Rapeseed oil may be a golden crop for Irish farmers

IS there gold in the fields?

Certainly, an increasing number of farmers are turning to a bright yellow flowering crop as a source of income.

That crop is oilseed rape. Known as canola in north America, oilseed rape is increasingly popular as an oil for cooking.

In recent years it had been grown as a biofuel, and it is likely to fetch a high price this year because bad weather is on course to reduce EU output by 600,000 tonnes.

However, the shift to culinary usage has also breathed a new lease of life into what was an out-of-fashion crop option.

In culinary terms it is especially popular in salad dressings and mayonnaise, where its distinctive nutty taste adds depth, texture and complexity.

Rapeseed oil from Derrycama Farm in Co Louth was one of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild 2012 Food Awards winners. They are one of four companies in Ireland producing rapeseed oil for culinary uses, with more coming on the market each year. They are Lakeside in Co Meath, Happy Heart in Co Kilkenny, Derrycama in Co Louth and the Donegal Rapeseed Oil Company.

These four operations represent two distinct styles of rapeseed oil production. Lakeside and Donegal are businesses with several farmer suppliers. Kitty Colchester’s Happy Heart oil is based on a her family’s farm near Urlingford, which has been organic since 1976.

Derrycama is also farm-based, producing 60,000 bottles of the oil each year on their 160 hectares near Castlebellingham, Co Louth.

All four are providing a non-GM alternative to imported North American canola oil. The north west may not be the region that springs to mind for tillage, but east Donegal has for many years grown considerable acreages of crops.

Today the tillage tradition in Co Donegal has led to a new product on retailers’ shelves — Donegal Rapeseed Oil. It is a cold press extra virgin rapeseed oil, which makes for an excellent source of polyunsaturated fats, with beneficial omega fatty acid levels and balance.

Jamie Rankin is one of the farmers who supplies the company with his crop. Speaking to RTE’s Nationwide last year, he said: “We grew rape as a break crop originally, but when you’ve somewhere to sell it, you’ll grow the crop. The rape is planted after winter barley at the end of August. It’s harvested in late July. This is the third year we’ve grown it, it’s going very well, and we will continue to grow it.”

Another grower is Liam Robb of Newtowncunningham, Co Donegal. Between contract, share, his own farm and conacre, Robb grows anything up to 1,000 acres of crops each year, primarily winter and spring barley, wheat, oats, and now the oil seed rape. He also grows a small portion of grass for hay and haylage. I spoke to Robb in March of this year about growing the crop.

“We first grew oil seed rape in the 80s, when it was exported to Liverpool for crushing over there. Then it became uneconomical to grow. More recently, it’s become suitable as a crop in rotations and as a cooking oil.”

So is the oil seed rape a stand-alone crop, or just a break crop?

“It’s a bit of both. It could be seen as a bit of a high-risk, high-reward crop. The risks are that while it’s easy to grow it can be tricky at harvest time. You may have to cut at a high moisture level, which you don’t want, but you may have to in order to save the crop. Also, if it’s exposed to wind, the pods become brittle’ and in high winds you could lose it. There is a period of around seven days when it’s critical. You wouldn’t want a storm!”

The reward comes from the strong price and the benefits of having a break crop that adds to the fertility of the soil. “Its not a hard crop to grow, and it really is an invaluable break crop, it’s a super soil conditioner.

“You certainly couldn’t put the whole farm into oil seed rape, it’d be like going to the casino and putting your whole house on it! You’d have to do a one to four or one to five rotation. You could plant oil seed rape, winter wheat, winter barley, winter barley, oilseed rape over five years. Even just two years in a row increases the risk of disease for oil seed rape.”

Robb finds that because of his location, the crop is less exposed to disease. “We’ve a westerly wind, coming off the Atlantic. Pollen beetle is the only issue, but that is rare enough. Generally, it’s not a problem, whereas they would have to spray as standard down south. So it’s not really an issue up here. Also, the risks are lowering, as better varieties are developed, and it becomes higher yielding.”

Currently, the rapeseed crop yields at or over two tonnes per acre.

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