Sunflowers Tickle Farmers' Fancy

Alternative crop shows promising market.

| July/August 2008

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.

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