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Published April 16, 2012, 08:55 AM

Staying sunny

Sunflower acreage this year in North Dakota, the nation’s dominant producer of the crop, is projected to sink to its second-lowest rate since 1976. But the executive director of the National Sunflower Association says there’s reason to be optimistic about his crop’s future, both in and outside the state.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Sunflower acreage this year in North Dakota, the nation’s dominant producer of the crop, is projected to sink to its second-lowest rate since 1976. But the executive director of the National Sunflower Association says there’s reason to be optimistic about his crop’s future, both in and outside the state.

“There’s a lot to like about sunflowers,” says John Sandbakken, who leads the Bismarck, N.D.-based NSA.

North Dakota farmers will plant 760,000 acres of the crop this year, according to the prospective plantings report released March 30 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If so, it would trail only the 580,000 acres planted in 2011, when the extremely wet spring prevented many farmers in the state from planting sunflowers and other crops. Last year’s acreage was the smallest since 1976, when 620,000 acres of the crop were planted.

Sunflower acreage in the state was expected to rebound from 2011, but the projected increase isn’t as great as many in the industry had anticipated, Sandbakken says.

Competing crops

Farmers typically grow sunflowers in an annual rotation with other crops. Planting problems last year disrupted the normal rotation, with some farmers planting winter wheat last fall on fields that otherwise might have been planted with sunflowers this spring, Sandbakken says.

North Dakota winter wheat acreage this year is pegged at 750,000, up from only 400,000 acres last year.

Attractive prices for other crops, including corn, also will limit sunflower acreage, if USDA is right.

However, there are persistent reports that corn seed is tight, which would work against corn acreage and encourage farmers to plant sunflowers, he says.

Dry conditions in much of the state also could persuade farmers to plant more sunflowers, which produce relatively well when precipitation is scarce.

Attractive sunflower prices should boost interest in the crop, too, Sandbakken says.

Another advantage that Sandbakken says sunflowers enjoy over some competing crops:

Contracts to sell sunflowers that will be harvested this fall include “act of God” clauses that protect the growers from production failures due to conditions outside their control.

The protection provided by such clauses “can help you sleep a little better at night,” Sandbakken says.

Sunflower acreage in North Dakota peaked at 3.4 million in 1982. Crop disease subsequently cut into the crop’s popularity in the state, as did increasing interest in competing crops.

Nationally, sunflower acreage is up, projected at 1.8 million, up from 1.5 million acres a year ago but less than the 1.95 million acres in 2010.

Industry experts had expected the 2012 national acreage number to be higher than what USDA projects, which reflects the lower-than-projected North Dakota acreage estimate, Sandbakken says.

S.D. outlook bright

On a positive note, USDA projects that South Dakota farmers will plant 540,000 sunflower acres, up from 485,000 acres last year and 510,000 acres in 2010.

South Dakota sunflower acres have been trending upward in recent years because of attractive yields, Sandbakken says.

Last year, for the first time, South Dakota sunflower production surpassed that of its neighbor to the north. That reflected wet conditions in North Dakota which cut into both yields and acreage.

North Dakota is expected to regain the top spot this year.

Sunflower acreage also is increasing in Texas, reflecting the longstanding drought there, Sandbakken says.

Texas farmers are projected to plant 95,000 acres of sunflowers this spring, more than in both 2011 and 2010.

Worldwide demand for sunflowers remains strong, Sandbakken says.

Sunflowers are grown as both a source of vegetable oil and confections.

Sunflower oil “has a healthy profile” that customers enjoy, with confection sunflowers remaining a popular, nutritious snack, Sandbakken says.

Outside N.D., S.D.

Though sunflowers generally are associated with North Dakota and increasingly with South Dakota as well, the crop is grown across the Great Plains.

Kansas ranked third in U.S. sunflower acreage last year. Farmers there are projected to plant 130,000 sunflowers acres this year, which would rank the state fourth, just behind the 131,000 sunflower acres expected in Colorado.

The short- and long-term outlook for sunflowers is bright in Kansas, says Karl Esping a Lindsborg Kan., farmer.

“We’re known as a wheat state. There’s no reason we can’t be known as a sunflower state, too,” he says, noting that “The Sunflower State” is Kansas’ official nickname.

Traditionally, Kansas farmers have relied heavily on wheat, a practice that hurts yields, Esping says.

Adding sunflowers to the Kansas crop rotation can help yields tremendously, he says.

He and other Kansas sunflower supporters suggest that farmers in the state consider double-cropping winter wheat and sunflowers — planting winter wheat in the fall and sunflowers the next spring.

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