Flax, also known as linseed, is one of the oldest domesticated crops, used by ancient Egyptians to make linen wraps for mummies. It is also one of the most beautiful crops; for two to three weeks of summer, its bright blue flowers open after sunrise and fall before noon.

In the United States, commercial fiber flax production began in 1753, but declined after the cotton gin was invented in 1793. By the 1940s, fiber flax became almost extinct in the United States. Today, only the Soviet Union, Poland and France have significant fiber flax acreage.

While the fiber flax market appears limited, interest is growing in seed flax, as linseed oils are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. U.S. flaxseed production is concentrated primarily in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The annual plant is short – 12 to 36 inches – and has many more branches than fiber flax. Each stem bears capsules with 6 to 10 seeds each, which range in color from yellow-greens to black. Stems can be used for paper production.

Production notes

The global production of flaxseed is about 1.25 million tons per year; over 40 percent is grown in Canada. Britain and France are other major producers.

In 2001, the United States produced 11.5 million bushels of flax on 585,000 acres valued at about $50 million. Conversely, Canada’s flaxseed crop is valued at $150 million. The U.S. imports about 1.9 million and exports about 2.4 million bushels of flax annually. North Dakota is the biggest U.S. producer with 327,000 acres yielding 6.8 million bushels annually.

In 2000, Minnesota grew about 10,000 acres of flaxseed yielding 198,000 bushels valued at $670,000. Per-acre yields average 18 to 20 bushels which sell for $4 to $5 each. For the yellow flaxseed varieties commonly grown for the health food market, return per acre is about $100.

The self-pollinating spring annual varieties grown in Minnesota mature in 90 to 110 days. Flax does best in moderate or cool temperatures with adequate rainfall on fertile, fine-textured clay soil. Harvest timing is critical; yields are reduced if it’s too early and the oil changes and loses value if harvested too late.

A new form of flax or linseed called “linola” or “solin” was developed in Australia in 1992. Commercial production started in 1994 and expanded to Canada, Britain and the U.S. states of Washington and Idaho. Linola, grown for its oil, can substitute for flax in crop rotations. It is less expensive to grow than canola but brings in comparable prices.

Functional values

Flaxseed oil is 57 percent omega-3 fatty acids, more than any other seed or fish oil. It is also rich in omega-6 and omega-9 essential fatty acids, B vitamins, fiber, protein, potassium, lecithin, magnesium and zinc.

Flaxseed oil is claimed to reduce high blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. Some claim it can also help treat eczema, psoriasis, arthritis and menstrual pains.

Flax meal is 35 percent crude protein, optimal for livestock feed.

Areas of opportunity

Nutraceuticals: Flax oil is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, with a myriad of health benefits. Its use is doubling annually. Flax is also a good source of fiber and anti-carcinogenic lignans. Whole ground flax seed is added to bread and other bakery products to boost nutritional content.

Omega-3 Eggs: Hens fed flaxseed produce eggs high in omega-3s, which are sold for double the retail price of traditional eggs.

Industrial Uses: Linseed oil is being used as an anti-spalling treatment for concrete to prevent street and sidewalk breakup. Linseed oil has been used as a drying agent for paints, varnishes, lacquer and printing ink. However, synthetic resins and latex have eroded these markets. Stem fiber is used to make furniture padding and fine paper; some is used for cigarettes.

Livestock Feed: Linseed meal’s high-protein content makes it ideal for livestock and pet feed.