Although many commodity prices for grains are headed southward, sunflower prices are rising.
Kansas ranks fourth in the nation for sunflower production. Next year, according to the USDA, sunflower growers in Kansas expect to increase their acreage by 78%, with oil varieties increasing 62% and food varieties moving up 150%.
“Inventories are low nationwide,” said Karl Esping, president of the Kansas Sunflower Commission and vice president of the board of the National Sunflower Association. “Sunflowers have actually raised in price. They are a very profitable crop to grow this year.”
Esping, who grows sunflowers in Lindsborg, said the early and heavy snows in the Dakotas is one of the reasons for fewer available sunflowers.
In central Kansas, sunflowers are mainly grown for birdseed and oils, while in western Kansas they are also grown for seed for human consumption. This versatile flower is also grown in large quantities in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas.
Each sunflower has from 1,000 to 2,000 seeds and is a useful pollinator for bees, birds and butterflies. Being one of the five largest oilseed crops, sunflowers are also excellent at absorbing toxins from the environment.
A native to North America, the sunflower, that has at least 50 species, can withstand a variety of climates. Recently, the plant’s genomes were mapped. This created a way to increase the plant’s natural resilience.
“All the sunflowers can cross and get fertile offspring,” said Michael Kantar, a professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. “You can select for disease resistance and tolerance to flooding and drought.”
Through this genetic process, scientists have bred hybrids. This recent research gives the producer the ability to grow crops that produce higher yields and are more disease resistant.
“Because of genomic-assisted breeding, we can pyramid more traits,” Kantar said. “Now that we have the entire map, it lets us make more strategic decisions.”
Being drought tolerant, makes sunflowers a good crop for Kansas. Esping is planting more than 500 acres of the 80,000 acres of sunflowers expected to be planted in the Sunflower State.
Last summer, Esping, along with the vice chairman of the Kansas Sunflower Commission, Cameron Peirce, traveled around the state promoting sunflowers to farmers in Argonia, Beloit, Salina and Ulysses.
“We talked about crop budgets,” Esping said. “It’s a very difficult time for the grain producers in Kansas.
Esping and Peirce want farmers to thrive during this time of uncertainty.
“It’s an often overlooked crop,” said Peirce, who grows sunflowers, including test plots, in Hutchinson. “Like any other crop, it has its challenges.”
Sunflowers work well in a crop rotation. According to Jeanne Falk Jones, an agronomist and multi-county specialist at the K-State Northwest Research Extension Center in Colby, the plant works well after wheat.
“It does have a tap root and taps moisture form deeper in the soil,” Jones said. “You need to get good control on weeds and insects for high yields.”
But there are some challenges, she said. Along with weeds and insects, growers must be careful of combine fires while harvesting. This is due to the large oil content in the seed.
“It (sunflowers) takes a little bit of managing,” Jones said. “It’s important to have a consultant on hand if you grow.”
Jones suggests farmers look at the High Plains Sunflower Production Handbook for tips on growing this commodity.
“It’s a species that’s fun to work with,” Kantar said. “It’s a high-value crop with good profit margins.”
Hundreds of growers are scattered throughout central and western Kansas. Because the industry has both small and large industrial plants, there is a lot of potential growth.
Greenbush Seed and Supply in Hutchinson cleans and packages several million tons of Kansas-grown sunflowers seeds. Durango Schmidt, the plant’s manager, said the need for birdseed often depends on the weather.
“If it snows then people are more likely to use more birdseed,” Schmidt said. “If it’s nice out they don’t use as much.”
A variety of plants in western Kansas process the seeds for oil, butter and roasting.
“Sunflowers are getting a lot more interest across the state,” Peirce said. “When everything else is going down in price, it’s going up.”