The people of Neolithic times depended on numerous plants and animals for their continued survival. Knowledge of these resources had come to them through observation, experimentation and from information provided to them by their ancestors. Increased familiarity with these sources of food, fiber and medicine laid the foundation for pastoral and arable agriculture; indeed, the agricultural revolution was a seminal event of the Neolithic era. Since that time, (approximately 10,000 years ago) there have been 500 human generations.
There is general agreement that present day cultivated flax is most closely related to wild L. angustafolium; a wild progenitor seen throughout the Mediterranean Basin, North Africa, the Near East, Iran, Caucasia and Western Europe. Other species of the Linum L. genus are located over the steppe belts of the temperate Mediterranean, the northern hemisphere and China.
Because it was one of the first domesticated plants, flax is recognized as a foundation crop of modern civilization. It responded well to the first efforts at domestication as was evidenced by a noticeable increase in seed size, higher oil yield and /or a longer stem and a seed boll that did not easily dehisce (burst open releasing the seeds). These significant genetic changes were fundamental in flax attaining a leading position in the economic, social, religious and political lives of Neolithic people and further positioned it for a future inexorably interwoven with that of human civilization.
The greatest biological diversity within the genus Linum is found on the Indian subcontinent and scholars believe that this is the most likely region for the botanical origin of our modern cultivated flax. Early trade routes linked India with the Middle East through the Indus Valley. Another school of thought outlines the belief that flax originally came from Western Persia (Iran) and spread to other countries regarded to be the areas of early flax cultivation – India, China and Central Asia, then west and south, primarily to Babylon (Iraq) and Egypt.
Flax in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptians developed a highly successful agrarian economy based upon the profusion and abundance of crops they were able to grow. Fundamental to this production was the Nile River and its annual flooding. When the water subsided, the crops were planted. Apart from foodstuffs, flax was the main agricultural crop grown and as an industry, flax production came to be as important as the growing of grain. The Pharaoh, recognized as “God Incarnate” to the people of Egypt personally owned the largest part of the flax growing area. This harvest was so important he placed it under the control of a high officer of his court. The art of weaving was highly developed and Egypt was famous for the fineness of its fabric. Although the Pharaoh held a monopoly over cloth making for trade and export, the domestic textile industry typical within the homes of the rich and poor alike, was not impacted by this policy.
Harvested flax was bound in sheaves and forcibly drawn through a comb-like instrument that stripped off the bolls (rippled) and these were collected. Today’s microscopic examination of textile remnants reveals the harvest took place at three different stages. The first one occurred soon after the flowering was complete while the stems were still green. This produced a soft, fine fabric reserved for the exclusive use of the aristocracy. Plants pulled 30 days after flowering then the stems were turning from green to yellow would yield a stronger fiber. A final harvest took place several weeks later when the stalks were golden and the seed bolls fully ripened. This fiber was suitable for mats and ropes.
The retrieved seed bolls were crushed using heavy long handled mallets or perhaps oxen were used to tread out the seeds. After winnowing (separating the seeds from the husks), the seeds were collected and some of them retained for the next year’s planting. Ancient Egypt had both a domestic and an industrial component within its flax production, harvest and processing. Seed harvested for home use was ground in a quern (a simple stone mill) with linseed meal being the end result. At the industrial level, people were hired to complete the pounding process. Two methods are generally accepted as to how the oil was obtained from the seed. In the decanting process, hot water was poured over the crushed seeds and the oil was scooped out when the mixture had settled, or the seeds were placed in water, heated over a fire and the oil was skimmed off the surface. The second method involved “pressing” the oil out of the seeds. The type of process used to extract the oil was determined by the end use of the product, with pressed oil being utilized as a coarse, industrial oil and decanted oil more sought after for domestic, medicinal and religious applications.
Although the early Egyptians had established many utilizations for flax, the Greeks and Romans continued to extol its virtues as a food, fiber and medicine. Written records of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations dating back to the 6th century B.C. mention flax cultivation. The literary works of Homer, Herodotus, Theophrastus and Pliny provide word references to flax and/or linen.
Early European Flax History
Iron Age findings indicate that a narrow-leafed perennial flax was grown across Europe. Gauls (an ancient people of present day France and Belgium) and Celts (an ancient Indo-European people), the earliest flax growers in Western Europe, learned about flax from the Romans. German archaeological digs of Iron Age settlements have uncovered remains of bread prepared from millet, wheat and flaxseed.
