Colorful crop on the rise among southern farmers

By Abbi Overfelt

April 30, 2014

LAURINBURG — Of the fields that border Hasty Road, one farmer’s crop has become somewhat of a seasonal landmark — a directional tool for out-of-towners seeking Gen. McArthur’s restaurant, and a spot of general interest for locals surprised at the thick mass of tall, bright yellow flowers among the dark greens and browns customary for early spring.

The colorful Brassica Napus, also known as rapeseed, is a first for Stephen Herlocker, who has farmed 62 acres in the 10 years since moving back to his wife Jeanette’s family homestead. The millions of tiny seeds sowed in early October have come a long way since the season began.

“What we had here was a plant with about four or five leaves and it had to over-winter,” he said. “… They looked like they were dead. They had turned brown and a purplish color but they grew up from the bud …”

“I’ve had a lot of people comment and ask me ‘what is it?’” he said. “The color is just gorgeous, I think. It’s kind of like a field of flowers, even though they don’t smell as good.”

Historically grown in Europe and Canada during the summer, rapeseed is increasing in popularity among growers in North Carolina as a winter crop. As flowers are pollinated they form pods which will produce eight to 10 seeds. Those seeds will in turn be crushed to yield rapeseed oil, which has a variety of industrial and commercial uses.

Herlocker said he got the idea from a fellow farmer in St. Pauls, one of several in Robeson County who have signed on as contract growers with Winston-Salem company Technology Crops International.

Mac Malloy, field crop agent with Robeson County’s Extension Service, said the company initiated a big push for the crop three years ago. Two Robeson County farmers initially signed on, he said, but that number has since grown to 20.

“This company is trying to compete with wheat acreage,” Malloy said. “In other words, a farmer can choose to plant wheat, or as an alternative, this rapeseed. So they’re trying to make it a little more profitable than wheat and it gives the farmers a different crop in their rotation.”

Malloy said rapeseed, on average, has proven to be about $100 more profitable per acre than wheat.

As rapeseed’s growth is indeterminate, the amount of seeds produced by each plant depends on the height of the stalk. The expected yield of 50 bushels per acre, Herlocker said, will produce about 100-120 gallons of oil once seeds are crushed at a facility in Statesville.

The oil, high in erucic acid, is used for specialty and industrial lubricants, Malloy said. It also has applications as an anti-bonding agent that, among other things, helps prevent the sides of plastic grocery store bags from sticking together.

Unlike its sister plant, canola, widely grown in South Carolina and more widely consumed because of its lower levels of erucic acid, rapeseed can be found in only a few processed foods such as peanut butter. It acts as an emulsifier, keeping processed products from separating.

“It’s really kind of spread out around the county,” Malloy said of the plant that has growers in Lumber Bridge, St. Pauls, Lumberton, Pembroke and Red Springs. “A lot of people were familiar with canola … canola and rapeseed plants look identical, they just have different erucic acid content.”

Malloy said rapeseed seems confined to North Carolina and canola to South Carolina, mainly because of where distribution points are located. Some concern exists about having the different strains grown so closely together, he said, but no issues have appeared thus far.

When harvested at the end of May or first part of July, Herlocker’s rapeseed plants should be at least five feet tall.

Next in his rotation will be a crop decidedly more ordinary in appearance — soybeans.

Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.