Oilseed crops bring back history, look toward future at Mellinger Farm

Flax is blooming again at OARDC's Mellinger Farmnear Wooster. The crop is one of four oilseed crops that will be studied on the property this summer -- the first research plots at the farm since Patricia Quinby and Virginia Reed generously donated the land to OARDC. Flax was also one of the staple crops grown by Benedict Mellinger and his family, who cultivated the property nearly 200 nearly years ago.  

The original Mellingers, who arrived in Wayne County in 1816 and cleared one of the first farms in the area, were weavers. They used the land to grow flax and keep sheep, transforming the resulting fibers into elaborate linen tablecloths and woolen coverlets that are still highly sought after by collectors. 

Today, flax is being grown on the property for the crop's other assets. In addition to the fibers along its stalk that can be spun into linen, flax is valuable for its seeds, which have a high oil content, can be consumed by people and livestock, and can also be pressed to produce linseed oil.

Oilseed crops have the potential to add complexity to crop rotations, provide valuable ecosystem services, and deliver additional value chains in the form of on-farm biodiesel, cooking oil, and highly nutritious feed for animals.

OARDC's oilseed research and demonstration project will investigate the benefits that oilseed crops could offer to diversified farms. Oilseed crops have the potential to add complexity to crop rotations, provide valuable ecosystem services, and deliver additional value chains in the form of on-farm biodiesel, cooking oil, and highly nutritious feed for animals. 

Flax, canola, sunflower, camelina

Four oilseed crops -- flax, canola, sunflower, and camelina -- have been planted in research and demonstration plots and will be evaluated in terms of their growth characteristics, yield, and ecosystem services, including floral resources for pollinators, bio-control services, and soil conditioning.

While canola, sunflower, and even linseed oil may be familiar to farmers, cooks, and mechanics, camelina is a less common crop that has only recently received research interest, and also has a more covert link to the Mellinger farm's past -- as a weed.

Farmers in Eastern Europe have long cultivated this cool-weather crop for its seed oil, but elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. the plant was maligned because it tends to grow voluntarily in flax fields. Farmers in the U.S., who had unknowingly brought camelina to the New World mixed in with their flax seed, especially considered camelina a pesky weed. It is likely that Benedict Mellinger often complained about his "false flax," which is now being rediscovered for its nutritional value and potential as a biofuel.

Organic Valley a partner

The oilseed demonstration and evaluation project is being conducted in collaboration with colleagues at Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, who are collecting complementary data in plots on their research farm in La Farge, Wisc. The cooperative is especially interested in longer crop rotations with more diverse crops for their member farms, as well as the additional on-farm value chains that oilseed crops offer.

Organic Valley will bring its mobile oil press to the Mellinger Farm in September to press the harvested seeds and offer a workshop for the cooperative's Ohio members and other interested farmers. The oil, pressed meal, and fiber will then be analyzed by OARDC researchers to evaluate their potential for fuel, cooking, and animal feed.

Meanwhile, the carpet of blue and yellow blossoms on Old Lincoln Way is bringing back a beautiful piece of the farm's history.

-- Hannah Whitehead, Agroecosystems Management Program