Going into the 2020 crop season, there was good reason to think this might be sunflowers' year to shine. Though there have been some obstacles, the crop is off to a relatively strong start as planting season wraps.

"Overall things are looking good," said John Sandbakken, executive director of the Mandan, N.D.-based National Sunflower Association.

Sunflowers were once a major crop in the Upper Midwest. But production problems, including damage from flocks of bird that fed on the crop, caused acres to drop sharply. Over time, however, farmers have learned to better deal with those production challenges, leading to greater interest in the crop.

Other factors led to increased interest this spring, too. Sunflower prices have held up relatively well, and wet conditions this spring that hampered planting caused some farmers to plant more sunflowers, which generally are planted later than most other crops in the area.

That translated into an increase in projected sunflower acres in South Dakota and North Dakota, which dominate U.S. production. In late March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that South Dakota farmers would plant 620,000 acres of the crop, up from 540,000 acres in 2019, with North Dakota farmers planting an estimated 570,000 acres, up from 500,000 acres last year.

Minnesota farmers raise the crop, too, mainly in the northwest part of the state. USDA estimated the state's 2020 acreage at 77,000, up from 52,000 acres in 2019.

Sandbakken said he thinks the final planted acres totals will be a little higher than USDA estimated this spring.

It's too early to have a firm handle on planted acres, however. Though South Dakota's planting pace is ahead of schedule — 72% in the ground on June 14, compared with the five-year average of 64% for that date — 'flower planting in North Dakota isn't as advanced as normal. Only 79% of North Dakota's crop was planted on June 14, down from the five-year average of 91% for that date, though Sandbakken said he thinks the actual figure may be greater than the 79% estimated bu USDA.

Sunflowers can be planted with relative safety late into June, so the next weekly crop progress report from USDA report released on June 22 will provide a better idea.

Parts of North Dakota have turned dry, raising concern about growing crops. But sunflowers are drought-tolerant, so they will hold up better than most other crops if moisture shortages persist, Sandbakken said.

About 70% of the U.S. sunflower crop is consumed domestically, which makes home consumption of sunflower oil particularly important. Consequently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused Americans to eat at home more often, has helped to boost consumption of sunflower oil and to bolster sunflower prices, Sandbakken said.

"Prices are holding very good," Sandbakken said. "We've backed off a little bit from the high, but prices are still above where they were a year ago at this time. Demand has been really good, both on the oil side and the confection side."