Successful Farming - - ADAPT - By Dee Go­erge

Dan Black­ledge pours buck­ets of seeds into a hop­per while his wife, Bon­nie, pumps oil from a food-grade drum into ster­il­ized glass jars. Ex­cept for the slightly re­cessed gut­ter area, it’s hard to rec­og­nize their clean, white workspace as the place where Dan’s grand­par­ents once milked cows. Two gen­er­a­tions later, the Black­ledges have pre­served the dairy barn and have be­come en­trepreneurs grow­ing canola, an atyp­i­cal crop in north­ern Michi­gan.

In the mid­dle of corn and soy­bean fields around Mar­ion, their yel­low bloom­ing canola fields stand out. Only a few pro­duc­ers grow the oilseed crop in Michi­gan, and the Black­ledges have taken it a step fur­ther by be­ing the only farm­ers in the state to grow and press part of their har­vest into oil. Cold-pressed and bot­tled with a B&B Farms la­bel, the oil is golden with a slight nutty fla­vor com­pared with the heat-pro­cessed and re­fined canola oil sold in stores. The non-GMO, all-nat­u­ral oil at­tracts a va­ri­ety of cus­tomers and adds value to the Black­ledges’ crop.


Dan, the third gen­er­a­tion on the 540-acre farm, re­tired from a suc­cess­ful IT busi­ness and de­cided to grow canola. He liked that it ma­tures in a short sea­son (four months).

In 2007, he chisel-plowed 20 acres and planted winter canola with an old grain drill. Over the next decade, he got up to 85 to­tal acres.

He switched to grow­ing spring canola seed be­cause winter va­ri­eties didn’t do well in Michi­gan. There is no car­ry­over from spring va­ri­eties be­cause plants that come up from seed af­ter har­vest die in the winter.

Ini­tially, Dan hoped to get other lo­cal farm­ers to grow canola to cre­ate a co­op­er­a­tive, but that never took off. The Black­ledges de­cided to turn part of their crop into oil for a value-added mar­ket.

Grow­ing canola has been a learn­ing process.

“I wanted to use ma­nure in­stead of chem­i­cal fer­til­izer,” says Dan. “There are dairy farm­ers in the area with liq­uid ma­nure, and they needed land to spread it on.”

Canola is planted in late April and har­vested in late Au­gust. Right af­ter har­vest, a lo­cal dairy farmer spreads

7,000 gal­lons an acre of liq­uid ma­nure into the canola stub­ble. Dan chisel-plows it in, waits 10 days, chisel-plows again, and then plants winter wheat. The three­crop ro­ta­tion (fol­lowed by corn) is part of his dis­ease- and weed-con­trol plan.

In the spring, Dan sprays the weeds grow­ing in the corn stub­ble with Roundup to pre­pare for plant­ing canola. Af­ter the ma­nure has been ap­plied, he uses a chisel plow to work it into the soil. He fol­lows up with Be­yond her­bi­cide in June to con­trol emerg­ing weeds.

Be­cause of the ma­nure ap­pli­ca­tion and based on soil test­ing, Dan says he has been able to cut back sig­nif­i­cantly on chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers that in­clude sul­fur and boron. In 2017, he was down to 200 pounds per acre.

“A yield of about 60 bushels per acre is pos­si­ble here, but so far, we’ve got­ten up to 43 bushels per acre,” Dan says. “The amount of fer­til­izer we use doesn’t change it.”

He hires a lo­cal farmer to com­bine the canola seed, and he sells the bulk of the crop to a Cana­dian com­pany that pro­vides truck­ing to its plant in Wind­sor, On­tario. Prices for the food-grade canola typ­i­cally net over $9 a bushel, in­clud­ing truck­ing costs. The 400 bushels that the Black­ledges keep for them­selves have a po­ten­tial for much greater re­turns.

Learn­ing to press oil

The jour­ney to press­ing oil be­gan in 2011 when the cou­ple looked into ways to add value to their canola crop.

“We dis­cov­ered that al­most all the canola oil in Michi­gan comes from Canada and that there were no canola pro­ces­sors in Michi­gan,” Bon­nie says. “We also learned that most of the canola oil avail­able to su­per­mar­kets has been chem­i­cally re­fined, bleached, and de­odor­ized.”

With the help of a SARE (Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion) grant and The Start­ing Block in­cu­ba­tor kitchen in Hart, Michi­gan, the cou­ple pur­chased an AgOilPress, learned about mar­ket­ing, and con­nected with sup­pli­ers.

By 2013, they be­gan press­ing oil in an ad­di­tion on the farm­house. In 2016, they set up the oil press and bot­tling op­er­a­tion in the dairy barn that had been re­mod­eled and li­censed by the Michi­gan Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture as a cer­ti­fied kitchen.

The Black­ledges fill a 400-bushel bin with canola seed that they press into oil through the year. The seed can’t have more than 10% mois­ture be­cause higher lev­els mold and cake the seed in storage.

They keep some oil on hand but pre­fer to bot­tle oil when orders come in so it’s fresh. Dan cleans the seed and then pours it into a hop­per over the oil press. Oil flows into one bucket; the pressed meal goes into an­other bucket.

The meal is sold to a lo­cal busi­ness that grinds it in with other grains for chicken and pig feed. The meal from canola seed (35% pro­tein and 20% fat) pro­vides good nu­tri­tion, and feed buy­ers like that it’s non-GMO, Dan says.

The oil is poured through a strainer into a bar­rel and al­lowed to set­tle for two weeks be­fore be­ing pumped into con­tain­ers.

“We don’t fil­ter. We just strain it so that it main­tains nu­tri­ents,” says Bon­nie.

She fills 16-ounce jars, gallon jugs, and 5-gallon pails per cus­tomers’ orders. Each con­tainer in­cludes batch in­for­ma­tion and the best-by date (one year af­ter bot­tling).

Dan nets 2 gal­lons of oil per bushel of seed. He hopes for more and keeps ad­just­ing the press for bet­ter ef­fi­ciency.

The Black­ledges use their web­site and Face­book page to at­tract cus­tomers out­side of Michi­gan who want prod­ucts that aren’t pro­cessed with chem­i­cals. B&B Farms Canola Oil has 7% sat­u­rated fat, which is less than ex­tra vir­gin olive oil. Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and works well for fry­ing, bak­ing, mari­nades, and salad dress­ings. Cus­tomers pre­fer glass bot­tles even though it adds to ship­ping costs. Oil is also sold whole­sale ($5 for 16 ounces) and is avail­able in about 30 Michi­gan stores. They plan to grow as de­mand grows. “We need a reliable source of canola oil in Michi­gan,” Dan says. B&B Farms Canola Oil is a good start.


B&B Farms, Mar­ion, Michi­gan Phone: 616/204-0085 Web: canolaoil­prod­ Email: bb­farms@canolaoil­prod­

Bon­nie Black­ledge shows a bot­tle of canola oil she and her hus­band, Dan, pro­duce on their Mar­ion, Michi­gan, farm.

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