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Sunflowers in the spotlight at Roundup

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- Sunflowers have many uses. Demand for some of them is rising, which creates opportunities for Upper Midwest farmers, John Sandbakken said.

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Attendees of the 2017 NDSU Extension Service Roundup listen to a presentation held in the armory of the Memorial Building in Devils Lake, N.D. on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Sunflowers have many uses. Demand for some of them is rising, which creates opportunities for Upper Midwest farmers, John Sandbakken said.

"Product trends are promising for sunflower this year," said Sandbakken, executive director of the Mandan-N.D.-based National Sunflower Association. "It's a good opportunity to grow acres, and there are good opportunities to market the crop."

Sandbakken spoke Jan. 4, on the second day of the two-day Roundup farm show in Devils Lake, N.D. Speakers, primarily from the extension service, commodity groups and private companies, addressed crops, weeds, livestock, marketing, crop insurance and many other subjects.

A winter storm held down attendance on Jan. 3, but weather improved and attendance picked up Jan. 4 at Roundup, which normally draws about 700 people. Most of the attendees were from North Dakota, which typically vies with South Dakota to be the nation's leading sunflower producer.

Confection sunflower kernels, more commonly known as seeds, can be sold in-shell - which means the seed is left intact with the "meat" of the seed still in the shell - and often are consumed at outdoor events. Kernels also can be sold after they've been removed from the shell, to be eaten raw, roasted for snacking or as a food ingredient.

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Twenty years ago, exports accounted for most kernel sales. But the export market "was very volatile, and "could never be counted on 100 percent.," Sandbakken said. "So the industry focused on developing new products, things like sunbutter."

Today, domestic markets account for the majority of kernel sales.

Confection sunflowers also are sold as bird food. "You really need to have bad (winter) weather" for bird food sales to be strong, Sandbakken said.

Oil important, too

Sunflowers are grown for their oil, too. Once, 80 percent of U.S. sunflower oil was exported; today, about 80 percent is used domestically. That reflects the "very positive image" that sunflower oil enjoys with U.S. consumers, he said.

NuSun has been a highly popular type of sunflower oil. But it's losing market share to the high-oleic sunflower oil, which is considered even healthier, and that trend will continue, Sandbakken said.

"NuSun eventually will disappear," benefitting high-oleic sunflowers and creating more opportunities to grow it, he said.

Sandbakken said farmers and others interested in sunflowers can learn more by visiting sunflowernsa.com.

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