Flax (Linum usitatissimum) and industrial hemp are bast plants. The term bast refers to the soft fibers produced in the plant stems as part of the phloem tissue. These fibers help keep the plant upright, as the top of the stalk is developing heavy seed pods, preventing the plant from falling over and dying prematurely. For this reason, bast fibers are naturally strong and durable.
Flax matures quickly in just 100 days. It is an excellent crop to include in rotations with other cereals, grass seed, alfalfa, and oil seed crops. As part of a holistic farm plan to maximize crop production while sequestering carbon, a fiber flax crop can follow vegetables, cereals, cover cropping, or intensive rotational grazing. Fiber flax’s high seeding rate suppresses weeds, and once pulled for harvest leaves a clean field for the next crop without the use of herbicides. It needs very little water to grow, and generally, irrigation is not required for flax unless temperatures are very high after the flowers appear. Fiber flax requires a low Nitrogen input compared with cotton (approx. 30 to 50 lbs. per acre depending on N levels in the soil). Spun flax fiber, or fabric made from this fiber, is called linen, a natural fabric used for more than 5000 years, longer than cotton or wool. In comparison to cotton’s composition at 90% cellulose, flax fibers are approximately 70%, making linen a crisper and shinier fabric. Linen is also non-allergic, very absorbent, dries quickly, is cooler to the touch, has a better uptake of colorants and shrinks less than cotton.
2020 Research & Development
Fibrevolution Co-founders Angela Wartes-Kahl and Shannon Welsh had the opportunity to sit down with Nate Powell-Palm and Esteban Pacheco of Cold Springs Organics in Bozeman, Montana, to learn more about their farming practices and experiences with growing fiber flax seed to help advance Fibrevolution's mission to revitalize flax to linen production in the USA.
Nate Powell-Palm and Esteban of Cold Springs Organics out in the flax field in Montana. This is our seed source for the 2021 fiber flax crop. We have partnered with Nate to grow 10 acres of certified organic fiber flax seed and 10 acres on transitional land moving towards organic. Increasing our seed bank and allowing us to scale up as we revitalize flax to linen production in the USA.
The variety we are growing is Linore, originally developed at Oregon State University. The seed will be cleaned in Eastern Oregon and then shipped to Fibrevolution on the Western side of the state, ready for planting in 2021.
Nathaniel Powell-Palm operates Cold Spring Organics, a certified organic farm outside Belgrade, Montana. He is a first-generation farmer and rancher, with diverse experience across a range of crops, grains, and livestock. Powell-Palm has extensive experience inspecting organic operations around the United States as an independent organic inspector. As an educator he developed curriculum and provided training around the United States and internationally for the International Organic Inspectors Association. He has served on several agricultural boards both at the state and national level. Powell-Palm holds a B.S. in Environmental Science from Montana State University. You can learn more about Nate's work here: National Organic Standards Board Organic Trade Association Rising Star The Millennial Face of Organic
Fiber Flax Seed Breeding Program Developments:
In fall of 2019 Jennifer G Kling planted a half-acre flax field at Lewis Brown Farm, OSU to gather data and advance the variety selections we chose last spring another generation. (see video below to learn more about Jennifer's seed breeding program.)
2019 Research & Development
We partnered with Nathaniel Powell-Palm of Cold Springs Organic Farm, to grow our Organic fiber flax seed this spring at his farm outside of Bozeman, Montana. Nate started farming when he was just 12 years old as part of a grant for a 4-H project. While a junior in high school he applied for Organic certification for his cattle operation in Montana, making him the state’s youngest certified Organic farmer for many years. Since then he has expanded his farm, Cold Springs Organics, into crop production and today is a proven leader in Organic agriculture.
Nate planted 5 acres of our Willamette Valley grown Linore fiber flax seed in Montana in Spring 2019.
After a successful growing season the organic fiber flax seed crop was successfully harvested in August 2019.
Fiber Flax Seed Breeding Program Developments:
Jennifer G Kling Ph.D. Is an independent plant breeding, genetics, and statistics consultant in Corvallis, Oregon. In this video we take a closer look at Jennifer’s seed breeding program with Fibrevolution and where they are headed with developing a fiber flax seed variety for linen production in Oregon.
In 2019 our fiber flax seed breeding plots grew organically, non-irrigated and were overwintered (planted fall 2018) in the Willamette Valley of Oregon (Albany, OR).
All seed was successfully harvested.
After seed selections for the breeding program were made, the remaining plants were pulled, rippled to remove seed pods, and the remaining fiber flax stalks were left in the field to rett.
Field retting trials from these plots were successful.
Our findings: overwintering fiber flax in the Willamette Valley of Oregon is a viable and desirable growing practice for our region to limit water usage/need to irrigate.
Jennifer G Kling, Angela Wartes-Kahl, and Shannon Welsh after successfully harvesting 2019 seed breeding plots.
In the spring of 2018, our flax acreage increased to nearly 15 acres in production. The F2 crosses from our seed breeding program were planted in field plots at Lewis-Brown Farm for a seed increase, ready to test on organic farms in 2019. Three farms throughout the Willamette Valley serve as our farm data collection sites for yields (fiber and seed), harvesting methods, retting times, baling and storage of flax straw for future fiber processing. A focus for this growing season is a comparison of dry farming versus irrigated crops.
In the summer of 2018, in an effort to build relationships and gather as much information and technical assistance as possible, Fibrevolution Co-founders Shannon and Angela visited Belgium, France, and the Netherlands to tour fiber flax farms, processing facilities, linen growers cooperatives, linen textile producers, and machinists to make the connections necessary to import harvesting and manufacturing equipment into the United States. In the fall of 2019 Shannon and Angela traveled to Northern Ireland to attend the Linen Biennale Northern Ireland. The Linen Biennale stimulates new thinking about Ireland’s oldest textile products: flax and linen. Reaching out to the last of a generation who worked in the heyday of Ulster’s linen production, the Linen Biennale forms a bridge to connect Ireland's internationally renowned linen heritage with contemporary uses and highlight the very best in cutting-edge developments from around the world.
2017 Research & Development
Dr. Andrew Hunt, Dr. Jennifer G Kling, Shannon M Welsh, Angela Wartes-Kahl, Dan Curry, Ralph Fisher, Scott Robbins
Together in 2017, our research team bred fiber flax varieties specific to our region, classed flax grown in Oregon, and established procedures for harvesting and field retting future crops. Planting flax on a large scale requires us to create a local source of fiber seed varieties first. Currently there are no fiber flax programs growing commercial quantities of seed in the United States. By establishing a seed breeding program, we can steer the results toward fiber flax best suited to organic systems in our bio-region. Consulting with Alvin Ulrich, President of Biolin Research in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we learned how to hand grade and class fiber flax. To assess the quality of fiber produced in Oregon, we were able to analyze historical samples as our base, in partnership with the Willamette Heritage Center. We also compared the quality, yield, and environmental aspects of conventional farming versus organic, which leads to a better understanding of how our practices impact the soil and ultimately the longevity of our planet.