The Slavic tribes were the first to begin cultivating flax in Eastern Europe, having brought it from Greece. It was used to make fishing nets, ropes, sailcloth and linseed oil. By the 10th and 11th centuries A.D. flax was grown extensively in Russia. With both the fiber and seed utilized, it was regarded as an important domestic and industrial crop.
Flax Arrives in North America
Cultivated flax made its first appearance on the North American continent about four hundred years ago. Lois Hébert, thought to be the first farmer in Canada, brought the seed with him to “New France.” Over the years, flax production stretched across the continent. In the late 1800s European settlers were seeding Canada’s west with flaxseed brought from their native lands. Flax thrived on this “first breaking” of the prairie and production in this “New Land” advanced.
Flax in the 20th Century and Beyond
Two world wars increased demand for flax as a source of oil and fiber. By the middle of the 20th century, flax based goods were used worldwide. Oil-based coatings beautified and protected wooden and concrete surfaces; linoleum was recognized as a popular flooring material. Linen in its various forms remained an international fabric staple and flaxseed continued to form part of people’s diets. In some areas of the world flaxseed and other baked or cooked products remained commonplace. Similarly, livestock breeders and farmers utilized flaxseed as a component of animal nutrition. The popularity of flax for human consumption has continued its dramatic increase. Canada’s producers, both organic and conventional, have worked hard to fill this demanding and exacting market niche, satisfying customers not only in Canada, but also around the world.
The Canadian climate favours a high quality flax crop. Combine that with the efficiency of Canadian producers and the excellence of Canadian agronomic research and it’s no surprise that Canada is the world’s major flax exporter.
Flax in our Language and Literature
A day spent in the reference section of a local library can provide a lot of insight into the significant role that flax has had in the development of the English language. Recognizing the number of uses of flax helps one to explore the history of the words that have survived and become part of our every day speech.
There are two mains schools of thought regarding the source of the word flax. Most word origin dictionaries trace it back through Old English, Old Teutonic, Old Ayran, and finally to the Old Latin where the source is plectere, which means, "to plait." Another somewhat similar path also ends up in Old Ayran with the root being plak, "to flay" – a direct reference to beating the fibers to facilitate separation.
By N. Lee Pengilly, Researcher and Author
In recognition of the 10th Anniversary of the Commission, I spoke with representatives from the first Board of Directors. I asked each of those interviewed what he saw as the significant accomplishments and/or struggles of the past 10 years and for some thoughts on the future.
Chris Hale was the first Chair of SaskFlax. My conversation with him began with a brief history lesson on how SaskFlax came to be. He cites a major catalyst for its inception was flax producers seeing the successes both Saskatchewan’s canola and pulse producers were experiencing due to a stable source of funding [levy dollars].
“This provided the enthusiasm amongst a core group of us to get things going. After following the appropriate procedures we had things in place and we were fortunate in our first year to have good flax sales. It naturally took some time to get our feet underneath us. Initially our research interest was primarily agronomic and varietal, but we could see flax moving from an industrial commodity to a food/nutraceutial product. Levy dollars provided seed money to bring this research along.”
“We recognized early on that straw management is a major issue and something positive has to happen with it. This has been and continues to be a challenge. We have been making progress (with the help of Biolin Research). Finding profitable uses for fiber has been the single biggest user of our funds.”
“From the beginning we have been lucky to have attracted good members to the Board who have always worked to producer’s best interests. We have worked extensively with government at all levels and have made many contacts. With the levy generated dollars we have been able to undertake significant projects.”
“I think our successes speak highly of the members of the Board who have Chaired both the organization and the sub-committees. SaskFlax has built a reputation as a ‘Go – To’ group both in Saskatchewan, Canada and Internationally. It’s important to maintain those good relationships. We emphasize a strong team effort and we work hard to present a united front. This has allowed us to move things along.”
“The future of SaskFlax is bright and strong and will remain so as long as we respond to the needs and concerns of our producer membership. Continued communication through our annual general meeting, field days, newsletter and one-on-one opportunities allows this to happen. As an industry, we need to keep tabs on both the industrial markets as well as those pertaining to human health. We need to keep flax competitive in the competition for acres and market access.”
Next on my list of contacts was Bill Farley who farms in the Regina area. In terms of successes, Bill’s response was immediate, “Through the formation of SaskFlax and the ability to collect levy dollars, we have been able to get great value and mileage out of our research dollars. Whenever you invest in research, you get value several times over what you spend. We just wouldn’t have an industry without it. Even if all projects are not successful in the short term, the money is still well spent, never knowing where or what it might lead to. An excellent example of that is what we have seen in the food/nutraceutical industry. In the early days of the Commission, most flax use had been industrial, but now we are seeing as much as 20% of the flax crop going into food and nutraceuticals. This helps to stabilize the price of flax.”
“Another area where research is really paying off is in the area of fiber. This process is ongoing and Alvin (Ulrich) is doing very good work. Finding more uses for the straw will discourage burning. Research initiatives in this area will pay off and soon, straw will be an asset. As society moves to more utilization of natural fibers flax growers will help save the environment. But this will take a long time.”
“In our desire to look at food and fiber we have to recognize that 75% to 80% of our flaxseed continues to go into the industrial market. We need to keep tabs on where that market is going.”
“I give credit to the Flax Commission. Levy dollars have been well used to enhance research by providing core money. These have been the seed dollars with which we can leverage further research funds from the public and private sector. From the beginning, SaskFlax has had good people on the Board. People do it because they know it’s good for the farming public. The check-off dollars give great value.”
I completed my conversations with Allen Kuhlman, the present Chair. Allen began with a sigh, “It just doesn’t seem like 10 years, yet in other ways it seems like things don’t happen fast enough. When we started, flax wasn’t even considered a food. Brown flax was primarily an industrial feedstock. It was in the early dawning of its potential as a food and nutraceutical. What we see today hadn’t even been contemplated. Working with what flax could and should be used for has been a focus for SaskFlax activities since those beginnings. The challenge remains as to how to get the average person to consume that magic two tablespoons per day! But the inroads made and the research completed in terms of health and wellness are a major accomplishment of the organization.”
“As far as struggles, it would have to be with finances as being a limiting factor in both what we would like to do and what we’d like to get done. It seems like government has chosen to back out of lots of the research funding for agriculture, leaving more and more up to producers. Organizations are being forced to use levy dollars for things government used to cover.
“This direction of government concerns me. As producers, we have seen flax evolve from a wholly industrial commodity to a player in the food/nutraceutical market and yet government suggests we don’t need further agronomic or varietal research. Without a healthy producer base you can’t have a successful value chain. It’s as simple as that and government is missing the point. It’s great to see all this potential, but some of that wealth has got to make it into the hands of producers. That is both a challenge and a frustration.”
“One of the major obstacles to substantially increasing flax acreage relates to the fiber residue issue. We have to find other uses for it and that just doesn’t happen quickly. If we look at the cotton story, it has taken 300 years to get where they are.”
“Things take time. As an organization and an industry, we need to move forward both thoughtfully and sustainably.”
Source: The Saskatchewan Flax Grower newsletter, April 2007, page 3.
SaskFlax in 1997: The First Year
With election results for the newly formed Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission tallied, members were informed and introduced to the new Board of Directors: Chris Hale of Rouleau (Chairman), Terry Boehm of Allan, Allen Kuhlmann of Vanguard, Bill Farley of Regina and Ron Gilmour of Craik. Ray McVicar with Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food and Gordon Rowland with the Crop Development Centre both served as Advisors.
Linda Braun was hired as the Executive Director and began implementation of the first strategic plan. Levy dollars were to be directed towards market facilitation, research (both varietal and agronomic) and communication.
The office of SaskFlax was relocated to its present Saskatoon location and the first research applications were under evaluation. These included two on varietal development and one partnered with Flax Council of Canada on the evaluation of flaxseed samples. Guy Lafond at the Indian Head Research Station was awarded the work on the latter project.
Plans were underway for the first annual meeting to be held in conjunction with Flax Growers of Western Canada during Crop Production Week.
In 1997 flax and solin (Linola) production on the prairies was in the order of 2.25 million acres, with the price in the $8.00 per bushel range.
Source: The Saskatchewan Flax Grower newsletter, April 2007, page 2.
Flax in Canada 90 years ago
(An Excerpt From the “Proceedings of Convention” of Canadian Flax Growers held in London, Ontario February 28 and March 1, 1917.)
1. Chairman’s Address
2. Early History of Flax in Canada
3. Cause of Decline and Future of Flax Industry in Canada
4. The Natural Resources Survey and its Relation to the Flax Industry
5. The Possibility of Profitably Combining Hemp with Flax Growing
6. Flax Growing from a Farmer’s Standpoint
7. Annual Meeting of Canadian Flax Growers’ Association
8. The Merits of Water Retting as Compared to Dew Retting
9. The Preparation and Grading of Flax Fibre for the Spinning Mill
10. Scutching Machine
11. The Possibilities of the Manufacture of Commercial Commodities from Green Unretted Flax Straw
Source: The Saskatchewan Flax Grower newsletter, April 2007, page 2.