Two women, one dream, and a whole lotta flax.
Shannon Welsh and Angela Wartes-Kahl are the spunky dynamic duo needed to bring flax (Linum usitatissimum) back to Oregon after 50 years. Oregon originally brought flax to the Willamette Valley to create jobs during the Great Depression. It was such a success that the town of Mt. Angel even had an annual flax festival that included a parade and a flax queen. However, in the 1960s, the fiber flax industry died out. Fibrevolution was co-founded by Welsh and Wartes-Kahl in 2016 to bring flax back not only to Oregon, but the United States. In just a few years, Fibrevolution has been awarded two Environmental Grants through Patagonia with Pacific Northwest Fibershed, partnered with organic farmers in Montana for seed increase, and last but not least, partnered with our very own Jennifer Kling to breed for improved flax varieties. They are tackling their goals from all angles, from science and research, to community outreach and environmental stewardship.
Flax is an incredible crop since it can provide both food and fiber, known as linen. Fibrevolution is focused on fiber flax (hence the name) as a way to grow a local source of fiber. Linen is an amazing material as it lasts much longer than cotton, easily absorbs colors and dyes, is a cooler material than cotton or wool, and is also non-allergenic. Flax can be grown sustainably and organically since it requires less Nitrogen fertilizers than cotton and, due to its high planting density, it is a great weed suppressant and therefore herbicides are not required. This weed suppression also makes flax a great choice for crop rotation with many cereals and vegetables. Lastly, flax does not need irrigation unless extremely hot and dry conditions occur during flowering.
As a plant breeder, Jennifer Kling has been working on creating new and improved varieties for fiber and seed. Since the fiber industry left Oregon in the 1960s, there has not been any breeding work done on flax. Varieties such as Linore (a seed type developed by Oregon State University) and Agatha (a fiber type) are our current “baseline” on which we hope to improve upon. Linore has great winter hardiness but does not have a high yield. By crossing Linore with other varieties, the goal is to create a winter hardy variety that could be planted in the fall and harvested in the early summer as the Oregon rains halt for the summer. Therefore, harvest could be completed without any irrigation. Agatha is “younger” variety that was released about 20 years ago from the Netherlands. Winter hardiness and potential other factors to increase yield are also being bred.
Dual purpose flax, a variety that could provide both seed and fibre, is also being looked into. However, criteria for a good fiber flax and a good seed type are somewhat contradictory. Seed types tend to be shorter with more branching and therefore more flowers to produce more seeds, while fiber types are taller and have less branching. The combination may not be possible, or at least not economically feasible for commercial production. However, for small-scale farms or even backyard gardens, a dual purpose flax could be of use.
It takes about 10 years of breeding to create a new, stable variety, therefore Kling is still in the early stages. What is interesting is that since flax has not had the extensive research that other crops have received, Kling has to learn as she goes (At least in terms of flax… she does have decades of plant breeding experience under her belt!). However, that seems to be the way of Fibrevolution and so far it is working out for them. The group has found efficient ways to breed new varieties with basically no equipment. The flax is planted, weeded, harvested, threshed, and processed all by hand. Welsh and Wartes-Kahl have also managed to find growers, seed cleaners, funding and more when all they had to start with was an idea. If Welsh, Wartes-Kahl, and Kling are successful in bringing flax back better than ever, it could change the fiber industry. It would create local, organic fiber options that would require less herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizers than cotton as well as decreasing transportation carbon emissions. These are the game changing ideas that can lead to sustainable agriculture and planet as well as a strong local economy.
We are excited to see these game changers to lead the way.