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Published October 15, 2012, 10:17 AM

Sunflower surprise

The crop holds up better than expected in this dry year.

Clark Coleman has raised sunflowers for many years. The Baldwin, N.D., farmer rarely has been as optimistic going into sunflower harvest as he is this year.

“It should be a good year,” says Coleman, who expects to begin combining his sunflowers in mid-October. He thinks his sunflowers could yield a ton or more per acre, and he previously contracted to sell much of his crop at a very good price.

For some growers, this is “a dream year,” given the combination of excellent yields and high prices, says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.

With the area sunflower harvest nearing the halfway mark, some North Dakota and Minnesota sunflower producers are reporting yields of 1,700 to 2,800 pounds per acre. Typically, sunflower growers shoot for 1,500 to 2,000 pounds per acre.

Prices, which rose above 30 cents per pound earlier this year, an exceptionally strong level, remain around 25 cents per pound at area grain elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek.

Growers also benefit because the crop’s oil content is unusually high, for which they receive a premium, or bonus, Sandbakken says.

North Dakota is the nation’s leading sunflower producer, accounting for 46 percent of the 1.815 million acres the federal government projects will be harvested this year.

USDA’s take

On Oct. 11, a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimated that North Dakota sunflowers will yield an average of 1,485 pounds per acre, up from 1,366 pounds per acre last year.

Sandbakken was unavailable for comment Oct. 11 after the USDA report came out.

But Sonia Mullally, communications director for the National Sunflower Association, says the NASS report reflects the earliest harvested fields, which are likely to have lower yields.

Final yield estimates after the completion of harvest are likely to be closer to the 1,700 to 2,800 pounds per acre mentioned by Sandbakken, she says.

Why the strong yields in a drought-marred growing season?

For starters, sunflowers are tolerant to drought. Sunflowers don’t escape drought’s impact entirely, but the crop holds up well in hot, dry weather, Sandbakken and others say.

The mild spring that allowed sunflowers to be planted unusually early also was a huge help, enabling flowers to be relatively free of crop disease, Sandbakken says.

Finally, some sunflowers on the Northern Plains received timely rains, growers say.

Struggles to the south

Nationwide, sunflowers will yield an average of 1,354 pounds per acre, down from 1,398 a year ago, USDA estimates.

Despite good yields in North Dakota, drought on the Southern Plains hurt sunflowers there.

In Kansas, which will rank third nationally this year with an estimated 81,000 harvested sunflower acres, flower yields will average only about 60 percent of normal, estimates Karl Esping, a Lindsborg, Kan., farmer.

“That’s a big difference,” he says.

USDA, however, estimates that Kansas sunflower yields will average 1,225 pounds per acre, the same as a year ago.

Esping says the USDA 2012 estimate isn’t realistic.

Some Kansas sunflower growers will harvest only half a normal crop, while some sunflower fields won’t even be harvested, he says.

Sunflowers grown under so-called “reduced irrigation” (or water allocations too small for irrigated corn) have held up well, pulling up the state’s average yield, Esping says.

He thinks more farmers in Kansas will consider growing sunflowers next year because the crop fares relatively well in drought.

South Dakota, the nation’s second-leading producer of sunflowers, definitely was hurt by drought.

South Dakota sunflowers will yield 1,296 pounds per acre, down from 1,664 pounds per acre a year ago, NASS estimates.

Growers in the state will account for 33 percent of harvested U.S. sunflower acres this year, NASS projects.

North Dakota acreage

North Dakota sunflower acreage peaked at 3.4 million in 1982. Acreage subsequently fell, reflecting disease problems in sunflowers and increasing interest in other crops.

In 2011, farmers in the state planted only 580,000 acres, a reflection of the very wet spring.

This year, North Dakota farmers planted 740,000 acres of sunflowers, NASS estimated in June. But the actual number apparently was higher; NASS estimated Oct. 11 that 840,000 acres will be harvested.

In any case, given strong sunflower yields and prices, “We just wish there had been more acres,” Sandbakken says.