The 39th annual Agweek Farm Show continued on Wednesday, March 24, with an expert specialty crops panel covering sunflowers, sugarbeets and hemp.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted agriculture in several different ways. For sunflower, the pandemic had a negative, but not severe, impact.

On the confection side, demand has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in less acres planted, noted John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. However, Sandbakken said he expects to see demand rebound in the near future.

Michelle Rook hosted an expert panel on the outlook of specialty crops during the 39th annual Agweek Farm Show.
Michelle Rook hosted an expert panel on the outlook of specialty crops during the 39th annual Agweek Farm Show.
Sandbakken also said that in the confection market, domestic and export markets are now distinctly different, requiring different products. About 50% of the U.S. sunflower crop is exported. The export focus is on “large seeds” or “long types.”

There is a concerted effort to convert acres in the U.S. to high oleic oil varieties, said Sandbakken. Although it’s been around since the 1980s, the demand for high oleic oil has soared in recent years as consumers are looking for healthier oil in their diets.

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Scott Herndon, vice president and general counsel for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, noted that beet growers have made a big push to become more sustainable over the last few years. In doing so, they’ve not only become more environmentally friendly, but in some cases, more profitable.

Sugarbeet growers are always looking for ways to innovate. They are always on the cutting edge of sustainability,” he said. “Part of my job is to tell that story. In this different political climate, that is of increasing interest to policymakers.”

The sugarbeet industry’s biggest priority is to defend the sugar policy in the farm bill. To let their voice be heard, sugarbeet growers recently completed 300 meetings with policymakers over a two week span as a part of a virtual fly-in. This is done annually, albeit usually in person, but Herndon said the virtual meetings were a success as beet growers were able to spread their message and meet new Congressional staff.

Chris Adams, a partner in Adams Family Farm in Grand Forks, N.D., is a board member on the U.S. Hemp Growers Association. Giving an overview of the industry help industry, Adams noted that growers producing industrial hemp can make $250-$300 per acre (not accounting for land rent and other inputs).

Among the many battles the industry is fighting includes the issue of using hemp as feed. When the hemp seed is pressed, a protein-rich cake byproduct is left over. Currently it is illegal to use that byproduct as feed to livestock; however the Hemp Feed Coalition has recently submitted an application to use the cake byproduct as feed in ag-producing poultry.

“If that goes through, that will open up a new door of opportunities,” Adams said.