Last April, I wrote a story about the gorgeous yellow fields of canola that were growing along I-24 in Cadiz, Kentucky. You can read all about it and see the photos here.
This is Part 2 of that story. The part where after seeing a dramatic increase in the number of yellow fields from the year before, I called the plant manager at the local AgStrong Canola and Sunflower Seed Processing Plant that I had read about in the paper and asked, What gives? Why are we suddenly seeing so much yellow? When he started to explain, I realized I had a lot to learn and asked if I could drive over to meet him and get a tour of the plant. An hour later Mark Dallas was giving my husband and me a tour. Not exactly the way I thought my day would turn out, but I do love a good backroads detour.
As background information, can-o-l-a oil, or “Canada-oil-low-acid,” is made from crushed canola seeds. These seeds are about the size of poppy seeds. Even having seen how canola oil is extracted from these seeds, I still shake my head in disbelief that anything that small, even in huge numbers, could produce something as useful as cooking oil.
A very short botany lesson about plant reproduction:
Flowers have one job, and one job only: to induce reproduction. To that end, flowers that are fertilized will make seeds. Those seeds will make new plants. That the plants grow and produce tasty fruits and vegetables that we like to eat, is bonus. Botanically speaking, those fruits of the plants are actually ripened ovaries full of seeds waiting to be planted. The flesh of fruit is sweet so animals will eat it and disperse the seeds in their travels. Tree nuts work in the same way; Mother Nature is counting on squirrels to bury nuts and thereby assure they will sprout and there will be more trees in the future.
Back to canola flowers and seeds. Like winter wheat, canola is planted in the fall, sprouts, goes dormant in the winter and perks up again in early spring. It flowers in mid-April, and the seed pods are harvested in mid-June. Farmers like to grow winter wheat and canola because then they can double-crop their fields, meaning there is time left in the warm summer months to raise another crop, such as soybeans, in that same field. By comparison, in most northern climates, there’s only time to grow one crop like wheat or canola.
The photo on the left was taken from a stem of canola flowers on April 17th. The photo on the right was taken on June 12th, just a few days before the pods were harvested by the combines I wrote about in this article.
You may have seen similar seed pods develop in your own gardens if you ever let broccoli or bok choi plants flower and “go to seed.” If you look closely at the flowers below, you can see the early development of seed pods. They look like little spikes. Canola is in the same Brassica family as bok choi and broccoli.
The next photos are of fully mature canola seed pods that I dissected at home to release the seeds within. You can see how small these seeds are. It’s amazing to think cooking oil is extracted from them.
AgStrong contracts with local, family-owned, farms to plant nonGMO canola seeds in their fields. NonGMO means the seed’s genetic material has not been manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering to make it more disease or insect resistant. A few other tidbits I learned about growing canola: canola has a 5-6 inch tap route which acts as a natural tiller in the soil, and canola brings in $8.10/bushel compared to wheat’s $5.25/bushel.
Here is a photo of the canola oil processing plant in Trenton, KY.
The first stop on the tour was the long silver cylindrical oven used to warm the seeds to no more than 120º. Warming the seeds made them easier to press. The low oven temperature kept the process in the category of cold-pressed. The blue conveyor belt brought the warmed seeds to a machine that cracked the hard outer shells.
Next stop was the seed crusher. This was where the magic happened. This machine crushed the seeds and expelled the golden canola oil into the blue well. The oil will still need to go to an offsite refinery before it can be bottled.
Here’s a video of the mechanical magic happening:
This meal was delivered to the green machine for a second pressing to remove the last traces of oil. At this plant, there are no chemical solvents, like hexane, used to extract these last drops of oil. That’s where the expression “all natural expeller press” comes from.
This is the transport room. It’s where the seeds, collected from farmers, are gathered and delivered to the silos for storage. And later, after pressing, where the extracted oil is weighed and distributed, via trucks, to be delivered to Georgia for the final refining process and …
bottling. You can find Agstrong’s Solio Canola Oil at Whole Foods stores.