11 June 1999

State-of-the-art processing gets best out of flax

By Andy Collings

WHICH is the more valuable part of a crop of flax – seed or straw? The answer is neither, for the reality is that the current incentive to grow the crop is the generous subsidy paid.

Nonetheless, there are those who believe that, subsidy or no subsidy, flax can provide growers with a useful return both in terms of seed and straw.

Nigel Smith-Korey is a director of Tamlyn, a company which, earlier this year, started processing flax straw at a site in Boyton, near Launceston, Cornwall.

Not the first by any means to establish such a business, Mr Smith-Korey believes his companys processing machinery to be the bees knees in its ability to produce clean short fibre flax.

"We have installed machinery which is very like the systems emp-loyed by the textile industry," he says. "Our process is capable of producing high grade material for which there is a high demand when used for blending in with other natural materials such as wool or cotton."

Even so, Mr Smith-Korey is the first to admit it is impossible to make silk purses out of sows ears and insists that proper management of flax straw in the field is essential if values are to be maintained.

"The south-wests damp climate is ideal for flax growing," he says. "After the crop has been combined the straw needs to ret – the breakdown of the fibre – which means it needs to stay in the field for about three weeks getting damp and dry a few times before it is baled.

"Most growers have a lot to learn if high quality flax straw is to be produced. There is a big temptation to bale too early which means that the chopping part of our processing becomes almost impossible."

He insists bales should always be stored undercover.

"Good quality straw can command up to £80/t, but poor quality can be next to worthless," he says. "Growers have got to realise that flax straw, with its current 1t+/acre yield, is an important part of the crop and should be treated so."

Such comments are understandable. The Boyton plant called for a £1m investment – about half of which came from grants – and the need to show some reasonable returns is high.

Mr Smith-Korey believes the potential annual output of the plant is about 7500t which, on current performance, requires 3600ha (9000 acres) of flax to be grown – the vast majority of which is grown on contract. Improved husbandry could see yields of both straw and seed increase significantly should the economics of the crop make sense.

"Overall, we are all on a learning curve, but I sincerely believe there is a future for flax – both for the grower and processor – even if subsidies reduce substantially."

Belt brings end to harvesting problem

FLAX, by its very nature, will never be an easy crop to harvest.

Fibrous, it has an uncanny ability to wrap around anything that turns, particularly if the sun goes behind a cloud.

Such problems manifest themselves in strange ways. Given half a chance the front auger would provide a welcome respite for cut flax stems, providing the knives had achieved a satisfactory cut.

But ignoring, for the moment, the almost magnetic attraction of the rotating sails, it is the shaft at the top of the elevator – the one that should present the crop to the drum – which generally proves to be the point where reluctance peaks.

In short, the crop wraps around the top shaft, causing the combine to be stopped, the front trunking removed and, with a sharp knife, the mini-bale dismembered. Good fun on occasions; bad news when it happens every 15 minutes.

Such was the plight of Cornish contractor Phil Strout, who is based at Bradbridge Farm, Boyton. Contracted to cut 800ha (2000 acres) of flax last year, irritation soon turned to frustration, followed shortly by acute embarrassment as customers looked anxiously on.

The problem for his MF36 combine with its 18ft powerflow header was clearly in the feed system, a traditional chain and slat elevator. Flax was getting under the chains and, rather than being projected drum-wise continued its new found extra-terrestrial experience by rotating around the top shaft.

Salvation came in the form of a rubber belt fitted beneath the slats to provide a total movable surface for the flax to travel with. The brainchild of Bob Sellers, a fitter for West Devon and North Cornwall Farmers, the system proved to be the solution which enabled harvesting to continue without further delay.

"I phoned up a belt supplier – from the Yellow Pages – and explained what I wanted," says Mr Sellers. " He recommended a 3mm polyester belt and cut it to the width and length I required. Bolt heads which hold the slats in position were spot welded to retain them and corresponding holes punched in the belting.

"It took about 90 minutes to fit the belt and from that point wrapping was a thing of the past, for the remaining 1000 acres or so. The belt cost about £150."

Mr Sellers says he had tried MFs suggested solution – a plastic roller on the top elevator shaft and even chain cogs with sharpened indents – to no avail.

"MF just does not appear to understand the problem," he says. "Flax calls for a totally different approach than other crops."

Even so, Mr Sellers believes his belt elevator conversion could find use with combines asked to harvest crops, such as linseed, grass seed or oilseed rape. &#42