FIELDS OF GOLD
Traveling the Lower Cove Road is a feast for the eyes in any season, but summer's view of the valley floor's mosaic is photo-opportunity breathtaking.
Cropping up here and there last summer, among the traditional palette of greens and browns, were sporadic fields of gold and yellow.
Thriving among the wheat, grass seed and alfalfa fields were carefully spaced acres of sunflower, mustard, canola and a bit of evening primrose.
Agri-biodiesel crops, these are all being grown for seed. Oil seed crops Â— a new niche in the agriculture industry of Union County.
Rob Beck, Alicel Feed and Seed, is the catalyst for the business and has grown canola as a seed crop for four years, recently branching out by contracting seed production to other local growers.
Grown and cleaned locally, the oil seed crops are sold to commercial growers in Canada who plant the seed to grow commercially for oil production.
The current rate for canola as a seed crop, Beck says, is a humble seven cents a pound. With a standard yield of 2,000 pounds per acre that translates to a gross value of $140 per acre. But for a fledgling industry marketing its product internationally, that $140 per acre is
all foreign money coming into a local
"There's big money in the seed market Â— this is still in the infant stage. We grew 500 acres this year, and we hope to double that next year. I'd like the opportunity to offer seed contracts to new growers and give everybody a chance to build this," Beck says.
With renewed and growing interest in biofuels, there is definitely room for expansion in biodiesel crops. But in what direction?
Don Wysocki is an associate professor of soil science at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton. He has been pursuing the possibilities of canola as a rotation crop for wheat since 1987.
"I'm interested in soil and water conservation and rotation crops help soil," Wysocki says.
He is also interested in canola as a biofuel that is grown as an oil crop, crushed, processed and used for farming operations Â— farmers growing their own fuel.
On Saturday, Wysocki spoke on "BiodieselCrops and How They Grow" at the Northeast Oregon Renewable Energy Conference in Baker City. The conference covered a wide variety of renewable energy topics including the possibilities of community projects like biofuel production facilities Â— both large and small scale.
Washington state has already begun to look at ways to fund a biodiesel crushing and refining facility for the east side of that state. Not to be outdone, many Oregonians are already asking, why not in Eastern Oregon?
"Higher fuel costs and emphasis on green products are ratcheting public interest and demand upward," Wysocki says.
But Beck sees no potential in growing canola Â— a crop that must be strictly protected from any contamination through cross-pollenization or disease Â— commercially in the limited land mass of the Grande Ronde Valley
"It would be foolish to do so. We can't compete in commercial production with the Hermiston or Pendleton area," he says. "And there is excitment about growing energy crops, right now, but it's blind."
Beck is even less enthusiastic about a local co-op to process locally grown canola for farm use.
"We've done that Â— 150 years ago we were using half our farm ground to grow hay to feed our horses. It takes 1,000 pounds of canola to generate enough oil to make 44 gallons of fuel. That's 88 gallons of fuel per acre," he says.
Beck is the first to admit he stand the most to lose if local farmers try growing oil seed for commercial purposes as it would devastate his expanding new seed industry.
"I'm excited about this. I know we can make it grow," he says.