There was a time when an Upper Midwest sunflower producer considered a single field yielding 2,000 pounds per acre to be a bumper crop. But the 2018 Minnesota statewide average yield blew past the ton-per-acre mark, with some individual fields faring even better.

Farmers in the state harvested a record average of 2,236 pounds per acre of sunflowers in 2018, up from 1,817 pounds per acre a year earlier. The state's total sunflower production rose to 114 million pounds in 2018 from 67.6 million pounds a year earlier, which also reflected an increase in planted acres, according to recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Some individual fields in the state enjoyed per-acre yields of 3,000 pounds or more in 2018, with the yields of a few fields reaching as high as 3,500 pounds per acre, said Kevin Capistran, a Crookston, Minn., sunflower producer and a past chairman of the Mandan, N.D.-based National Sunflower Association.

The record 2018 yields came despite - or partly because of - six weeks without rain in July and August in northwest Minnesota, where the state's sunflower production is concentrated, he said.

"I think the dryness ties into the record yields," Capistran said, with dry conditions holding down crop disease that hurt yields in past years .

"I don't think it (the record 2018 yield) is a one-off, either. We have the potential to do it again," he said.

Average yields of sunflowers, like those of other crops grown in the state, are trending higher over time, reflecting better seed varieties and improved technology.

Capistran identified another reason for rising Minnesota sunflowers yields:

Sunflowers can be planted safely later than most other crops, which once led some farmers to plant sunflowers only because wet or cold conditions had prevented them from planting other crops earlier. Now, in contrast, Minnesota farmers are increasingly committed to treating the crop as a priority and generating profit from it, rather than making a last-minute decision to plant sunflowers simply because planting other crops is no longer feasible, Capistran said.

Sunflowers and soybeans are oilseeds, and area farmers often include one and sometimes both in their crop rotations. Given concern about soybean prices, some fields that otherwise would have been planted to soybeans in 2019 might end up going into sunflowers, Capistran said.

Production elsewhere

Minnesota ranked third in U.S. sunflower production in 2018, with South Dakota once again holding the top spot and North Dakota in second.

U.S. sunflower production totaled 2.11 billion pounds in 2018, down marginally from 2.16 billion pounds a year earlier. The 2018 average yield of 1,731 pounds per acre was an increase from the 2017 average yield of 1,613 pounds per acre, reflecting in part the big jump in the Minnesota average yield.

South Dakota farmers produced 1.1 billion pounds of sunflowers, slightly more than half of the national total, in 2018. Their 2018 average yield of 1,840 pounds per acre was a slight increase from the 2017 average yield of 1,750 pounds per acre a year earlier.

In North Dakota, farmers harvested 739.4 million pounds of sunflowers in 2018, up from 696 million pounds a year earlier. The state's 2018 average yield of 1,760 pounds per acre was up from 1,636 pounds per acre a year earlier.

Most of the nation's remaining sunflowers are grown in California, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska and Texas.

To see the USDA report on 2018 sunflower production: