CRESTON, Mont. — Drive through Creston in late spring or early summer and you will see stunning fields of yellow flowers.
Most of us know it as a vegetable oil.
But it's also used for biodiesel fuel and livestock feed.
Creston grows a great deal of Canola, and the Northwestern Agricultural Research Center in Creston is doing extensive research on the oil seed.
Clint Beiermann is an Assistant Professor at the center.
Clint took NBC Montana to the center's farm, where two-acres are devoted to winter Canola field trials.
"Because there's already a lot of spring Canola production in the area," said Clint, "Creston's a great place for winter Canola research."
The agronomist hopes his research on winter varieties will fit into existing crops to enhance that market.
"Growers here, know that they have a market and that they can make money growing spring Canola," said Clint. " If winter Canola can work here, you're just bringing them the same crop that they can market and have a higher yield."
Tryg Koch raises 700-acres of spring Canola in the area.
He co-owns Heritage Custom Farming and is vice-president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
"We've been growing Canola in this valley for probably 20-plus years," said Tryg. "The Canola that we raised this year was non GMO, and 100% of it is marketed to Montana Specialty Mills in Great Falls."
Tryg is working with Clint and the Center on its research.
Winter Canola is planted in late summer.
It goes dormant in the winter.
Clint has as many as 18 varieties that have been planted this season.
They look great.
"But the main trait we're looking for is winter hardiness," said Clint, " and the ability of this Canola to survive the winter."
If the oil seed proves robust after coming out of dormancy it would give farmers a head start.
Clint said the winter plant usually flowers during the month of May during cooler temperatures.
"And, that's a benefit," he said.
Most spring Canola is planted in April.
Tryg said prices for spring Canola were good this year.
But he said yields were down as much as 50% on dryland Canola because it was so hot.
"Our spring Canola was flowering at the end of June and in July," said Tryg, "and that's when we were 90-plus degrees, 100 degrees for 40-some days in a row with no rain. When Canola is flowering it can't handle 90-degree temperatures."
He said spring Canola is also susceptible to frost if you get a cold snap in May.
" We had that happen this year," he said.
Tryg also grows hay, winter wheat, spring wheat, barley, chickpeas and lentils.
For his operation, he said one drawback to winter Canola is the timing.
"It does need to be seeded in August," he said, "and a lot of times we're not ready to seed yet. We're still trying to combine our previous crop."
Creston is a rich agricultural area with fertile soil, relatively good rainfall, with the potential of producing extremely high yields.
But farmers can't afford to take too many risks.
That's where Clint comes in.
His job, he said, is "to test different things that the growers can't test on their own without financial failure."
At the Laboratory at the Ag Center, Clint uses a special machine to test the winter Canola seeds for weight and moisture.
Moisture, he said is important for higher yield.
It's also tested for oil content, which he said, is "the ultimate end-use product."
Clint's work also includes a test plot on spring Canola.
That crop has already been harvested.
The stubble shadows small seedlings that have already sprouted.
"We're happy with the spring Canola," said Clint. "It was a good year.
Tryg said on average in a good year, spring Canola in the Flathead will have good yields, with 40 bushels to an acre for dryland Canola and 65 bushels for irrigated.
The farmer said Canola benefits his traditional grain crops.
"We're a no till farm for the most part," he said. "So, with Canola stubble it's really easy to follow it with winter wheat."
"You need different rotations for disease suppression and disease management," he said. " A winter wheat crop planted behind a Canola crop generally gives you a good boost in yield."
Tryg said there's "nothing prettier than a Canola field in full bloom."
"I wish I had a dollar for every photo a tourist took of it," he said. "It's gorgeous."