-acre diversified farm in Baroda. "I was in the pickle business last year," he said. "It was the first and last time."
The jury is still out as to whether there's any money in it for farmers, who must earn the same or more for canola than for competing crops to make it worthwhile. Part of the problem in evaluating its merits is that prices of cereal crops and oil seeds fluctuate.
"I've got to get a little better price to compete with wheat," said Kerkhoff, chatting over fried catfish at the Clark Hill Restaurant in Clark Hill, Ind. (pop. 600), where he seemed to know everyone in the eatery.
Economically, it's "not quite as good as soybeans," said Furrer.
So far, this lack of monetary incentive has meant that American food companies, anxious to cash in on the health-conscious consumer, have been forced to either import canola, or not use it at all.
Robert Norrish, spokesman for Procter & Gamble, which imports canola for its Puritan Oil, said, "The idea is that for the time being, we'll be buying from Canada." At some point, added Norrish, "we'd like to get canola to the place where it's available in the U.S."
For companies that use canola oil as an ingredient rather than as a brand-name cooking oil, high prices have forced them to opt out for the present. "We're not using much now because the price is so high compared to soybean," said Larry Pryor, director of purchasing at Lance Foods, which in 1987 added canola oil to the list of "and/or" fats on its cookie and cracker labels.
It's no wonder, then, that an enthusiastic movement is afoot to interest American farmers in growing it.
"We think canola has the chance to be a multi-million dollar crop," said Ameri-Can's Baum. To fully integrate canola breeding, production and marketing, Calgene has also formed a joint venture with Central Soya Co. to crush and refine the seed, and with Ameri-Can to fund canola research in universities all over the country. Calgene is also working on developing genetically engineered canola varieties to impart specific agronomic and quality traits.
Cargill, Inc., the gigantic international merchandiser, processor and transporter of agricultural commodities, recently purchased Canola Inc., a small company that distributes canola seeds. Archer Daniels Midland Co., North America's largest crusher and refiner of domestic oil seeds, has been operating a canola crushing plant in Velva, N.D., since last year.
Frito-Lay has been contracting for a small amount of canola with farmers in North Dakota since 1988. Nonetheless, the snack-food giant, which annually uses "hundreds of millions of pounds" of oil, according to Harry True, the firm's group manager of commodity purchasing, was able to contract for only 3,000 acres of canola this year. That amount of seed wouldn't supply one of Frito-Lay's more than 30 snack food plants for more than a week of production, True said. As a result, it may not be economical for the company to have the seed crushed and refined. Last year, Frito-Lay sold its seed to the ADM plant in Velva.
While these and other canola endeavors have been a start, introducing a new food crop to American agriculture is a slow process given the risks involved.
"We knew it was going to take time and patience," said Gordon Gregory, merchandising manager for the ADM plant in Velva.
Canola's success, however, rests in part on bridging the concerns and economic needs of farmers with the concerns of those at the end of the food chain, namely food manufacturers. In a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario, farmers need a decent return on their investment and a guaranteed market, while food companies want a plentiful, reliable and cost-competitive supply of oil.
What also comes into the picture is the influence federal farm policy plays -- or doesn't play -- in the development of alternative crops. Canola supporters believe that current farm programs offer few incentives for growing new crops.
Canola was a latecomer to the United States simply because it wasn't until 1985 that canola oil, the edible portion of a variety of rapeseed plant, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food products. That's when varieties that produce a very low erucic acid content were introduced. Industrial rapeseed, which contains high levels of this acid, is used for making lubricants and plastic, but is not suitable for consumption.
The introduction of this low-erucic acid rapeseed (known as LEAR before it was renamed canola) opened the way for imports, particularly from Canada, which had petitioned the FDA for approval. Gradually American agribusiness realized that certain varieties of canola would adapt nicely in parts of this country with cool, long springs.
All new ideas undergo growing pains and there are a lot of little and big kinks still to iron out, not the least of which is the fact that some growers have had to put duct tape around their trucks when they transport the harvested canola. Otherwise, the BB-sized seeds, smaller than corn or soybeans, might slip through the cracks.
And without an established distribution network, there are added costs and headaches for growers. Farmers have had to pay expensive transportation costs to ship their seed and have had to search for grain elevators that will even accept canola. Producers say that many grain elevator operators have said that it's not economical for them to take up a bin with such small quantities.
What's more, canola supporters agree that one of the major determinants of its success will be whether there is increased flexibility in federal farm programs.
"The farm bill will be the key factor in catalyzing explosive growth in canola," said Ameri-Can's Baum.
Under current farm programs, the USDA supports certain crop prices by guaranteeing farmers payment should the going market price fall below the target price (guaranteed minimum prices set by law). In 1987, for example, the market price for corn was $2 a bushel and the government target price was $3. The government paid farmers the difference, $1 a bushel. In order to qualify for these deficiency payments, the producer must develop a history of growing certain crops and cannot substitute one crop for another.
Thus for many growers, there is little incentive to grow much canola since it currently qualifies for neither loans and crop insurance nor these deficiency payments.
"I would put more canola out if I had more flexibility," says Kerkhoff, who grows 80 percent of his crops under the farm program.
While the debate over the 1990 Farm Bill includes Congressional proposals to increase this flexibility, John Gordley, executive director of the U.S. Canola Association, believes they fall way short. "What Congress has in mind isn't going to do a damn thing to encourage growers to plant these healthier crops," he said.
As one House Agriculture Committee staffer put it, "We're not talking about incentives here, we're talking about removing disincentives."
Regardless of the outcome of the farm bill, there may still be a lot of explaining and convincing to do. Watters, the agronomist with Ameri-Can, said that when he first started talking to growers about canola, they thought he was talking about "that stuff they put in cereal." As Watters recalls, "they wanted to grow granola."