Canola may be southeastern Idaho's crop of the future, but the first spring crop has had to weather a tough year.

Dramatic weather, including late frost, severe heat, dry spells and hail, has damaged the crop in some fields but has given researchers the opportunity to gather information it would have otherwise taken years to obtain.John Van Dam, production agronomist for DNA Plant Technology Corp., said, "Performance-wise it won't be a great year, but information-wise we're about three years ahead."

DNAP contracted with farmers to grow about 1,200 acres of canola in Idaho, Montana and Washington. Farmers in Idaho's Bingham, Bonneville, Madison, Fremont and Teton counties grew the crop.

Farmers were guaranteed a return regardless of yield. Dryland farmers will get at least $50 an acre, while growers with irrigation systems will receive $110.

Van Dam said some growers had good fields, while others were disasters. He said the crop was shortchanged this year because other crops such as potatoes and malt barley demanded more attention and water.

"Canola is treated as an interest or curiosity. It isn't a bread-and-butter crop yet," he said.

But the crop has a bright future in Idaho and could have a positive effect on many facets of the agriculture industry, a University of Idaho professor of plant breeding and genetics said.

"It has good economic potential, good biological potential but just needs some work," Dick Auld said.

Kelly Olson, a marketing administrator for the state Department of Agriculture, said canola could do well in Idaho because of the state's climatic conditions and the strong demand from food manufacturers and retail processors nationwide.

Canola is suited to southeastern Idaho because it is a cool-weather crop that likes temperatures between 65 and 75, Van Dam said.

And in-state canola production could provide Idaho food processors with a local supply of cooking oil.

"We love the soybean farmers in Iowa, but why not get it from farmers in Idaho?" Auld said.

Other benefits of the crop, Auld said, included using it as a rotation crop by potato farmers to reduce the incidence of disease and insects. Also, canola plant roots tap deeper and soak up excess nitrates in the soil.

And livestock fed canola meal provide meat with less surface fat, a quality in high demand, Auld said.

Van Dam said research is crucial to the success of canola in Idaho. Other alternative crops have failed because there was no way to adapt them to local conditions, he said.

"There is potential. It is just a matter of fine tuning."