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.”

Competitive with wheat

On average, flax yields 2 to 3 tons of fiber per acre. At this year’s price of $250 per ton, flax production is competitive with wheat. With flax, there is potential for earlier harvest than wheat, giving growers more flexibility to plan for subsequent full-season crops.

Can flax play a role in nutrient management?

An issue yet to be resolved for flax is its role in nutrient-management plans. In Columbus County, where animal agriculture overshadows crop production, growers often choose crops based on their usefulness as receiver crops for animal waste.

Because flax hasn’t been grown here historically, nitrogen fertilization rates and a realistic yield expectation have not been established for this crop. Although provisional exceptions can be made, this information will be required before flax can be a routine choice in a nutrient-management plan.

Phyllis Greene, forage specialist with Columbus County Cooperative Extension, planted 35 acres of flax at her family’s farm this year. She obtained approval from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to modify her nutrient-management plan for the application of swine effluent to flax grown as a cover crop.

DENR approved a provisional rate of 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre, which is low given that CRAiLAR recommends 80 pounds and historical literature supports application of 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Morris, the NCDA&CS agronomist, has helped growers develop nutrient-management plans for many years. He approached Greene about the possibility of setting up some fertilization test plots in her fields.

Based on the provisionally approved rate and the rates commonly used, Morris and Greene decided to set up test plots to compare commercial fertilizer rates of 30, 60 and 90 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

The first year’s results have been tabulated, and they indicate a good correlation between nitrogen fertilization and yield. Extrapolating from the test plots, Morris and Greene estimate that rates of 30, 60 and 90 pounds per acre produced yields of 2.17, 2.61 and 3.48 tons per acre, respectively.

If similar results occur in subsequent field trials, they should have no trouble getting higher nitrogen rates approved for flax fertilized with animal waste, Morris said.

Area growers and livestock producers who are interested in flax production can contact Morris for detailed information. He and other regional agronomists can provide advice on how to optimize yield through precise management of nutrient applications.

For contact information, visit www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm.