Sunflowers Tickle Farmers' Fancy
Alternative crop shows promising market.
Kevin Struss looks over more than 4,000 acres of sunflowers and breaks into a grin. “They look like bonnet ladies with full dress on,” he says. Today, as demand for healthy oil boosts their value, “bonnet ladies” appear poised to become the belles of the ball.
These gorgeous gals add mileage to Struss’s 21,000-acre dryland farm near WaKeeney, Kansas, about 240 miles west of Topeka. Their wide window for planting allows him to squeeze four crops (wheat, corn, sorghum, sunflowers) into what previously had been a three-crop, two-year rotation.
“I’m a firm believer in diversification,” Struss says. As an added benefit, he’s found that the sunflowers’ deep roots loosen soil for his wheat. That’s important because, to save moisture, he never works the ground. “We’re 100 percent no-till,” he says.
Struss loves sunflowers for more than the cash they add to his pocket. He loves eating seeds raw from the field, the sweep of gold. “Isn’t that a happy color?” he says. “It just makes you feel good.”
Sunflowers can add value to all sorts of farms, says Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. “It depends on location and how entrepreneurial you are.” Small growers, for instance, might find ready opportunities for birdseed, perhaps even “bag your own off the farm” operations.
Return of the native
In mid-August, northwest Kansas is awash in sunflowers, and Struss, with an early start to his crop, keeps busy in his fields.
Kleingartner has traveled from North Dakota to attend the annual Sunflower Celebration in Goodland, about 110 miles west of WaKeeney, where three area processing plants and energetic farmers have turned sun-
flowers into big business.
The event – for farmers, seed dealers, industry leaders, and anyone interested in sunflowers – has drawn participants from Chicago to Texas. “Today is a learning opportunity,” Kleingartner says. “We’re all learning, because things are changing.”
After a decade of transition, the sunflower industry is working to reintroduce itself. With a solid new hybrid, a significant new buyer and an increasingly health-conscious public, Kleingartner thinks farmers ought to rethink the sunflower.
We’ve known this plant forever. Native Americans cultivated sunflowers as early as 3000 B.C., grinding the seeds to make cake, mush and bread. They used sunflowers for dyes, medicines and building materials.
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