THE SHIFT from commodity-based crops to more niche crops with special, marketable qualities is evident in the world of oil crops. A major influence has been the increased emphasis by nutrition experts on using “healthier” oils — those with lower levels of saturated and trans fats.

Food manufacturers are feeling pressure from consumers, as well as the Food and Drug Administration. Come January of 2006, that agency is changing food labeling laws, requiring companies to list saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol separately on the Nutrition Facts portion of their food labels. Now companies are choosing to reduce or eliminate those types of fat in their foods rather than list them.

All of this is creating a shift in what industry folks call the ideal oil profile. That's the breakdown of the types of fats and acids that different oils contain. The most desirable oils have low levels of saturated fats and linolenic acids. Those oils include canola oil, olive oil, sunflower oil and the oil from a new type of more heart-healthy soybean.

While none of this is exactly news to oil crop breeders, the recent FDA label change has sped up the pace of their efforts. In some cases, such as with sunflower and canola, the varieties already exist and the end product is in big demand. There just aren't enough acres being grown.

Here's a look at the oil crops now in top demand by food processors and those most likely to deliver worthwhile premiums.

  1. Low-linolenic soybeans

    Shear familiarity makes this a niche oil crop suited for the largest number of farmers in the Midwest. Demand for low-linolenic soybean oil will likely be strong because this oil meets the processor's need to eliminate hydrogenation and the trans fats that it produces. Linolenic acid is an unsaturated fatty acid that causes food to develop a rancid taste or smell. Hydrogenation is the process used to avoid that. But because this type of soybean contains less than 3% linolenic acid (compared to 8% in regular varieties), it doesn't require hydrogenation and has a longer shelf life.

    Several companies are offering limited varieties of low-linolenic soybeans to producers through production contracts this season.

    Iowa State University has led the way in developing low-linolenic soybean varieties. After licensing its technology to several companies last year, it had some 30,000 acres of its ultralow-linolenic varieties in the field in 2004. The ISU-developed bean has the lowest linolenic level — just 1%.

    Asoyia LLC, based in Winfield, IA, is a company that was recently created by 30 farmer-investors to coordinate crop production and marketing of the ultralow-linolenic oil. The company contracted to grow 6,000 acres of the beans last season, which have been pressed into 3 million pounds of Asoyia oil over the winter. The oil is being marketed to end users such as restaurants and food processors, as well as through distributors.

    Asoyia works with Cargill to process the beans into oil at its Cedar Rapids facilities, then buys the oil back from the company to market. Along with a $0.55/bu. premium on the beans, Asoyia offers revenue sharing to producers based on the net profits from oil sales.

    For more information, contact Asoyia at 319/257-3400 or visit www.asoyia.com.

    Other companies currently offering contracts for the ultralow-linolenic soybean include American Natural Soy Processors in Cherokee, IA (712/225-3500); Innovative Growers, Mason City, IA (641/423-0844); and Zeeland Farm Services, Zeeland, MI (800/748-0595).

    Monsanto introduced the first type of its Vistive line of soybeans under its Asgrow brand last fall. The company has 100,000 acres of two low-linolenic varieties under contract in the north half of Iowa for this season.

    The company is working with Cargill to collect and process the beans in Cedar Rapids and Iowa Falls and with AGP to handle the processing in Sheldon and Mason City, IA. It expects to significantly expand both crop and processing geographies in 2006.

    “These varieties will be on relatively few acres in 2005, but they have the potential to grow to 18 million acres, as they replace more and more traditional soy oil,” says Kim Magin, with Monsanto oil seed industry affairs. She adds that the low-linolenic soybean is just the first type of compositionally improved soybean in what Monsanto calls its Vistive platform. Expect to see a mid-oleic/low-linolenic bean in two to three years, with the addition of the low saturates trait and omega-3 qualities in five to 10 years.

    For more information, visit www.asgrow.com.

    Pioneer soybean breeders have been working on improved oil varieties since 1991, and this year they are offering two new low-linolenic soybean varieties on a limited basis in Iowa and Ohio. The DuPont seed subsidiary plans to have five low-linolenic varieties for 2006, covering some 200,000 acres, and will add Indiana to the bean's geography. It hopes to boost 2007 acreage to 550,000 acres.

    Contracts for the identity-preserved (IP) soybeans are offered through Bunge North America at participating local elevators in those states. Growers must deliver the grain to the specified elevator within an IP system, on a will-call basis. This year's premium averages $0.40/bu.

