Demeter in a yellow frock
PUBLISHED: 15:02 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013
Continuing her series on Herefordshire crops, Ruth Watkins investigates the business of growing oilseed rape
Let's get one thing out of the way first: the name 'rape'. British farming certainly didn't have a marketing department when that was coined. Oilseed rape is the third most important edible oil crop in the world after soya and palm oil. The unfortunate name came about because its closest relative is the turnip, and the Latin for 'turnip' is rapa. In North America, oilseed rape is called canola, which rolls off the tongue much more pleasantly.
Oilseed rape, Brassica napus ssp Oleifera, has been grown in Europe since the Middle Ages. When first recorded in the newly-drained English fens in the seventeenth century, it was called 'coleseed', and used as lamp oil. It was of little economic importance in Britain, although over half a million acres were grown in mainland Europe by 1860. Thereafter, improved shipping enabled tropical oilseeds to be imported, and production of our own indigenous vegetable oil crop fell into oblivion.
In the twentieth century, Sweden continued to grow a bit, but it was that great agricultural nation, France, that really championed it during the second world war. The European Community soon saw the benefits of its own oilseed crop and bolstered its production with both intervention prices and a subsidy to oilseed crushers. Which is why nobody in Herefordshire will remember seeing canary yellow fields here before we joined the European Union in the 1970s. Guaranteed prices have disappeared now, but the crop has blossomed nonetheless, you might say.
The brassica family is ubiquitous and promiscuous in the whole temperate world. Its members are easy to breed, hard to control, and support an array of other life. This cuts both ways for the farmer. Reg Watkins, who grows several hundred acres near Dymock, took me to see a beautiful even crop near the farm. He explained how rape has responded well to selective breeding to improve its yield and qualities, so varieties are superseded every few years. Not that you could tell the difference over the hedge -they all look the same. This year's choices include Castille and NKBravour, whereas Apex and Pronto were more in vogue five years ago. Plant breeders, like car designers, love thrusting names.
On the down side, brassicas host legions of pests and diseases that are transferable, so a field full of oilseed rape is a banquet to bugs. "Huh, most things like a munch on a brassica," Reg told me ruefully. Problems can spread quickly, from mildew and sclerotina rot to cabbage stem flea beetle and peach potato aphid. The vigour of the crop is crucial in staving off attack. Additionally, viruses like club root and yellow turnip virus stay in the soil from year to year, which is why oilseed rape can only be grown in the same ground every six or seven years.
Most varieties now are autumn sown, to flower earlier in the year. The soil has to be finely and deeply tilled because the seeds themselves are tiny - each one about the size of a pinhead. The success of the plant depends on this tiny seed growing a long, thick tap root deep into the soil. Getting the crop off to a good start is especially important where pigeons are concerned. They have enormous appetites and can decimate the leaves and buds, but being heavy birds, they only land where they see bare earth. A well-established crop will cover the ground quickly with its foliage. "Then they can only come in round the edges," explained Reg, "and get plants round the headlands." Prevention is the best cure.
Both Reg Watkins and David Powell of Yazor Court grow all their rape for cooking oil and margarine. To make the oil palatable, these varieties have low erucic acid and glucosinolate content. These are the compounds that give brassicas that cabbagey smell, but also have anti-carcinogenic properties. Rape yields an excellent oil: low on food miles and high in healthy unsaturated fats.
There is another distinct type of oil-seed rape: HEAR varieties (High Erucic Acid Rape) for industry and medicine. All British HEAR rapes are crushed in Hull, shipped to the Netherlands and end up as 'slip agents' coating cling-film and Teflon.
Rape's reputation for triggering hayfever hasn't earned it any friends. In 1996, the Medical Research Council responded to public concerns and commissioned research into symptoms caused by oilseed rape, particularly since complaints seem confined to Britain. No other country in Europe reports a problem. All rapes are self-fertile, with male flowers set above so the pollen can fall down onto the female ones. It is not wind pollinated, and the researchers found rape pollen was heavy, rarely travelling more than 50 yards. They concluded that in the league table of hayfever agents, it ranks low, and that adverse perceptions were down to the colour and smell more than contributions to the pollen count.
So the blinding yellow brassica we love to hate is now our third largest arable crop. "The commodities market is on fire," a buyer told me. "The world is short of vegetable oil. Europe is using more and more of its own oil, and demand from the Far East is insatiable." The crushed seed goes to feed livestock, and even the high-calorie haulm is good for baling up for straw burners.
Cargill and its subsidiaries now crush 80% of the world's oilseed, including virtually all of the Herefordshire crop. But not quite. Reg has installed a crushing mill on his farm, and is cultivating local markets. This is a great Herefordshire initiative for food mile and health reasons, but his first customers have been from the horse world thanks to the benefits of essential fatty acids in cold-pressed oils. He's following the lead of a farmer near Stow-on-the-Wold who has branded his own rape oil. He calls it R-Oil, and sells it in funky little bottles to Michelin-starred restaurants and also to chip shops. The same enterprising man also gathers up waste chip oil, and converts it into diesel, as many others are doing now. The Road Transport Fuel Obligation came into force in April, so the biofuel race is already on. The potential of rape oil is enormous. Herefordshire 75,000 acres is likely to increase over the next few years.
In the midst of making the year's contracts, the buyer went on to explain what a crop of oilseed rape means to the farmer: "It's the earliest harvest and he sells it as it comes off the field. It's the first crop he converts into cash." The harvest goddess Demeter in a yellow frock.