Waihi Bush Organic Flaxseed Oil

May 2010

Producing organic flaxseed oil and fibre products

David Musgrave is a pasture agronomist with specialist knowledge in plant breeding and seeds. When his young son developed severe eczema after a measles vaccination a friend suggested he try flax seed (linseed) oil for its Omega-3 fatty acid content. The effect was almost magical, and that sparked Davids interest in oil production. Seventeen years ago he sowed the first linseed on Waihi Bush Organic Farm, and has since developed the organic flax seed oil business (Functional Whole Foods Ltd) into a large enterprise exporting the worlds finest flax seed oil to many countries.

Along the way David has gained significant knowledge in the potential health benefits of flax seed oil on its own and in combination with other seed oils with complementary properties. The company now produces oil mixtures and flax fibre products formulated to suit adults in general, children, men, pregnant women, and animals. Most recently they have produced a line of flax seed oil food dressings.

Although growing organic linseed sustainably is quite profitable there are currently limited prospects for increasing the crop area in New Zealand. David is looking at joint ventures in countries closer to his main markets.

The name Waihi Bush relates to a 15ha remnant of virgin bush, the only example left of the vegetation that once covered the Canterbury Plains. It contains many magnificent totara, matai and kahikatea over 1000 years old, several over 8m in girth. Being virgin, natural and totally organic, the Bush is an appropriate symbol for the company and a tangible reminder of the value of naturalness and sustainability.

Waihi Bush was originally settled by David Musgrave's family in the 1870s when the Woodbury area was a significant source of native timber. When Davids father died the family trust leased out the farm, but in the 80s David bought it from the trust and by 1988 had established it as Bio-Gro Certified Organic.

The property is 120ha with a 15ha reserve in virgin bush, the only such remnant left on the Canterbury Plains. It contains many magnificent totara, matai and kahikatea over 1000 years old, several over 8m in girth, and is now permanently protected by a QEII covenant.

Davids training in pasture agronomy and experience with many pasture types, plant breeding and seeds combined with his interest in sustainability of production systems and things natural was an ideal background for a new venture that started in the 80s. His young son Oliver developed allergies including a severe case of eczema after measles vaccination, and at the age of four was spending most nights asleep on Davids chest as a way of his getting some sleep and not scratching himself.

One day, an acquaintance suggested trying Canadian flax seed oil, and within days Oliver was out of our bed for the first time in almost two and a half years, says David. Suddenly, life had become hugely different for all of us. I started using the oil myself and got my mother onto it too. She was in her early 80s and it made a huge difference to her energy levels.

David then set out to research the science behind the effects of flax seed oil on health and how to produce and maintain the quality of the delicate oil. He was invited to join a group setting up to do this, and when the others pulled out David continued. He started pressing locally grown flax seed oil at the Farm in 1993 using a tiny press that made about 30 litres a day.

The first flax seed crop was grown on the Farm in 1994. It wasnt a success because of wet weather around harvest and, ironically, the predations of the many birds living in the bush remnant, so David looked at other options. Because he had been working as an organic inspector for BioGro he knew other growers in the industry and arranged for them to grow linseed under contract.

That proved successful and over the years there have been between 5 and 12 growers producing about 200 tonnes of seed in a typical year. He has also grown linseed on his farm but says that it is a marginal area for the crop because it is the wettest corner of the Plains and because of the large number of birds.

Linseed is sown as a normal arable crop through a conventional drill into normal seed bed. The seed has oil energy reserves so it emerges quickly and is reasonably competitive with weeds, says David.

It is an annual and is a bit like barley in that it is fairly flexible around soils and around planting times with similar growth rhythm. You plant late September, it flowers in January, and you harvest in February and March. It dries from the top down so youve got these little balls containing about 20 or so seeds at the top of the plant, but the stem takes another 10 to 14 days to dry down to the bottom. During that time it is very hard to cut because the stem is very fibrous and you can't direct combine it otherwise you end up with fibres wrapping around bearing shafts. An alternative of windrowing and leaving it on the ground for 10 days for the stems to dry, leaves you vulnerable to weather and birds. So harvest can be difficult to manage.

One of the solutions is to use a stripper front which has a set of sprung stainless steel fingers with a sort of keyhole between them, and that is rotating upwards reasonably fast so you are just dragging through the top of the crop, the fingers just lift the heads off and they go to a conveyor. The boles can be threshed at a high moisture content I have actually threshed linseed at 22% whereas the ideal is about 9%. If it is a matter of getting it off the paddock always put it through the drier which is expensive but at least you have got the product harvested.

After harvest the stubble is grazed and then incorporated into the soil. Usually the paddock then goes into a different autumn crop. With an organic system crops are usually not repeated each year to avoid encouraging weeds.

David points out that the linseed plant has an unusual architecture in that it has a single stem with long thin leaves either side. This means that some light gets through the canopy and so undersowing with pasture species for autumn establishment is quite successful. David has found that for successful and sustainable cropping the areas involved need to spend about three years as pasture to improve soil structure and fertility before having another three years of arable crops.

I work on reasonably well-established organic principles that the key driver to your whole fertility system is the pasture phase and the legumes that are fixing nitrogen during that phase to build soil nitrogen and carbon, he says.

It is the legumes that most responsive to phosphorus and sulphur, so you do a PNS budget during the pasture phase rather than the cropping phase and that's when you get the calcium and magnesium getting cations balanced as well. During the cropping phase we don't put any fertiliser on.

Linseed is currently a spring crop, but David has imported an autumn sown variety for trials, and if successful it will add another option. In theory, he says, it may be possible to have three linseed crops in 20 months spring, autumn and spring again, before going back into pasture. Another advantage of an autumn sown crop for dryland farmers is that lack of moisture is less likely to be a problem.

After harvesting the seeds go to one of the two registered organic seed cleaners in Canterbury, and then we take delivery in our own truck ready for pressing in our own facility in Geraldine.

At Geraldine the seeds are stored in a silo, and an automated system then feeds them directly into three screw presses that separate out the oil into a bulk container, and the seed cake is ground up for human food applications with the surplus going as livestock fodder.

The seed cake is over 40% dietary fibre, includes very high-quality protein, and has a weak phytoestrogen which helps dampen down oestrogen responses, so it has potential health benefits. When the seed cake is ground it behaves like a flour, and bakeries typically add between 10% and 15% of flax fibre of flax flour into their mixes.

Quality: the key control factor is what happens during pressing, says David.

I used to think that where we grew it was the most important factor but I went to Europe and discovered all this nice tasting flaxseed and foul tasting oil and realised that it was the processing that was all important, he says.

We do chemical tests for rancidity and taste tests with a tasting panel. I also have a project running with Lincoln University looking at the effect of differences between daytime and night-time temperatures and early data suggest that it is the day/night ratio that we have in New Zealand that gives us a particularly high omega-3 content.

Our flax oil is on average 61% omega-3, whereas in Canada and the rest of the world the figures are more like low-to-mid 50s, so it is significantly higher here. I claim with some justification that we make the best flaxseed oil in the world with the highest in omega-3 and the best flavour.

Linseed is a reasonably profitable crop to grow - the average organic yield is 1.5 tonnes per hectare returning $2100 per tonne, which give a gross margin of $2350 per hectare, whereas for conventional growers the gross margin was $1800 (based on 2009 figures). However, dairying is a major competitor for available land.

After pressing the oil is put into lightproof bottles and distributed around New Zealand and to a number of export markets in Europe, Asia and Australia. There are various blends designed to cater for different needs. David says that they could supply more markets if they had more growers.

We have tried to expand our grower base without a great deal of success, the demand for land for dairying in Canterbury seems to be insatiable, so we are looking seriously at joint ventures in other countries and to press in-market, which would avoid food mile issues, to supply Europe, the UK, the Czech Republic, he says.

Until we made a trip to Europe a few years ago we thought that bad tasting oil came from bad seed, but it doesn't. We would use our expertise to produce high quality oil in those countries.

We have also had a go at making functional foods. We had some food dressings designed by Japanese chef for the Asian market, which were half flax oil, so you can have a very delicious dressing to put on your meal that would supply your daily requirement of omega-3. These dressings won a major award at the Massey Food Awards last year, but they are a totally new concept and it needs a lot more marketing dollars than we have got at the moment.

The importance of Omega-3 fatty acids:

There are two groups of essential fatty acids that the human body can't make, known as Omega-3 and Omega-6. Humans evolved on a diet that comprised roughly equal amounts of eadh, but someone on a typical Western diet would have somewhere around 10, 15, even up to 30 times more Omega-6 six than Omega-3 in their body, depending on how much junk food they eat.

This imbalance can cause a number of health problems including skin conditions such as eczema, allergies, infections, arthritis, heart conditions, and a range of nervous disorders including the irrational need to drive a very large Landrover

The higher the omega-3 intake the quicker the body will come back into balance. Waihi Bush Organic Farm produces a range of oil mixtures designed for adults and children with particular needs. Davids experience is that taking the pure oil over some years will achieve that rebalancing, and then the intake can be changed to include more Omega-6.

The important important Omega-3 fatty acids are:

alpha linolenic acid or ALA - from flax seed oil

stearidonic acid or SDA - blackcurrant seed oil

eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA - fish oils

docosahexaenoic acid or DHA - fish oils

Healthy people are able to convert flax seed oil to EPA and DHA, but some of the stresses of modern living mean that some people need to consume additional SDA to ensure they produce adequate EPA and DHA.