    The oil produced from these low-linolenic varieties will be marketed to food processors under the brand name Nutrium, with a linolenic acid profile of less than 3%. The primary market for this type of oil is frying, spray oil and baking applications.

    For more information, visit www.pioneer.com.

  2. High- and mid-oleic sunflower

    There is far more demand for certain types of sunflower oil than current U.S. acres of the crop can supply. That's especially the case for high- and mid-oleic sunflower oil, says John Swanson, sunflower product manager for Land O'Lakes seed and its Croplan Genetics brand. “Last year U.S. farmers raised just under 150,000 acres of high-oleic sunflower, and in 2005 we expect to double that,” he says. “But we will still need close to another one million acres to meet the current demand for the oil.”

    He says that while there has been increased focus on changing the oil profile of soybeans to lower linolenic levels and raise oleic content, sunflower oil already delivers that. “It's just, currently, soybeans are a cheaper crop to produce, and the major food processors tend to look for the cheapest inputs, like everyone else,” he says.

    Then there is the benefit of higher oleic levels. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid found to reduce levels of serum cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Higher oleic acid levels are also desirable because they improve shelf life and flavor stability of an oil, without the need for hydrogenation, which creates trans fats that have been linked to heart disease.

    High-oleic sunflower oil has high levels of monounsaturates — at least 80%. Like the oil from mid-oleic sunflower hybrids, high-oleic oil has a neutral taste and provides excellent stability without hydrogenation so it can be marketed as trans fat free. It's used in baked goods, as a spray coating oil for cereal, crackers and dried fruits, and in nondairy creamers. Mid-range oleic sunflower oil (from NuSun varieties) has a 9% saturated fat level and is used primarily for frying.

    Current contracts for high- and mid-oleic sunflower offer a premium of about $1.50/cwt above the NuSun base price, plus a premium for oil content above 40%.

    In the next few years, growers can expect to see new hybrids with higher oil percentages and greater genetic resistance to downy mildew, says Keith Porter, oilseed marketing specialist, Mycogen Seeds. “Premiums are paid according to oil percentages and yield, so we're concentrating on improving both of those traits in our hybrids, as well as incorporating the Clearfield technology,” he says.

    Mycogen introduced two new high-oleic hybrids for 2005, along with three new NuSun hybrids. For more information, contact Mycogen at 800/692-6436. For more information on Croplan Genetics hybrids, call 800/676-6687. Other companies that offer mid- and high-oleic sunflower varieties include Garst (888/464-2778), Pioneer (515/270-3200), and Interstate Seed (800/282-7331).

  3. High-oleic canola

    Another crop that's been ahead of the high-oleic curve is canola. High-oleic canola varieties have been around since the late '90s, and now several companies are adding more varieties to meet the growing market demand for the oil.

Canola oil, in general, has a very healthy profile, notes Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association. “With the lowest levels of saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids than other vegetable oils, canola oil offers plenty of health benefits,” he says.

This season, Mycogen is introducing its Nexera brand of high-oleic canola varieties to U.S. growers. Nex 824 CL and Nex 830 CL feature Clearfield herbicide technology, along with resistance to black leg, the major disease threat to this crop. These high-oleic varieties are grown on a contract basis through processors Bunge and JRI. The IP crop is then pressed and marketed as Natreon canola oil.

“Seed companies are used to focusing solely on the grower, but now, with crops that produce premium products, like Natreon oil, we also have to be keenly aware of the needs of the end users,” Porter says. “That's why this canola oil has a brand name. We need to make sure we're connecting with the user and that they appreciate the uniqueness of our product.”

He says Mycogen hopes to expand U.S. canola acreage with the launch of Nexera here. The varieties are already known to farmers in Canada, where the majority of North American canola is produced.

The bulk of the U.S. canola acreage is in North Dakota (850,000 acres in 2004), with the remaining 100,000 acres raised in Minnesota, Montana, Idaho and Washington state. Coleman notes that producers in Oklahoma and Kansas last year planted several thousand acres of a new type of winter canola that could help expand the crop's U.S. geography a bit.

For more information, contact Mycogen at 800/692-6436. Other companies supplying canola seed include Land O'Lakes' Croplan Genetics (800/851-8810), Cargill (800/323-6232), and Interstate Seed (800/282-7331).