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SF Adapt: Canola Oil
Dan Blackledge pours buckets of seeds into a hopper while his wife, Bonnie, pumps oil from a food-grade drum into sterilized glass jars. Except for the slightly recessed gutter area, it’s hard to recognize their clean, white workspace as the place where Dan’s grandparents once milked cows. Two generations later, the Blackledges have preserved the dairy barn and have become entrepreneurs growing canola, an atypical crop in northern Michigan.
In the middle of corn and soybean fields around Marion, their yellow blooming canola fields stand out. Only a few producers grow the oilseed crop in Michigan, and the Blackledges have taken it a step further by being the only farmers in the state to grow and press part of their harvest into oil. Cold-pressed and bottled with a B&B Farms label, the oil is golden with a slight nutty flavor compared with the heat-processed and refined canola oil sold in stores. The non-GMO, all-natural oil attracts a variety of customers and adds value to the Blackledges’ crop.
Dan, the third generation on the 540-acre farm, retired from a successful IT business and decided to grow canola. He liked that it matures in a short season (four months).
In 2007, he chisel-plowed 20 acres and planted winter canola with an old grain drill. Over the next decade, he got up to 85 total acres.
He switched to growing spring canola seed because winter varieties didn’t do well in Michigan. There is no carryover from spring varieties because plants that come up from seed after harvest die in the winter.
Initially, Dan hoped to get other local farmers to grow canola to create a cooperative, but that never took off. The Blackledges decided to turn part of their crop into oil for a value-added market.
Growing canola has been a learning process.
“I wanted to use manure instead of chemical fertilizer,” says Dan. “There are dairy farmers in the area with liquid manure, and they needed land to spread it on.”
Canola is planted in late April and harvested in late August. Right after harvest, a local dairy farmer spreads 7,000 gallons an acre of liquid manure into the canola stubble. Dan chisel-plows it in, waits 10 days, chisel-plows again, and then plants winter wheat. The three-crop rotation (followed by corn) is part of his disease- and weed-control plan.
In the spring, Dan sprays the weeds growing in the corn stubble with Roundup to prepare for planting canola. After the manure has been applied, he uses a chisel plow to work it into the soil. He follows up with Beyond herbicide in June to control emerging weeds.
Because of the manure application and based on soil testing, Dan says he has been able to cut back significantly on chemical fertilizers that include sulfur and boron. In 2017, he was down to 200 pounds per acre.
“A yield of about 60 bushels per acre is possible here, but so far, we’ve gotten up to 43 bushels per acre,” Dan says. “The amount of fertilizer we use doesn’t change it.”
He hires a local farmer to combine the canola seed, and he sells the bulk of the crop to a Canadian company that provides trucking to its plant in Windsor, Ontario. Prices for the food-grade canola typically net over $9 a bushel, including trucking costs. The 400 bushels that the Blackledges keep for themselves have a potential for much greater returns.
Learning to press oil
The journey to pressing oil began in 2011 when the couple looked into ways to add value to their canola crop.
“We discovered that almost all the canola oil in Michigan comes from Canada and that there were no canola processors in Michigan,” Bonnie says. “We also learned that most of the canola oil available to supermarkets has been chemically refined, bleached, and deodorized.”
With the help of a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant and The Starting Block incubator kitchen in Hart, Michigan, the couple purchased an AgOilPress, learned about marketing, and connected with suppliers.
By 2013, they began pressing oil in an addition on the farmhouse. In 2016, they set up the oil press and bottling operation in the dairy barn that had been remodeled and licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture as a certified kitchen.
The Blackledges fill a 400-bushel bin with canola seed that they press into oil through the year. The seed can’t have more than 10% moisture because higher levels mold and cake the seed in storage.
They keep some oil on hand but prefer to bottle oil when orders come in so it’s fresh. Dan cleans the seed and then pours it into a hopper over the oil press. Oil flows into one bucket; the pressed meal goes into another bucket.
The meal is sold to a local business that grinds it in with other grains for chicken and pig feed. The meal from canola seed (35% protein and 20% fat) provides good nutrition, and feed buyers like that it’s non-GMO, Dan says.
The oil is poured through a strainer into a barrel and allowed to settle for two weeks before being pumped into containers.
“We don’t filter. We just strain it so that it maintains nutrients,” says Bonnie.
She fills 16-ounce jars, gallon jugs, and 5-gallon pails per customers’ orders. Each container includes batch information and the best-by date (one year after bottling).
Dan nets 2 gallons of oil per bushel of seed. He hopes for more and keeps adjusting the press for better efficiency.
The Blackledges use their website and Facebook page to attract customers outside of Michigan who want products that aren’t processed with chemicals. B&B Farms Canola Oil has 7% saturated fat, which is less than extra virgin olive oil. Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and works well for frying, baking, marinades, and salad dressings. Customers prefer glass bottles even though it adds to shipping costs. Oil is also sold wholesale ($5 for 16 ounces) and is available in about 30 Michigan stores.
They plan to grow as demand grows.
“We need a reliable source of canola oil in Michigan,” Dan says. B&B Farms Canola Oil is a good start.
B&B Farms, Marion, Michigan
Successful Farming has highlighted positive examples of farmer diversification for more than 30 years in a series called Ag Diversification Adds Profit Today (ADAPT). See more examples in the stories linked below.