By Marsha Laux, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Revised June 2012 by Mykel Taylor, Assistant Professor, Kansas State University, email@example.com.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is one of the oldest cultivated crops, having been grown since the beginning of civilization. Flax was grown primarily for use in linens. Burial chambers dating back to about 3000 B.C. depict flax cultivation and contained clothing made from flax fibers.
Flax was first introduced to the United States by colonists, primarily to produce fiber for clothing. As the United States grew and more buildings were constructed, the need increased for flaxseed oil, commonly called linseed oil, to use in paints. The demand for flaxseed, or linseed, meal for livestock and poultry feed also increased. As a result, the flax processing industry was developed in the late 18th century. By the 1940s, however, cotton had replaced flax as a commonly used fiber in the United States, and flax became nearly extinct as a commercially grown crop.
Flax, a blue-flowering plant, grows best in cool climates with long periods of daylight. It is generally grown for one of two reasons: for the seeds or for the fiber. Most commercial operations in North America produce flax for its seeds.
Flax production in the United States occurs in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota. In 2011, total U.S. production was nearly 2.8 million bushels valued at $38.6 million. Flax prices averaged $13.90 per bushel for the 2011 marketing year.
More than 85 percent of the flax was grown in North Dakota, which harvested 147,000 acres in 2011. Flax production in the state totaled 2.4 million bushels with an average yield of 16 bushels per acre.
Canada is the largest producer of flaxseed in the world, representing about 40 percent of world production. When combined, China, the United States and India account for another 40 percent of world production.
Flaxseed is typically processed by cold pressing to obtain flaxseed oil suitable for human consumption and by solvent extraction to obtain flaxseed oil for industrial purposes. Flaxseed meal is the byproduct remaining after flaxseed has been crushed for oil.
Flax is an attractive, high-nutrition crop because it is rich in dietary fiber, very high in essential fatty acids and high in vitamins and minerals. Nutritionally, flax provides alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid. In fact, the percentage of ALA in flax is the highest of any plant source. Humans can consume flax as a supplement or as an ingredient in various foods.
Flax has traditionally been used as an ingredient in breakfast cereals and breads. However, in the last ten years, a significant number of products containing flax have been developed for the health food market. The renewed interest in flax as a food source is due to findings suggesting that it can provide a variety of health benefits such as reducing heart disease and cancer risks. Research also indicates additional health benefits related to the autoimmune system.
Flaxseed meal is gaining popularity in the premium pet food industry. Many pet food manufacturers are adding the meal to their animal and poultry feeds. With its unique combination of amino acids, flaxseed meal appears to improve both the overall health and appearance of cats, dogs and horses. Research suggests that feeding flaxseed to poultry and cattle can alter the level of omega-3 fatty acid in eggs and beef (Scheideler et al. 1994, Maddock et al., 2003). Similarly, milk from dairy cattle fed rations including flax have shown increased ALA content (Bork et al., 2010). Animal rations containing flaxseed increase fertility in hogs and immunity in steers (Maddock, et al. 2005).
In the past, "industrial" flaxseed oil for linoleum flooring, paints and other industrial products was in high demand. Increased use of water-based paints and petroleum-based floor coverings has reduced that demand. In the late 1990s, however, the trend toward healthy and environmentally friendly products began to create new opportunities for the flax industry. The non-allergenic and biodegradable characteristics of linoleum flooring have led to a resurgence of demand for linoleum in some parts of Europe.
The paper and pulp industry uses the fiber in the stem of flax plants for linen sheets, napkins, table cloths and clothing, and for fine papers like parchment paper and cigarette paper. Short flax fibers can be blended with cotton or other fibers to make medical products such as bandages. New developments are focusing on using flax straw as an alternative fuel. Flax straw has a per ton heating value similar to soft coal and thus has a heating value greater than other crop residues. Flax fiber is also under consideration as a lighter, environmentally friendly replacement for glass in cars. Using flax, a Canadian plant produces fibers to replace the fiberglass presently used to make automotive parts like dashboards.
The United States exported 24,532 metric tons (MT) of flaxseed valued at $15 million in 2011. About half of the flaxseed was shipped to Belgium.
The United States is a net importer of flax. In 2011, the United States imported just over 200,000 MT of flaxseed valued at $134 million, almost entirely from Canada.
Competition for flax production acres will continue to be stiff as high corn prices drive growers' to plant more corn acres. Expansion of the flax market is most likely to occur from increased demand for human consumption and environmentally friendly industrial uses.
Crop Production Annual Summary, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
Crop Values Annual Summary, NASS, USDA.
Global Agricultural Trade System, Foreign Agricultural System, USDA.
Oil Crops Outlook, Economic Research Service, USDA.
Statistics by State, NASS, USDA.