DRIVE west from Oklahoma City on Interstate 40. After crossing the Canadian River, your eyes will lift to the tops of the magnificent windmills near Weatherford. Look down and you'll see fields of yellow flowers as breathtaking as the woodland redbuds were a month ago.
What is this stuff of which we were blissfully unaware?
Oklahoma farmers, not town gardeners, are responsible for the sea of yellow. They're planting and harvesting canola in increasing numbers, the result of a decade-long effort at Oklahoma State University to promote an alternative crop to winter wheat.
Canola, once a trademarked name derived from blending “Canada” and “oil,” is used for cooking oil that's low in saturated fat. It's related to a plant called rapeseed, a name derived not from “rape” but from a Latin derivative for turnip. Canola's detractors, however, think “rape” is apt: The plant can be quite weedy.
Quite beautiful is how we'd describe it. Winter wheat in early spring has a beauty all its own, with its tendency to wave in the wind. But it's hard to spot a green wheatfield a mile or more away. Even three miles out, canola can't be missed at this time of year. Those yellow blooms make it unmistakable. But they won't last long.
Enid is developing into a center for Oklahoma canola production. Northstar Agri Industries plans to build a $200 million canola processing plant there. In late March, Enid hosted a “Canola College” symposium for new and veteran canola producers associated with the Great Plains Canola Association. But canola's economic impact, and processing of the crop, aren't confined to the Enid area.
Josh Bushong, a canola specialist for OSU Cooperative Extension, says canola can produce yields as high as wheat and has the potential to yield higher cash returns. This depends, of course, on market forces that can sway as much as wheat does when the wind is really blowing.
Farmers can rotate wheat and canola, which Bushong says acts as a weed management strategy. Canola production has blossomed as rapidly as a prairie fire, increasing dramatically since 2010. About 275,000 acres were planted in canola in the Southern Plains states in the current growing season. In Oklahoma, 40,000 acres were planted in 2009. That number more than tripled by 2011. Because it grows over winter — like Oklahoma's wheat — canola isn't forced to survive the hot, dry months of summer.
When a major new employer comes to Oklahoma, such as the General Electric global research center announced last month, it triggers headlines and excitement over high-paying jobs. Agricultural developments tend to be less visible and play out over time. But they are no less valuable. And no research center can provide the fleeting beauty of the canola crop in early May.
Every March, we urge readers to drive east and see the native redbuds in bloom. They offer beauty but not economic value. This week, drive west and see something very beautiful and also quite valuable.