At first glance, motorists may have been stumped this past spring as they drove through Columbus County, N.C.

Among the pine trees, small-grains and swine houses, acres of small blue flowers sporadically caught the eye. The unfamiliar sight was flax, a crop grown primarily for the fiber from which linen is made.

Flax production gained a foothold in South Carolina a couple of years ago and has now made its way north across the state line. This spring, 500 to 600 acres were harvested in Columbus County.

The prospect for continued expansion seems promising despite constraints posed by soil type, the need for specialized equipment, and the uncertainty of how to incorporate the crop into nutrient-management plans.

According to Rick Morris, regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, flax grows well in moist, heavy soils.

“Sandy soils are too well-drained for flax production,” Morris said. “Examples of suitable soils include those classified as Rains, Torhunta or Lynchburg. These hold sufficient moisture and account for about 36 percent of the soils in the county.”

This past season, seven Columbus County farmers grew flax for CRAiLAR Technologies Inc., which has a processing plant in Pamplico, S.C. Most of the growers were hay producers, specifically solicited because they already had access to some of the equipment needed to produce the crop.

As an incentive, CRAiLAR supplied the seed, provided stripper-headers and rotary rakes at harvest, and agreed to pick up and transport the bales.

Cole Cartrette of Tabor City handles local flax seed production for CRAiLAR. He is currently working with agronomists from Clemson University to establish germination and purity standards for flax.

“North Carolina and South Carolina have reciprocal seed-certification rules,” Cartrette said, “so any standards set at Clemson will be applicable here in Columbus County as well. I talk to growers who are interested in flax and try to get them on board. CRAiLAR would like to contract more acres in southeastern North Carolina.”