A research project to develop flax varieties better adapted to the northern prairies is only into its second year, but coordinators say they're already making huge strides in redesigning the crop.

Selected representatives of the flax industry toured Viterra's research plots near Lake Lenore this week, and took the opportunity to showcase some of the work of the Northern Adapted Flax Variety Development Project.

Flax is currently a crop that grows mainly on the southern prairies. Prices for it remain good, and researchers want to extend its range into the central and northern grain belt.

Dr. Paul Dribnenki is a Viterra flax breeder. He says the crop's popularity is helping spur the project. "We have to get flax adapted beyond that zone, so that we can encourage production across western Canada. So that we can grow the crop and it will be much more resilient to climatic issues and weather issues."

This year 132 variety lines of flax are being tested and compared in the plots at Lake Lenore. But in total, 24, 000 lines will be evaluated this year at seven research sites on the prairies. Two key goals of the project are to improve the germination of flax in cool soils and the frost tolerance of the crop, to extend its growing season.

Wayne Thompson, from the Western Grains Research Foundation, says the project is making great strides. "We need to do just that little bit more work to help get it to the level that farmers can grow it in their rotation consistently and with some ease, compared to what we've had in the past."

Lines are also being selected for more uniform maturity traits so that all parts of the crop, including the straw, ripen at about the same time.

"By having the stems ripen sooner, one to two weeks earlier than normal varieties, it'll create more of a feedstock for the bio-fiber industry," says Dribnenki.

The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission says the new breed of flax will encourage more production. "Lots of people won't grow flax because of harvest problems," says Lyle Simonson of the SFDC. "Well, if you can get a variety that you can harvest and chop the straw and spread it or as we go along and we find a market for the straw that helps."

Through initial work, the research team has already identified lines that mature a week earlier than varieties currently grown by prairie farmers. It's hoped new, northern adapted flax will be ready for commercial testing within three years.