Growing Flax: a story of beauty, health, prosperity and ruin

Flax flowerFlax, Linum usitatissimum, seeds are used whole, roasted and ground in cooking. This beautiful and delicate looking annual, I believe, deserves a place in any garden or landscape. It’s easy to grow in a sunny location and prefers cooler temperatures making a good early season crop.

Flax was one of the most important crops to early American farmers and to the economy of our emerging nation. Grown in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.

Flax was literally the fiber and preservative that helped sustain the early Europeans who brought flax to America from Europe. Before the spread of the mechanical cotton gin in the early 1800s, most Americans had a choice of two clothing fibers – wool or linen. Even after the advent of inexpensive cotton, linen fiber from the stems of flax would remain an important source of fiber for clothes and other products.

In addition to being a fiber source, flax was also an important oilseed in America until the mid-1900s. Linseed oil, squeezed out of flax seed, can still be found in most hardware stores and is used as a preservative finish on wood. Despite the valuable characteristics of both linseed oil and linen fiber, flax began to fade from American farms after the development of the petroleum industry, especially following World War II.

Flax is now grown almost exclusively in North Dakota and Minnesota, despite the fact that it is agronomically adapted to most Eastern and Midwestern states. Part of the reason flax has remained competitive in North Dakota and Minnesota, is that these states need fast maturing, cool season crops. Flax, like spring oats or spring wheat, is planted as soon as the soils begin to warm (typically April), and can be harvested in August, well before the early frosts that can hit the northern U.S. In Missouri, the crop is planted earlier and harvested earlier, and normally ready for combining in the third or fourth week of July.

The renewed interest in flax has been partially based on increased demand for linen clothing, but more so because of certain healthful properties of the flax seed oil. Flax seed oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is believed to be helpful in lowering cholesterol when included in the diet.

Plant Description

Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is a broadleaf with very small, narrow leaves that are less than an inch long. Stems are branched near the base of the plant, with plants reaching 30 to 36 inches in height.

Flowers are mostly self-pollinated, with some cross-pollination by insects. New flowers will emerge for a few weeks, each developing into a round seed capsule about one-third inch in diameter. Each capsule contains 4 to 10 seeds.

Glossy in appearance, flax seeds have traditionally been brown in color; however, a new variety of flax, Omega, is golden-colored to make it more acceptable in the food market.

If exposed to water, flax seeds will become sticky due to mucilage in the seed coat.

Flax is roughly 40% oil by weight; about 55% of which is alpha linolenic acid (also called omega-3 fatty acid). Linseed oil from flax dries rapidly, due to linolenic acid, which helps make the oil suitable for varnishes and paints that need to dry quickly.

As an oilseed, flax is somewhat unique in that the oil has almost never been used for cooking purposes or other food uses. The role of flax in the human diet has been as a whole seed, cracked seed, or ground flour, and is used in a variety of baked products.

Part of the attraction of flax is also its high fiber content and relatively high potassium content. Besides baked products, flax has been used in fruit juice drinks, and some people sprinkle the seed on breakfast cereals or salads. Due to the high level of mucilage in its seed coat, flax is sometimes consumed as a laxative. The relatively high content of lignans in flax seed has prompted studies by the National Cancer Institute on use of flax to help prevent cancer. Some studies with rats have shown that flax helps reduce the occurence of certain cancers.

After the oil is extracted from the seed, the remaining material (meal) can be fed to a variety of livestock. In current U.S. areas of production, the meal primarily used in cattle feed. The use of whole seed or ground seed for chickens is increasing, due to the omega properties.

Growing Your Own Flax

  • Days to Germination: 5-10
  • Sow Directly in Spring, 1/2-1 inch deep
  • Prefers full sun
  • Space Plants 1 inch apart
  • Annual
  • 95-100 days to Harvest

Although late frosts may occur after flax emergence, they are unlikely to damage flax if the plant has already formed a set of two leaves. North Dakota researchers report that flax seedlings can survive temperatures down to 28°F. Upon emergence, the plants can tolerate the low 20s after they reach the two leaf stage.

Flax has moderate fertility needs, similar to that for spring oats.

Generally, insects are not a problem.

It is a good practice to rotate flax with other crops to avoid disease build-up in the soil.

The variety ‘Omega’ is a multi-branching variety for high seed yield.

Medicinal Uses: Ground seeds are a great source of fiber.

Flax Facts and How To Use Flax in the Diet

  • A 2-tablespoon serving of flaxseed meal contains 2400mg of Omega 3 and 560mg of Omega 6 fatty acids.
  • In a 2-tablespoon serving of flaxseed meal, there are 1.33g of soluble fiber and 2.67g insoluble fiber.
  • It is better to grind the flax seeds. You get more nutritional benefits from the seed, such as fiber, when it is ground. The whole seed cannot be broken down by the body and will pass through undigested.
  • Flaxseed meal can be added to hot or cold cereals, blended into smoothies, sprinkled on salads, stirred into yogurt or cottage cheese, added to baked goods, and mixed into juice or water.
  • There is no nutritional difference between brown and golden flax seeds. They are simply two different colors of the same seed. The golden seeds tend to have a lighter flavor and texture, but are nutritionally the same as brown flax seeds. Golden flax was developed because the color gold is more appealing to the eye and market.

