Sunflowers Tickle Farmers' Fancy

Alternative crop shows promising market.

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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.

Spanish explorers carried the plant to Europe, where Russians developed it commercially. After immigrants toted the large Russian hybrids into Canada, crops spilled across the border into the Dakotas and Minnesota. The sunflower has been working its way south ever since. A large export market fueled the growth.

Courting growers

Over the past decade, however, the industry has been shifting from export market to domestic market while working to develop NuSun, a heart-healthy hybrid. Statistics reflect the transition. In 2006, the United States harvested 1.8 million acres of sunflowers compared to 2.5 million in 1996, a drop of 28 percent.

Now it’s time to ramp up.

“We’ve been revolutionizing the sunflower,” Kleingartner says. Pausing to restructure was a gamble, he knows, but one he hopes will pay off. Today, the industry claims one of the world’s gold-standard oils: low in saturated fat, with excellent stability for cooking.

As all this transpired, Goodland gained a foothold as one of the nation’s major market centers. Area processing plants have been aggressive in developing local elevator delivery points, Kleingartner says. That’s important, as the industry tries to woo back growers who’ve become enamored with corn and soybeans.

An air of optimism fills the August celebration. A commitment by food giant Frito-Lay to use sunflower oil in its Ruffles and Lay’s potato chips has industry officials smiling. “It’s a huge first step, it’s a leap, it’s a bound,” Kleingartner says.

Now, the challenge is convincing farmers to meet the demand. Their planting decisions, says Kleingartner, will hinge on price and rotation. Demand is already boosting price, he says. “Markets are very strong and getting stronger.” Now it’s time to demonstrate how they can fit individual crop rotation needs.

Piling into air-conditioned buses, participants move out to tour farms, test plots and processing plants. They learn that sunflowers tolerate drought and heat, respond to timely watering, and don’t require lots of equipment. On the other hand, native plants attract native insects, Kleingartner admits. “Insects see hundreds of acres of beautiful sunflowers and say ‘gosh, this is heaven.’”

J.P. Michaud, insect management specialist from Kansas State University, Manhattan, tells farmers how to protect their crop: Don’t plant too close together. Increasing density doesn’t increase yield, only competition for moisture. Keep a watchful eye, he adds, and don’t spray if there’s no need.

Boys on the bus

The event draws a diverse group with a common interest. Among them:

  • Brothers Matt and Brett Schields, who farm north of Goodland. Matt, 25, a graduate of Arizona State University, and Brett, 18, are experimenting with sunflowers on 240 acres, although their dad isn’t wild about the idea. “He thinks they’re too hard on his ground,” Matt says.
  • Frank Sowers, 64, Benkelman, Nebraska, has been farming all his life but wants to keep up to date. “When you quit learning, you’re dead,” he says.
  • Rick Robbins manages Colorado Mills in Lamar, Colorado. Using pressure rather than solvents to extract oil, his mill attracts organic growers as well as traditional farmers. Residue left from the extraction process is sold as feed to cow-calf producers.
  • Bruce Roskens, Chicago, senior manager for Frito-Lay, says, “We’ve looked at all oils, and we really like the NuSun.” Now, with its commitment to sunflower oil, his company is counting on farmers to come through.
  • Rex Jamison, manager of Frontier Ag in Brewster, Kansas, sees a shrinking water supply pushing farmers toward sunflowers. “We have to use our water better,” he says. “Within the next 10 years, we will probably see more flowers than corn.”

What about flowers?

Although these “bonnet ladies” occasionally end up in bouquets, they are primarily a food crop. Folks who grow specifically for the flower market, or who plant home gardens, use a different kind of seed, Kleingartner says. And with more than 60 species of sunflower available, that’s another story.    

Freelance writer Carol Crupper likes her sunflowers in bouquets and baked into tasty breads. Her husband prefers the ballpark “spit and chews.”