It Turns Out Flogging Flax -- Is a Homespun Big Business

South Dakota Farmer Touts Tiny Seeds But Scientists and Canadians Are Irked

December 30, 2002

By Paul Glader

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

ONAKA, S.D. - Rick Heintzman drew wisecracks from other farmers at the South Dakota State Fair in the early 1990s. Surrounded by 6,000 bags of flaxseed, he didn't sell an ounce.

Ten years later, Mr. Heintzman is spinning flax into gold. His company, Heintzman Farms, based just outside this hamlet of 30, is one of the largest flaxseed producers in the U.S. It sells "Dakota Flax Gold" seeds, "Fairy Flax" snack packets and "Bite Me!" candy bars. The company has its own Web site -- -- and ships about 360 tons of flaxseed annually.

The tiny, oval seeds Mr. Heintzman harvests have been used since ancient times. The fibrous stalk of the flax plant makes strong rope and fine linen garments, and linseed oil pressed from flaxseed is still found in paint, polishes and animal feeds. But Mr. Heintzman owes his newfound riches mostly to health-obsessed Baby Boomers. Research during the past decade indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in preventing heart disease, and flax is loaded with the stuff.

Flax is found now in breakfast cereals, waffles, breads, energy bars, chips and cookies. U.S. flax production has soared. In North Dakota, where 95% of U.S. flax is grown, nearly 800,000 acres of flax were grown last year, up from 80,000 acres in 1996. "We're hoping flax is the next soy," says Kaye Effertz, director of a state-funded trade group, Ameriflax.

These days, Mr. Heintzman, 54 years old, is reaping the benefits of going against the grain. He has traded in his Ford Aerostar for a Lincoln Navigator (license plates: "Flaxmon") and jets off to small sales offices he has set up in Brazil, Florida and California. He wears Italian dress shoes and black leather jackets on his farm. One of his brochures features him posing in a field of flax, wearing a tuxedo with a bottle of Champagne at his side.

A third-generation grain farmer and rancher, he was first drawn into the market by news of a new, golden flaxseed developed in 1989 at North Dakota State University. He liked the color -- the seed was lighter than the traditional brown seeds, which some people say resemble wood ticks -- and bought some to plant. He harvested 400 acres from the experimental seeds, and ended up with piles of golden flaxseed.

A year later, while in Washington to file for patents on farm-machinery inventions, Mr. Heintzman noticed people eating granola bars and other health snacks. "I've got eight semi-loads of seeds waiting back at my place," he remembers thinking, "and that's what I'm going to feed 'em."

Relatives and neighbors doubted him at first. "I didn't think he would do too well," says Ralph Malson, 79, another farmer from Onaka. But today Mr. Malson marvels at the fancy new farm equipment at the Heintzman farm. "He's done pretty good with it," he says.

Heintzman Farms is uncomplicated: Mr. Heintzman's two sons harvest the crops. Twenty employees, including relatives and local farm wives, package and ship the various products from a steel shed, where five cats scout for rodents. Unlike other flax farmers who sell flax in bulk, Mr. Heintzman sells to customers directly through his Web site and direct-mail promotions. His 1998 IRS statement says he grossed $1.6 million, a figure he says will rise to more than $3 million this year.

He sells flaxseed in bright yellow bags printed with his own homespun sayings, such as "Just for the well of it!" Some seed bags bear recipes for such fare as "Phlax Pancakx" and "Rick's Quick Fix 25G Power Slammer," which consists of fruit juice and five level teaspoons of ground flax. Sitting in his blue farmhouse, Mr. Heintzman describes new ideas -- such as marketing buffalo meat and Native American teas -- with the phrase, "It's just killer!"

But some of his claims have drawn criticism from competitors and researchers. For example, one article first published in a newsletter to customers two years ago and still carried on his Web site, recommends his seeds for "high cholesterol, hypertension, triglycerides, allergies, asthma, ADD, PMS, over- and under- thyroid activity, diabetes, arthritis and cancer." He says he has conducted his own research supporting some of these claims.

At North Dakota State University, which is now developing flax pasta and flax ice cream, researchers endorse flax as a preventative only, not a treatment.

A few years ago, Mr. Heintzman clashed with a university-based group of scientists, researchers and farmers called the Flax Institute. In a Fargo hotel, Mr. Heintzman tried to videotape academic presentations for his flax promotions. Jack Carter, professor emeritus in the department of plant sciences, ordered him to stop, arguing that Mr. Heintzman was a farmer, not a news reporter. Mr. Heintzman says he protested and reached to pull out an old press pass.

Poppycock, says Dr. Carter. "It was a wad of bills in his pocket. He said that was his press pass," Dr. Carter recalls. "I told him to 'get the hell out of here,' and he did." Mr. Heintzman says he had an outdated press pass from videotaping a food convention years ago and that it was wrapped in a money clip with a wad of bills. "It was not a bribe," he says. "I would never even consider bribing anyone." The two men haven't spoken to each other since.

Across the border in Canada, where 1.5 million acres of mostly brown flax is grown, some flax farmers are chafed about Mr. Heintzman's claims that his golden flax tastes better than brown flax. The Flax Council, a Canadian trade group, monitors Mr. Heintzman's literature, tests his flax samples and keeps a dossier on him.

Particularly irksome to Canadian flax farmers is a claim Mr. Heintzman has made in his newsletters that the color, taste and nutritional value of his flax makes it superior to Canadian flax. Canadian flax miller Linda Pizzey, president of Pizzey's Milling in Angusville, Manitoba, says she has paid for her own tests on his seeds. "The results on the testing don't verify what he is claiming," she says.

U.S. researchers almost unanimously agree that there is no nutritional or chemical difference between brown and golden flax. Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, countered Mr. Heintzman's marketing claims by publishing in the council's own newsletter side-by-side results of the omega-3 oil contents of Mr. Heintzman's seeds and Canadian brown seeds. Mr. Hall says the seeds had roughly the same oil content, but the brown flax contained 59% omega-3 fatty acid, compared with 51% for Mr. Heintzman's golden flax.

"We considered challenging him directly. But it's one of those things that the more you stir it up, the worse it gets," Mr. Hall says.

Mr. Heintzman claims oil content isn't relevant and says he has similar comparison studies that justify his marketing. He says the Canadians have stolen some of his larger customers by badmouthing him, and shrugs off the criticism: "I just leave them alone."

Moreover, competitors carp about his claims that his flaxseed contains less cadmium, a toxic metal in high doses. Ernie Hoffert of Reimers Seed Co., a North Dakota flax processor, says Mr. Heintzman is "a cross between P.T. Barnum and a snake-oil salesman. I don't like that. It is not good for our industry."

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