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Revised February 2022.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.) is an important crop globally that is valued as a food and feed additive and for its oil and fiber. Flax is one of the oldest cultivated crops. It is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Currently flax is produced on about 12 million acres globally with the largest areas of production in Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada and China.
Flax was first introduced to the United States by colonists, primarily to produce fiber for clothing. Later, as the building industry in the U.S. expanded, the demand for oil extracted from the seeds of flax, commonly called linseed oil, grew as it was a critical component in paints. By the 1940s, however, cotton had replaced flax as a commonly used fiber, and industrial oils derived from petroleum replaced some of the demand for linseed oil and flax production in the U.S. plummeted.
Flax, a blue-flowering plant, grows best in cool climates with long periods of daylight. Though traditionally it was grown for its seeds and fiber, in North America it is currently grown primarily for its seeds. In 2021, flax was grown on 268,000 acres in the U.S. with a total production of 2.708 million bushels. The average yield of flax was 10 bu per acre down from 19 bu per acre the year before due to drought conditions in some of the production areas. The average price for flax was $10.30 per bushel in 2020 (NASS 2021). Most flax is currently grown in North Dakota and Montana, though it is adapted more widely and historically had been grown in other regions of the U.S. Flax grows well in soils and environments where spring cereals are planted. Planting flax early in the spring, similar to the recommended planting date of spring planted cereals, usually results in higher yields. In the south-central U.S., planting flax early followed by buckwheat is suggested as a way of increasing profit potential in regions with a long enough growing season.
Flax varieties are either yellow or brown. End users in the food industry generally have a preference for one color type or the other, depending on how the seeds will be used. Color type is less important if the flax is crushed for oil. Some varieties were developed with elevated levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and may fetch a premium.
As there is currently limited demand for flax straw, managing flax residues can be challenging as they breakdown slowly in the field. Chopping and spreading straw at harvest is recommend, rather than burning.
When used for its oil, 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. Industrial linseed oil is used as a drying oil in paints and varnish and in products such as linoleum and printing inks. In the past, the demand for linseed oil for linoleum flooring, paints and other industrial products was significant. 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.
Flaxseed meal is a byproduct after flaxseed has been crushed for oil. 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). 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.
Humans can consume flax as a supplement or as an ingredient in various foods. Traditionally, flax has 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. Flax is rich in dietary fiber, very high in essential fatty acids and high in vitamins and minerals. Nutritionally of special interest, 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. Research also indicates there may be additional health benefits of consuming flax related to the autoimmune system.
Though the demand is currently limited, the paper and pulp industry use 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 fiberglass in cars. Using flax, a Canadian plant produces fibers to replace the fiberglass presently used to make automotive parts like dashboards.
Competition for flax production acres will continue to be stiff as other commodities which may be easier to grow and have higher yield potential may be more profitable or less risky to produce. 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.
Flax Council of Canada, General information about production, use and marketing of flax in Canada.
Global Agricultural Trade System, Foreign Agricultural System, USDA.
Oil Crops Outlook, 2021, Economic Research Service, USDA.
Statistics by State, NASS, USDA
AmeriFlax, A source of general information about flax in the U.S.
Flax Production in North Dakota, North Dakota State University Extension
Flax, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach