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'Filling up the bins' with sunflowers

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Planted sunflower acres are up, and the fledgling crop looks "phenomenal." That more than offsets, at least for now, concerns about potential disruptions in exports, sunflower officials say.

"The crop is off to a great start. Right now, it looks just beautiful. I think we're headed for a good crop this year," said John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.

Agweek visited with Sandbakken and Clark Coleman, a Bismarck, N.D., sunflower producer, on June 26, the first day of the sunflower group's annual three-day summer seminar, held this year in Alexandria, Minn.

This year's topics ranged from gene editing to innovations in at-plant application. Sandbakken said a highlight was the presentation, scheduled for June 27, by Jason Hafemeister, trade adviser to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Alexandria is in Minnesota lake country, with corn and soybeans dominating local crop production. The National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, N.D. holds its annual summer seminar at various locations across the Upper Midwest, not necessarily places where sunflowers are popular with farmers.

North Dakota once led the nation in sunflower production virtually every year. But the crop is increasingly popular in South Dakota, and in some years farmers in the state now plant and harvest more sunflowers than their North Dakota counterparts.

In 2017, U.S. farmers planted 1.265 million acres of sunflowers, with South Dakota accounting for 530,000 acres and North Dakota 340,000.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Services projected that U.S. farmers will plant 1.385 million acres, with 585,000 acres in South Dakota and 450,000 acres in North Dakota.

Sandbakken also anticipates an increase in planted acreage.

Once, sunflowers were grown across much of North Dakota. In recent years, however, the crop has been concentrated in the southwestern and south-central part of the state. But this year more sunflowers were planted elsewhere in the state, boosting acreage, Sandbakken said.

"We're seeing more sunflower move back into the old non-traditional area such as eastern North Dakota. That's great," he said. "Sunflower is more spread out this year."

The late planting start this spring "had me a little bit worried. It was just so cold," Sandbakken said. "But people caught up (planted their crops), and we had some heat. Now the crop looks phenomenal."

U.S. sunflower growers, like many farmers who grow other crops, are concerned by the possibility of lost exports.

"Trade is very important to sunflower. We export about 30 percent of our sunflower oil," Sandbakken said. "And 50 percent of our confectionery crop is exported."

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, is particularly important to sunflower farmers.

"We're keeping a very close eye on NAFTA. Mexico and Canada are our two largest markets. So far, sunflower has not been targeted by any of these countries that are retaliating (against U.S. tariffs.) But it is a concern that maybe one day we'll face that also," Sandbakken said.

Tight sunflower stocks have helped sunflower prices hold up relatively well so far, he said.

Coleman, who raises eight to 10 different crops each year on his farm, said he's extremely pleased with how his sunflowers are developing. His farm, hammered with drought a year ago, enjoyed heavy rains in August 2017 and substantial precipitation this growing season, recharging soil moisture.

"They look really good," he said of his sunflowers.

He anticipates that the potentially big crop, combined with the threat of disruptions in exports and a decline in prices, will cause some farmers to store many of their sunflowers after harvest.

"I think we'll be filling the bins fairly well this year," he said.

But Coleman isn't complaining.

"It's a lot better situation now than a year ago (when drought was rampant.) People were just about ready to throw in the towel, at least in our area," he said.