AgStrong LLC, a company based in Bowersville, Ga., is providing exactly what South Carolina grain farmers need most to add canola to their crop rotation: a stable market and a fair price.

Located just across Lake Hartwell from some of South Carolina’s most productive farm land, the company took an interesting path, one that covered two continents, to provide a new cropping opportunity for farmers in South Carolina and across the Southeast.

They are well along in providing a good, sustainable winter crop for grain growers in northeast Georgia and throughout South Carolina

From the farmer’s perspective in the Southeast, canola is likely to produce about 80 percent of a wheat crop. Most Southeast growers shoot for an 80 bushel per acre wheat yield and grown on the same land with the same good production practices they would likely produce about 60 (50 pounds per bushel) bushels of canola per acre.

However, the canola is likely to be 70-80 percent more valuable than wheat — in most years, says Robert Davis, co-owner and president of AgStrong. At the end of the day, the grower should net $100-$150 more per acre with canola.

“We have had growers ask us about growing more canola, which would require a shorter rotation, and we say no. To be sustainable, growers must grow canola the right way and everything we know about growing the crop indicates in the Southeast a three-year rotation is a must,” Davis says.

Davis grew up in Brazil, the grandson of a missionary and son of a businessman, who made his professional career in Brazil. Davis was struck by the Brazilian’s penchant for turning agricultural crops, like sugarcane, into food and industrial-grade products.

He planned to study agricultural engineering at the University of Georgia and return to Brazil to build an agriculture-based business. The UGA degree and a couple of projects along the way worked out fine, but the return to Brazil just never worked out.

Davis decided to find the right business opportunity and establish an agriculture-based industry in the U.S. He encouraged, Mallory Davis, also an agricultural engineer who worked at the time with Nestle Foods, to join him in a pilot plant to produce food grade canola oil in northwest Georgia.

“We liked canola because it is a winter oilseed crop that can be grown successfully in the Southeast. Paul Raymer, University of Georgia professor and previous canola breeder for almost two decades, played a key role in the development of our business plan.

An excellent resource

“He helped us put together programs that will help farmers grow the crop and continues to be an excellent resource for AgStrong. That’s a big part of our objective — to find innovative, successful farmers who want a stable, sustainable crop to grow,” Davis says.

Based on the success of the pilot plant, the Davis cousins built a processing plant in Bowersville in 2008 and already have expanded the operation. Most of the canola they used in the processing plant came from outside the Southeast. Though about half their canola still comes from the lower Midwest and down into Alabama, Davis has built a small, reliable cadre of growers in South Carolina and Georgia to grow canola, and he is hoping all the canola he needs will be grown in the two-state area in this cropping year.

The crushing plant in Bowersville is rated as a 50 ton per day facility. Depending on canola yield. Davis says the plant can use 12,000-15,000 acres of canola.

In addition, the new refinery at the Bowersville site was designed to process canola grown in Georgia and the Carolinas, plus canola grown for a new plant that is scheduled to be built in northern Alabama.

The Alabama plant will be in the heart of the Tennessee Valley cotton production area and will provide a sustainable winter crop option for growers there as well as parts of Tennessee and eastern Mississippi .

Davis notes that once operational, the northern Alabama plant, located between Decatur and Florence on the Tennessee River, will be designed to crush  up to 150 tons per day and canola produced from  45,000-50,000 acres annually.

Nationally, the market is there for canola. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Americans used just over 3 billion pounds of canola oil in 2010, with about 2.5 billion pounds of that imported from Canada.

In addition to providing a sustainable winter crop for Southeast farmers, canola also provides some healthy ammunition for America’s war on obesity. Canola offers the highest levels of unsaturated fat, the most omega-3 anti-inflammatory fatty acids and is trans-fat and cholesterol-free.

Davis says establishing a market through processing, storage and refinery facilities was the first step in building a sustainable canola industry in the Southeast. The next challenge will be to develop enough acres to feed the two processing plants and the refinery.

To help on the agronomic side in building acreage, Davis hired Mike Garland, former executive director of the Georgia Seed Development Commission, as crop development director. 

