"People ask me that all the time, what’s the yellow stuff that I see occasionally as I drive across the state. Odds are that's canola."
In 2017, over 100,000 acres of canola was grown in Montana, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
That may seem like nothing compared to the millions of acres we usually see of wheat, barley, and pulse crops. But in reality, even if we don't know it, most of us consume canola oil in some form every day.
"Yeah canola it's in our everyday lives,” says Cargill Agronomist Keith Horton. “Right now our biggest customer is McDonald’s. So if you go to any McDonald’s in the United States all the fry oil is Cargill fry oil. So a lot of people here in Great Falls they've had our products, they just don't know they've had it."
Don't know they've had it, and probably don't know that Cargill has opened up shop just north of town. Right now, Cargill has ten different research plots of canola growing across the state. About 80 acres total. But in just the past few years, the company has realized Montana's potential for the crop, and plans to have at least half a million acres for commercial use.
In late July, we visited one of those plots near Fairfield. In only about three and a half acres, researchers are able to cram in 300 different hybrids to study. And this project is going to go far beyond just frying our french fries at McDonald’s.
Once researchers pick out the best canola hybrid, they will add an omega-3 trait for fish food, which in turn, will take the pressure off bait fish living in our oceans. Long story short... Horton says Montana's canola fields can help save our oceans.
"And to give you an example, we can replace 1.7 million pounds of the feeder fish with 160 acres of our canola," says Horton.
So while Cargill continues to quietly develop and research the foods we eat every day, new biotechnology is starting to make its way into Montana's frontier.
"The farmers understand it, the farmers embrace it. But our average person on the street that goes to the grocery store, they don't see how what benefits the farmer later benefits them. And with this project it's really a one to one. It's a great canola project that will work great for farmers in Montana... but at the end of the day it's making a better planet."
Once researchers are able to determine the best canola hybrid, they plan on expanding their lab capabilities in Great Falls and their employment. For more information, head to their website.