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Published August 13, 2012, 10:51 AM

Sunnier days ahead?

Ron Aberle figures drought robbed 30 percent of his corn’s yield potential by early August.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

MENOKEN, N.D. — Ron Aberle figures drought robbed 30 percent of his corn’s yield potential by early August.

“But it (drought) has hardly touched the sunflowers,” the Menoken, N.D., farmer says.

With most of the region hammered by drought, this might be sunflowers’ time to shine again. The crop, which holds up well in drought, has seen its U.S. acreage decline for years.

“With the condition of our crop this year, I definitely think we’ll see more interest in sunflower,” says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association in Mandan, N.D. “I wouldn’t say we’re going to have a bin-buster. But I think we’re going to have a good, average crop.”

North Dakota typically is the nation’s leading sunflower producer. Two percent of the state’s sunflower crop was in poor or very poor condition on Aug. 5, according to the North Dakota field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In comparison, 16 percent of the state’s soybean crop rated poor or very poor, with 15 percent of the corn crop in poor or very poor condition.

A look at the Dakotas

Older area agriculturalists will remember when sunflowers were a big deal in the region, particularly in North Dakota. The crop’s ability to tolerate drought contributed mightily to its appeal.

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, such as corn and soybeans.

For instance, soybean acreage in the state rose from 425,000 in 1982 to 4.6 million in 2012.

This spring, farmers in the state planted 740,000 acres of sunflowers — or roughly one acre for every five acres of the crop planted 30 years ago.

Sunflower acreage in South Dakota has been rising for years, reflecting favorable yields. Farmers in the state planted an estimated 577,000 acres of the crop this spring, up from 415,000 five years ago. This year’s acres are down slightly from the 625,000 acres planted in 1982, but the decline is far less than North Dakota’s decline from 3.4 million to 740,000 acres during the same 30-year period.

South Dakota took the top spot in sunflower production in 2011 because of planting problems and poor yields in North Dakota. But North Dakota most likely will regain top status this year.

Farmers in states such as Kansas and Colorado are showing more interest in the crop, often as an alternative to wheat.

Drought in the Southern Plains has been severe this year and has hurt sunflowers there.

“The (sunflower) crop is reflective of conditions there,” Sandbakken says. “But it’s done a little bit better than expected. Given the climate and what’s occurring there, it’s doing very good.”

Not immune to drought

Sunflowers are tolerant of drought, but not immune to it. The crop’s extensive, heavily branched tap root system enables it to extract more moisture from the soil. But if the soil doesn’t have enough moisture, sunflowers suffer.

Art Ridl, a Dickinson, N.D., farmer, has been growing sunflowers since 1979 and says drought has hurt some of his sunflowers this year.

“We’re four to five inches (of rain) below normal,” he says.

Ridl says he’s committed to sunflowers because they historically have provided attractive prices to his farm.

Aberle is uncertain whether sunflower acreage will increase next year. In his area, at least, soybeans might prove more popular than sunflowers, he says.

Chemicals, markets

New chemicals and other advances have helped reduce the threat that crop disease poses to sunflowers, Sandbakken says.

“We’ve really made a lot of progress in the last few years and continue to look to do even more in the future.”

He’s optimistic that sunflowers offer a combination of drought resistance and potential that will appeal to farmers.

“You’re looking for a crop that will survive the drought and still give you a profit,” he says.

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

“We’re a premium oil compared to other vegetable oils,” Sandbakken says. “And demand for confection sunflowers continues to grow.”

Sunflowers also benefit from strong domestic and export markets, he says.

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