A soybean breeder by training from Clemson and Iowa State Universities, Garland has a passion to find growers in South Carolina to grow canola.

Trish DeHond, a regional Extension agriculture agent in South Carolina says Davis and Garland met with Clemson University officials to discuss canola production in South Carolina. Then, they followed that up in meetings with key South Carolina farmers to discuss canola production.

Next year’s plan includes canola research at three of the Clemson Research and Education Centers: Clemson, Pee Dee and Edisto. From all this interaction, interest in growing canola seems to be really growing in South Carolina, DeHond says.

A ready market

Subsequently, AgStrong has set up two delivery points at local grain elevators in Dillon and Lake City, S.C., to help farmers more readily market their crop.

Now, Davis says they are looking for additional sites in an effort to extend their canola acreage. Already, two farmers  in North Carolina are growing canola for the Georgia plant. The Tar Heel state and Virginia are viable options for canola production  he adds.

“We are particularly looking for growers who are accustomed to growing two crops a year, and in the Southeast that is primarily soybeans behind wheat,” Garland says. South Carolina has recently produced about 150,000 acres of wheat annually and a high percentage of that crop is followed by soybeans.

Adding to that acreage, or replacing a third of it, gives us the potential for another crushing plant in the Carolina coastal plains, he adds.

Not only will canola provide a good off-season source of cash for growers, but will likely make their immediate double-crop and successive crops better, too.   Garland points out the earliness of canola may provide an opportunity to plant cotton or even peanuts, in a double-crop system.

Virtually all the canola grown in North America is in a single summer crop system in Canada and North  Dakota.

The national average yield for canola is 27 bushels per acre, but Garland says growers in the Southeast can realistically more than double that yield and plant a second crop per year.

The canola being grown in the Southeast this fall and harvested next spring is light years ahead of the crop growers have sporadically produced throughout the region for the past 20 years, Garland says.

“We have much improved hybrid varieties that are highly adaptable to the soils and climate in the Southeast. After these last two decades, best management practices for weed, disease and insect management that we just didn’t have,” he says.

In addition, over that time period a high percentage of farmers have gone to no-till technology. Canola can even be grown in tillage practice.

Diquat, a harvest aid labeled for use on canola, will make a huge difference in how the crop is harvested. Shatter loss is greatly reduced, 3-5 days are gained in planting the next crop, harvestability of the canola is improved and green matter is reduced.

Once canola is harvested, the soil quality and crop residue management is improved for planting a spring crop, Garland says.

Diquat is similar to paraquat, but doesn’t have the residual within the oilseed crop. It is used to manage fungi in ponds and other aquatic settings.

“Winter crops are another annual expense, but essentially reduce farming risks. A grower can have a crop failure with winter or summer crops, but not often do we have adverse growing conditions year around.”

By planting a winter crop, and one for which there is a sustainable market, a farmer can substantially reduce his or her risk to weather-related crop failures, Garland says. “One dryland South Carolina farmer even joked with me that with multiple winter crop options, I might just farm in the winter and take the hot, dry summer off!”

“AgStrong is pro-wheat and pro-flax, another crop competing for winter acreage in South Carolina. We want our farmers to grow canola in a three-year rotation, because we are confident that’s the best stewardship approach to have a good crop and good profitability,” Garland says.

By adding a Brassica crop (canola) and a Linum crop (flax) in the wheat rotation, will help in long-term pest management.

Garland notes that he is already seeing some significant differences in soybeans grown behind canola, versus being grown for several years behind wheat.

“I think most farmers will see a significant yield increase on beans behind canola — some from being able to plant a few days earlier and some from improving the quality of their seedbed and soil by planting canola,” he adds.

Next spring farmers from the northeast corner of Georgia and throughout South Carolina are likely to be getting lots of calls. The question will be: What is the beautiful bright yellow crop growing in your field? In addition to being a good winter crop option for growers, acre after acre of canola blooms in the spring are among the most beautiful sites in all of agriculture.

rroberson@farmpress.com