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Published January 07, 2013, 10:25 AM

Ready to shine again?

Sunflowers were once one of the big growth crops in U.S. agriculture, with farmers planting a record 5.6 million acres in 1979.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Tim DeKrey of Steele, N.D., has raised sunflowers since 1981. The crop isn’t always easy to grow, but is consistently profitable for him.

He plans to plant sunflowers again this spring. “They’ll always have a place on this farm” in south-central North Dakota, he says.

Many other area farmers, including ones who have planted little, if any, of the crop might grow sunflowers this spring too. Sunflowers — once a shining star of Upper Midwest agriculture, but a crop that’s lost some luster over time — could be in line for a comeback.

The crop’s extensive root system allows it to tolerate dry conditions better than most competing crops, and that could cause more area farmers to consider it after the drought of 2012.

“If we are trending toward dry, there will be more interest,” DeKrey says.

Exceptionally strong 2012 sunflower yields in North Dakota, the nation’s leading producer, also could encourage more farmers in the state to grow the crop this year.

Already, area seed dealers report more interest, says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, N.D.

But not even sunflower advocates think its popularity will skyrocket. Competing crops, particularly corn and sunflowers, remain popular, and sunflower prices aren’t as strong as growers would like.

Even so, sunnier times may be ahead. Wheat, corn and soybeans, the region’s three major crops, currently are the stars. Sunflowers are a complementary player that potentially can play a bigger, though still secondary, role.

Sunflowers are “a rotation crop, not a big-acreage crop,” DeKrey says.

Sunflowers work best when grown in a rotation with other crops, Sandbakken says.

“Corn and soybeans are king. We want to promote (sunflowers) being part of a rotation with them,” he says.

Sunflowers also work well in rotation with small grains, he says.

Farmers regularly rotate crops in a field from year to year to reduce disease and insect problems and to maximize moisture. Sunflowers tap into moisture deep in the ground while shallower-rooted crops draw on moisture closer to the surface, sunflower advocates say.

Planting sunflowers in a rotation also reduces the danger of weeds building up resistance to herbicides, Sandbakken says.

One such rotation is wheat, corn, sunflowers and then back to a shallower-rooted crop, he says.

Profit potential

Potential profits for sunflowers this year aren’t particularly attractive relative to most other crops, according to the 2013 Projected Crop Budgets from the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

The budgets use projected yields, crop prices and production costs to determine potential profits for various crops in different regions of North Dakota. Here are projected profits for a handful of crops in 2013 in north-central North Dakota, a leading area for sunflower production:

•Oil sunflowers — $80.61 per acre.

•Confection sunflowers — $128.89.

•Canola — (another popular oilseed in the area) $52.89.

•Wheat — $66.20.

•Soybeans — $113.54.

•Corn — $128.89.

Sunflowers come in two types: oilseed and confection. The former is processed into oil and meal and also is used by most bird feeders. Confection sunflowers are larger in size and used in various snacks and food products.

Last year, oilseed sunflowers accounted for 1.6 million acres of the 1.9 million total sunflower acres in the United States.

Potential returns for North Dakota sunflowers, both oil and confection, appear brightest in the north-central and south-central parts of the state, says Andy Swenson, NDSU Extension Service farm management specialist who worked on the projected crop budgets.

Generally, corn holds the most financial promise statewide in 2013, Swenson says.

Marketing issues

The price of oil sunflowers has slumped from a year ago, which could affect how many acres of the crop are planted this spring.

NuSun, the most common type of oil sunflowers, is fetching an average of $20 per hundredweight at area elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. A year ago, the average price at those elevators was $27 per hundredweight.

World vegetable oil stocks are high this winter, which hurts the price of oil sunflowers, Sandbakken says.

But those stocks should decline later in the year and that could help sunflower prices down the road, he says.

The status of South America’s soybean crop also will affect the price of U.S. oilseeds, he says.

“The weather (in South America) looks pretty good, but they have a long way to go” before the crop matures and is harvested, he says.

An important constant is that consumer demand for sunflower oil remains strong, Sandbakken says.

“It has a healthy image,” he says.

Sunflower oil is used in food processing, rather than as a bottled product used in home cooking. Fewer people are eating at home, which makes food processing the priority, he says.

“There’s just so much demand on the food-processing side,” although the sunflower industry hopes to eventually have a bottled product, too, he says.

The confection sunflower market, overall, “looks really promising,” he says.

About half of confection sunflowers are used in the United States, with the other half exported. Europe, Canada and Mexico are major markets for U.S. confection ’flowers.

Encouragingly, Mexico, which has a young population, is the fastest-growing export market for confections, he says.

Production ups, downs

Sunflowers are native to North America and grow wild in many parts of the United States. Commercial production soared in the 1970s because of new hybrids that produced better yields and attractive prices. In 1979, U.S. farmers planted a record 5.6 million acres.

In the 1980s, however, U.S. farmers cut back on sunflowers because of increased interest in soybeans, disease problems in sunflowers and expanding foreign sunflower production.

U.S. sunflower acreage rallied in the 1990s because of changes in federal farm programs that were favorable to ’flowers.

In recent years, North Dakota acreage has been trending lower, reflecting greater interest in corn and soybeans. But farmers in states to the south, including South Dakota, are growing more sunflowers, in part because of attractive yields.

In 2011, South Dakota surpassed its northern neighbor to become the nation’s leading sunflower producer. But that reflected extremely wet conditions in North Dakota, which cut sharply into both yields and planted acreage.

North Dakota regained its traditional top spot in 2012 and almost certainly will keep it again in 2013.

The crop disease problems that once plagued sunflowers in the state are less troublesome today, experts say.

Researchers have made great progress in combating sclerotinia, or white mold, a disease that can ravage most broad leaf crops, including sunflowers. New hybrids, which include wild sunflower genes, make sunflowers today more resistant to the disease, experts say.

Rotating sunflowers with other crops also helps hold down the disease, sunflower advocates say.

Even with the advances, sunflowers can be difficult to grow, DeKrey says. For instance, sunflowers can cause combine fires during harvest.

In contrast, soybeans are a relatively easy crop to grow, which helps explain their popularity, he says.

Outside ND

Sunflowers could gain even more acreage in South Dakota this year, but it’s difficult to estimate how much, says Ruth Beck, agronomy crops field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension’s regional center in Pierre.

While the drought will cause some farmers in the state to take a closer look at planting sunflowers, moisture conditions could change drastically by planting time, she says.

Drought also may cause producers on the Southern Plains to raise sunflowers on irrigated land on which corn normally is grown, says Karl Esping, a Lindsborg, Kan., farmer.

When irrigation allocations are reduced because of drought, crops such as corn can be risky to grow. In contrast, sunflowers can do just fine with the smaller amount of water, he says.

‘Good, gradual growth’

Sandbakken is uncertain whether sunflowers will ever recapture the regional prominence they enjoyed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But he is optimistic that more acres of the crop will be planted in coming years.

“What we’re looking at is good, gradual growth — 10, 15 percent every year. We want to be profitable,” he says.

Huge annual increases or decreases in planted acres hurt the industry’s stability and credibility, he says.

“When you have a boom-to-bust cycle, it’s harder to establish a market, So what we want is steady growth.”