Sunflowers

The Land: Lloyd Kannegieter shot this field of sunflowers east of Pierre in 2014. To submit to the series send your photos to news@capjournal.com

There are some reasons to think sunflowers will cover more acres in South Dakota and North Dakota this year, the two states that produce three-fourths of the nation’s sunseeds.

“I don’t have any firm numbers yet, but just from what I’m hearing around, I think acres will be up this year,” said John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association in Bismarck.

Total U.S. acres were down to 1.5 million last year, far from the glory years in the 1970s when farmers planted nearly 6 million acres of sunflowers, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture.

As corn has become the major crop in North Dakota the past six years, it’s displaced a lot of sunflower fields.  Plus, the vagaries of last year’s growing season led to a high number of “prevented planting” acres, which, under the farm program’s provisions, subsidize farmers not able to get a crop in the ground, which cut sunflower acres, Sandbakken said.

Some farmers may start spring field work next week as the unusually warm and dry winter-into-spring continues.

But Tom Young will let his Onida, South Dakota, farm warm a little longer while he heads to Arizona for a pre-planting vacation of watching baseball players in spring traning.

It’s too early to know if this year will be dry enough to change farmers’ planting intentions, Young said. “But the price of corn may shift some producers away from corn.”

 Over the past three years, corn prices have halved, from near-record $7-per-bushel territory.

A typical rotation for farmers north of Pierre is spring wheat the first year, winter wheat the next year, then corn and the fourth year sunflowers go into the ground, Young said. This spring, seeing relatively low prices for corn, what so far looks like a dry year more amenable to sunflowers than corn, could call for change. “Maybe some instances where this year, people skip some corn and jump right into flowers,” Young said.

That’s what he’s doing.

“I rotated about 600 acres away from corn into flowers,” he said of his already formulated planting intentions for this year. “So….about two-thirds of my normal corn crop is going into sunflowers.”

Sunflowers probably require less fertilizer and handle dry conditions better than corn but require perhaps more management of weeds and pests, such as insects and birds, who always are trying for birdseed before it’s bagged and tagged..

Meanwhile, the price, while not as high as it was last year at $25 per hundred-weight for many farmers, still is in the range of $16 to $17 for contracts now to deliver this year’s crop new next fall. Contracts for $19 were available not long ago.

Sunflower prices have been well above historic levels the past six years, as have most farm crop prices, averaging $22.70, twice the average price from 1993-2007, according to USDA figures.

The crop with the happiest face has lost some luster from decades ago, as the nations which used to import U.S. sunseeds have gotten into the habit of growing their own, while U.S. farmers turned to other crops, mostly corn and soybeans.

Historic value of the U.S. sunseeds crop has gone from $414 million in 1980 – which would be $1.18 million in 2015 dollars –  to as low as $185 million in 1986 – which would be about $395 million in 2014 dollars – to a nominal high of $713 million in 2012 to $446 million in 2013. That’s far below the total value of corn, wheat and soybeans, nationally. But sunflowers remain a big deal in the Dakotas.

It’s a consistent moneymaker in this region where nearly all farmers are managing their farms under the no-till theory, Young said.

“The nice thing about sunflowers is, it may be dry, but if you get a little rain to get it started and a little rain in August, they often will produce a very amazing crop,” Young said.

In latter years, with new varieties and better production techniques, farmers have begun planting sunflowers later than they did 10 or 20 years ago, June 15 or so. It helps the plants make it through the hottest part of the summer before bloom, and sunflowers are famous for being a late season crop, hanging around until the farmers gets to them with the combine.

  “A lot of years I hear producers get their best yields from the fields that were the last ones planted,” Young said.

    A long-term support for the sunflower industry from the ground up is the fact that patents for high-oleic seed varieties have run their course, making them more widely available, Sandbakken said.

 The high-oleic seeds, crushed into cooking oil as the great majority of the crop ends up, offer healthier food. It contains lower amounts of saturated fat, higher amounts of monounsaturated fats, helping to raise good cholesterol in consumers and lowering bad cholesterol counts, Sandbakken said.

 About 75 percent of the U.S. sunseed crop is sold domestically, which helps support prices, Sandbakken said. Meanwhile, about 75 percent of the nation’s exported sunseeds and sunflower oil goes only so far as Canada, also a good-paying market, he said.

   And after nearly a decade in which bottled sunflower cooking oil hasn’t really been seen much on grocery shelves, Walmart recently began offering its special brand of U.S. sunflower oil, Great Value.

“There are something like 3,000 Supercenter Walmarts across the country so that is a huge market,” Sandbakken said. “Also, Cisco, which I think is the largest food service distributor in the nation, just recently started packaging sunflower oil for restaurants. So we have some new market opportunities here in the United States.”

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