Neal Baxley recently cut his second crop of flax and says the steep learning curve from last year paid off in a better crop the second time around.

The key to growing flax is getting a good stand. You get paid for fiber, so obviously the more plants you have in a field, the more valuable the crop, the South Carolina grower says.

Baxley, who farms near Mullins, S.C., with his brother Gene Robert and his father Steve, planted about 320 acres of flax this past year. “Flax likes poorly drained soil we don’t like for other crops, and we have some of that type land on our farm,” Baxley says.

They got interested in flax after attending a meeting held by NAT (Naturally Advanced Technologies, which is now officially named Crailar — same as the process the company uses to produce fabric.

“A few years prior to that we had purchased a large square baler, and the deal we had set up when we bought the baler fell through, so we needed a way to use the piece of equipment, Baxley explains.

Crailar, which uses flax in an 80:20 cotton blend to make fabric for several large, well known U.S.-based clothing manufacturers, recently opened a production plant in Pamplico, S.C.

At the Pamplico plant, the companyproduces and markets CRAiLAR, a natural fiber made from flax and other base fibers, most commonly cotton.

The proprietary CRAiLAR process is the first to remove the binding agents from flax that contribute to its stiff texture by bathing it in a proprietary enzyme wash. The result is a textile fiber that merges the strength and durability of flax with the most desirable attributes of cotton.

The Baxley family farming operation includes corn, cotton, soybeans tobacco and peanuts, plus winter wheat and now canola and flax, plus a livestock operation. “We grow a little bit of everything, so to fit into our production timing, flax had to have some advantages,” Baxley says.

One advantage, he says, is that they can typically get flax out earlier than wheat. Much of the flax crop is grown under irrigation, so they have some flexibility as to what crop to plant behind it. This year, Baxley says, they plan to plant corn behind their irrigated flax.

No double-cropping disadvantages

“Flax is different from any of the crops we grow and there doesn’t seem to be any disadvantage to double-cropping it with any of our spring planted crops, as long as we can get the flax out and the other planted in a timely manner,” he adds.

The flax has to be in a uniform plant bed so it can be cut approximately an inch above the soil surface. The harvest ‘sweet spot’ allows the cutting blade to slice through the dried stems with no problem.

However, sometimes only an inch or so too high and the sturdy flax fiber that is in such demand by Crailar becomes a terror to cut.

“The precise nature of growing and harvesting flax makes it a nearly ideal crop to no-till plant behind other crops. All you have left is a short stem from the harvested plant, and none of the crop debris you get from wheat. That’s a big advantage for us in growing flax,” Baxley says.

Last year the South Carolina grower planted flax in twin 7.5 inch rows. “We had a good seedbed and the flax grew fine in the early stages, then we got a lot lodging problems,” he says.

“This time we broadcast the seed and used a harrow to lightly disk it into the soil. The flax seed are tiny, so this worked out well. And, we got a better stand and it took less time to plant this year.

“We tried to get 125 pounds of seed per acre — that looks like it’s going to be about right based on our crop this year.

“Seed cost is always an issue, but with flax, Crailar provides the seed, and they were very supportive in helping us figure out the best way to get a good stand,” the South Carolina grower says.

“We’ve had an excellent business relationship with Crailar both years we’ve grown flax. Both Duncan Skelton, who works in their Pamplico facility and Steve Sandroni have been very helpful and very timely in getting us information about growing the crop,” Baxley says.

For example, he adds, last year we were planning to sell the company the seed from our flax crop. We got powdery mildew in our crop and the seed couldn’t be used. Despite this, the company paid us some for the seed — and they didn’t have to do that, Baxley points out.

“Powdery mildew was most likely more a result of unusual weather we had last year. This year we’ve had no disease problems or insect problems, really very few production problems of any kind with the flax,” he adds.

Variable rate fertilizer

They zone sample their farm and use variable rate application for fertilizer on their crops. This year’s flax was planted in mid-November, though mid-October as preferred.

They put down about 30 units of nitrogen at planting and the crop took off early. Once it starts to cover the soil, it’s so thick that weeds aren’t a problem.

In February, they came back with another application of potash and phosphorus based on the zone sample and another 50 units of nitrogen.

As a precaution, they applied a fungicide to protect against powdery mildew, though that proved to be unnecessary this time around.

It’s important to keep flax free of weeds like wild radish, wild mustard or any other weed that could get in the flax fiber and cause greening in the production process, Baxley says. So far, he adds, weed control, and in reality all pest control problems, have been at a minimum with flax.

“We were also pleasantly surprised at how little affect flax has on soil nutrients. We thought going into our first year it would take most of the nutrients out of the soil, but our soil tests show little impact on the soil, Baxley adds.

Sandroni, who is vice-president for agriculture for Crailar, has worked with a number of crops in the Southeast during his career, says flax offers some different opportunities for growers in South Carolina.

“I see this crop as a great opportunity for the farmer to fully utilize his resources. Fiber flax is a perfect fit for the heavier, wetter type soils in both South and North Carolina, which is just the opposite for planting wheat, which needs to be on more sandy soils.

“The crop offers additional income and earliness that will enable the farmer to plant early beans, grain sorghum and possibly cotton. This flexibility will not only provide additional income, but a rotational option, that he otherwise would not have had in the past,” Sandroni says. 

Sandroni also says there are about 30 growers and 3,000 acres currently in production in South Carolina. He adds that changes in farm practices and understanding more about the crop, has led to higher yields and should open the door for  more farmers to try  flax, this fall.

“This year we are looking at an average two ton per acre yield, with several growers who should top three tons per acre. Since Crailar Inc. is paying $250 per ton that is a gross margin of $750 per acre. There are not many winter crops that can net you $500 per acre,” he says. 

For more information about flax and growing the crop under contract with Crailar, growers can contact Sandroni directly at 314-308-0869.

rroberson@farmapress.com

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