Tips for Growing Flax for Seed or Fiber

  • If flax is sowed too thin, weeds will be more of a problem and light will get down into the canopy, stimulating an extended flowering period and slower plant dry down.
  • If seeding rates are too high, branching of the stem into multiple seed capsules is inhibited, leading to fewer capsules and lower yields.
  • Fiber flax is seeded at double the rate of oilseed flax, to reduce branching and promote higher fiber yields.

GM (Genetically Modified) Contaminated Flax Ruins an Industry

In the late 1980’s a flax variety, known as FP967 and later named Triffid was developed by a public research institution, the Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Triffid was authorized for commercial use in both Canada and the United States in the late 1990’s. However concerns about the European export market meant Triffid certified seed was never sold for commercial production. By 2001 Triffed was de-registered and it was believed that all known stocks had been identified and destroyed.

Canada is the world’s leader in the production and export of flax. Canada currently ships 60% of its flax exports to Eurpoe, 30% to the United Sates, and 4% to Japan. Between 500,000-700,000 bushels go to Europe.

Before the contamination scandal, cash bids for flax in Manitoba were $9.90-$9.92 a bushel. Based on rumour, before contamination was confirmed, flax bids in Manitoba were down to $6.78 a bushel. This is a fall in price of 32% occurred before the GM contamination was even confirmed.

Triffid was genetically engineered to contain genes from a weed added to it, allowing it to grow in soil contaminated by herbicides. Mysteriously, Triffid has reappeared in commercial crops.

The modified seed was de-registered and ordered destroyed 10 years ago after concerns arose from farmers that Europe would reject it.

Ironically, Triffid was developed in the 1990s at the University of Saskatchewan and named after the flesh-eating plants featured in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids.

In 2001, Triffid was taken off the market because farmers feared that the variety would contaminate other flax produced in Canada. At least 200,000 bushels of Triffid flax seed worth $2.5 million was rounded up from farms across the Prairies and crushed, then de-registered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, making the seed illegal.

Even though the seed was never grown commercially, about 40 farmers were multiplying the 200,000 bushels of seed for future marketing and use. They were forced to clean out their flax bins and ship the seed to Canamera Foods in Manitoba for crushing.

Almost a decade later, however, in September 2009, traces of Triffid flax were inexplicably found in European shipments of Canadian flax. A $320 million industry began to tank as 15,000 flax farmers across Canada watched 70% of their export market disappear. By October, 35 countries had reported contamination from GM flax in Canadian exports, and a vast recall of cereals, bakery products, bakery mixtures, and nut/seed products had to be undertaken in those countries. Europe and Japan, then Brazil closed their doors to Canadian flax. By the end of 2009, some 930,000 tons of Canadian flax were left unsold.

As MP Atmanenko wrote in a letter to Western Producer (Jan. 27, 2010):

“The recent loss of our flax markets due to contamination by GM Triffid makes it pretty clear that a GM technology that is not accepted by our major export markets has no economic value whatsoever… There is nothing in our current regulations to prevent the commercialization of GM seeds that we know would lead to economic disaster.”

GM Crops: The US Situation… the ‘can of worms’ and Alfalfa

According to the UK’s GM Watch group (a non-profit organization that monitors genetic modification developments), in 2007 alone there were 39 new instances of Genetically Modified (GM) contamination of crops in 23 countries, with 216 incidents reported between 2005 and 2009.

Warning that “organic agriculture will be destroyed in many areas,” the National Farmers’ Union stated that conventional alfalfa producers in Canada, and likely also in the United States, feel that Genetically Modified alfalfa “is a largely unnecessary and harmful product.”

Others have also questioned the need for herbicide-resistant alfalfa, since conventional farmers rarely use herbicide when growing alfalfa! Imagine that!

Lucy Sharratt explained…

GM contamination of farmers’ alfalfa “would be useful to Monsanto because it forces open international markets and it forces farmers to abandon their own seed” because of the threat of a lawsuit by Monsanto.

A feature article in Vanity Fair (May 2008) revealed that…

by 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 law-suits against farmers and seed dealers in 27 U.S. states. According to the magazine, Monsanto ”relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents” to “strike fear” into farming communities, making the company “detested in farm country, even by those who buy its products.”

By April 2010, more than 100 Canadian agricultural and consumer groups had signed a statement against GM alfalfa.

If the USDA decides in favor of GM alfalfa, the current court injunction against planting in the United States will be lifted, likely this summer.

Monsanto has also challenged the injunction in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the case scheduled for opening arguments, and a decision expected in June at the earliest. Should the Supreme Court find in Monsanto’s favor, it could lift the injunction pending the conclusion of the EIS.

The judge hearing the case is Clarence Thomas, a former attorney for Monsanto from 1976 to 1979, who has previously ruled in favor of the biotechnology industry.

I suppose we don’t need to bother wondering how this is going to play out. The lovely, very useful and dietarily nutritious flax seed seems to be going the way we have seen many other plants that our own survival is dependent upon. Our involvement in demanding that our food and ingredients in processed foods be labeled when they contain GM crops is a must for our own species and for the wellness of our planet.

Sources:

Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
CCPA (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
Flax Newsline; FlaxCouncil.ca
GM Contamination Register

Related Articles

Organic Certification: is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Genetically Modified (GM) Canola Found Growing Along Roadsides

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