Many growers are on the lookout for new ways to diversify their crops — and diversify their risk. However, it is the rare case when they can find a new crop that brings its market with it to the table. That is the case for brothers and farming partners Jimmy and Angus Powers in St. Pauls, N.C., who teamed up with Technology Crops International in 2011 and are growing rapeseed under contract with the company for the first time this year.
As the name denotes, the company is international in scope. Its global headquarters is in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Jimmy Powers enjoyed working with the company and growing the crop. “I guess initially the biggest problem was getting the seeding rate down,” Jimmy says. “Other than that, it has basically been like growing wheat. We’ve been pleased.”
TCI held a grower information meeting May 2 on the Powers farm. It was one of at least 16 meetings TCI has held and will be holding between December 2011 and August to gauge farmer interest in rapeseed.
• Rapeseed production contracts offer growers enhanced profits.
• Powers brothers very pleased with first year of production.
• Inputs higher than in wheat, but prices seem to offset this.
“I feel like we’ll make a good crop and we’ll make a good profit,” Jimmy says. “From this point on there are a lot of variables, but up to now I’ve been comfortable with it. I’m pleased with the support that the company has given us, too. Their agronomist has been available to help us, for example, with any questions we might have.”
As might be expected, the first question growers have is usually the price they can get. Jeff Riddle, the company’s grower relations manager, notes in 2012 (the crop now in the field) TCI offered growers a fixed-price contract of 24 cents per pound for harvest delivery to Perdue Agribusiness elevators in Greenville, Wilson or Belhaven, N.C.
Based on a normal test weight of 50 pounds a bushel, that adds up to $12 per bushel. For growers outside those primary delivery areas, the company is also offering some growers on-farm pickup contracts with a price of 23.4 cents per hundredweight for growers in the Elizabeth City area, and 23 cents per hundredweight for growers in the Lumberton area. For western North Carolina growers, TCI has partnered with McLain Farms in Statesville for elevators.
Prices for the next crop may vary a bit, but Riddle notes the company’s prices are basically designed to give growers a bit of a premium over wheat.
One reason the Powerses feel it will be an excellent crop for them is that seems to be well-suited for North Carolina conditions.
“It has been an interesting experience and an interesting crop,” says Angus. “It can stand the cold and it will grow on light land. That is one reason I feel it will be good for us to grow it.”
Pointing to the shoulder-high crop in the corner of a curving path around a field border, Jimmy notes, “This corner is very sandy. We don’t usually get a stand of anything here, but this [rapeseed] has grown nicely here.”
Looking out at the green field punctuated by yellow flowers, Jimmy notices a few fluttering butterflies over the surface of the field. “Everybody loves to watch it grow,” he says. “It is a beautiful crop when it is flowering.”
For food and fuel
On a historical note, the crop has been around since ancient days, when people used it primarily for fuel, Riddle notes. Many Carolina-Virginia farmers are may be more familiar with canola, a variation of traditional rapeseed that is low in erucic acid.TCI is offering HEAR, or high-erucic-acid rapeseed.
End-market uses for HEAR include various high-end lubricants. Plastic bags are often coated with rapeseed oil as a slip agent to keep them from sticking together. The plastic tops of soda bottles are coated with it so they open more easily.
Before bringing it to North Carolina, TCI produced rapeseed in North Dakota, and in Canada and the United Kingdom.
“Even with all those production areas, we still can’t keep up with demand,” Riddle says. “It is a unique market in that the demand is greater than the supply; and secondly, there are not many good substitutes for it. It has some unique properties, which makes it a nice market to be in.”There is one other attribute growers are always interested in.
“We never offer growers contracts until we have a long-term contract with end users,” Riddle told visitors to the grower meeting at the Powers farm. “There is no speculation. What that means to you is that as a grower, you can always be assured that you will be paid, and that there is a market for your crop.”
Making it work
Neal Boughton is TCI’s director of agronomy, who has been commuting from his U.K. office to get the program here established. Rapeseed is a winter crop, he explains. The crop is drilled or planted between mid-September and mid-October in North Carolina, depending on where you are in the state. Some people broadcast it, but he recommends drilling or planting it.
“Some people use serial drills in 7-inch rows,” Boughton says. “We’ve had some people use a serial seed drill, and some blocked up every other coulter so they were on 15-inch rows. Then we’ve got people with planters at various widths, some of which have gone all the way up to 27-inch rows.
“The plant will just compensate and branch out and fit the holes. The wider the rows, the more bare soil there is, so the better the weed control needs to be. That is the only downside to going on to wider rows,” he says.
Boughton says the idea is to get the plant to four to six leaves — or even up to eight leaves as long as they are flat on the ground — when the plant goes into wintertime or dormancy.
“Flat on the ground,” Boughton explains, “because that makes the plant very, very cold-resistant.”
The crop reaches the four-to-six-leaf stage by mid-November. Then it breaks dormancy in early March, and stem extension and fast growth start in mid- to late March. The first flowers open in early April and flowering ends in early May. The crop reaches maturity by early May.
N makes world go ’round
The crop uses a total of 150 pounds of nitrogen during a season. Boughton recommends about one-third of the N at planting to kick it off and get it to the right stage to enter dormancy. Note, however: Too much N can make the crop too soft and prone to frost.
“It is important not to make it look too good,” Boughton says.
He journeyed over to North Carolina from the U.K. in February, noting that many growers from North Carolina had been phoning him in the U.K. before his trip to complain about the progress of their crop.
“They were saying, ‘My crop is all purple and red and horrible, and it doesn’t look right. It is all going to die.’ I brought some pictures from crops just outside my office in the U.K. that were exactly the same — I think that helped to reassure people that it is quite natural for it to look like that,” he says.
The next step
Growers add the rest of the N in the springtime, just as the crop is ready to come out of dormancy.
“That spring fertilization is one of the key events in raising this crop,” Riddle says. “The first is planting, the second is spring fertilization and the third is getting your harvesttime right.”
Boughton notes the vast majority of growers in North Carolina will give the crop the entire 100 pounds of the remaining N in one shot.
Riddle notes they might recommend to a few growers that they split the remaining 100 pounds of N. In this scenario they apply 50 pounds to break dormancy, and the remaining 50 pounds as the root system is getting bigger and better able to take it up. But that kind of split N is typically rare, since the growing season comes on so quickly here.
Growers will usually add some urea and sulfate into their fertilizer mix, whether dry or liquid. The sulfate is the second-most important element because sulfur helps the plant use the N that you apply. Without S, the N may be wasted.Boughton notes some North Carolina soils will also need a little boron.
“We have been adding a little top-off of boron into the recommendations for most of our growers — about a pound and a half,” he says.