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A Solid Leader for Sunflower

Friday, December 15, 2006
filed under: Utilization/Trade

The National Sunflower Association (NSA) had been in existence for just a few years when Dean Sonnenberg planted his initial sunflower crop in the mid-1980s. Seeking a second cash crop to add to his wheat/fallow rotation, the Fleming, Colo., farmer could not have foreseen that two decades later he would become the first High Plains producer to serve as president of NSA. But that’s exactly what transpired in December of 2004 during Sonnenberg’s fourth year as a NSA board member.

The NSA presidency is a position for which the Logan County farmer is eminently qualified. Along with having been a sunflower producer for two decades, he has been active in the High Plains Sunflower Committee (a NSA affiliate) since that group’s inception in the early 1990s. He also operates a sunflower-related business (Sonnrise Manufacturing, which produces and markets harvest attachments), and was one of the early proponents of a sunflower checkoff referendum in his state (which came to fruition in 2002 with authorization of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee). Combine all that with his involvement on various sunflower research and political committees, and Sonnenberg’s credentials spell s-o-l-i-d.

The northeastern Colorado producer actually credits Larry Kleingartner, NSA’s longtime executive director, with sparking his interest in the organization. “Larry was really the biggest reason I became involved in NSA,” Sonnenberg relates. “We talked regularly on the phone in my early years, and I found him to be ‘the encyclopedia’ of what was going on in the industry. A great deal of my education came about from conversations with Larry. He has always been very inclusive.”

Among Kleingartner’s numerous strengths, says NSA’s president, is his in-depth familiarity with all the sectors in which the association must operate in order to be of maximum use to its membership: production challenges, research needs, national and international marketing channels, legislative affairs, regulatory issues and product promotion. All these are areas in which the NSA has been — and continues to be — very active. Whether looking out for sunflower’s interests in the upcoming 2007 farm bill or working to improve crop insurance tools for growers of this crop, the association remains engaged on several key fronts.

NuSun mid-oleic oil is probably the most dramatic example of NSA’s “proactive approach,” Sonnenberg suggests. In 1995 the U.S. sunflower industry — spearheaded by NSA — committed itself to changing the fatty acid structure of sunflower oil to meet the food industry’s anticipated future needs. Plant breeders, seed companies, sunflower crushers and growers all cooperated in that major transition, which culminated in the development of NuSun. By 2005 an estimated 70% of the nation’s sunflower acreage was planted to NuSun varieties. The speed with which this industry-wide shift took place was unprecedented, Sonnenberg says — and it has paid off.

NuSun — with its pleasing taste, stability without needing partial hydrogenation, and low saturated fat levels — couldn’t have come along at a better time. It is ideally suited to the nation’s growing fixation on “trans fat-free” foods, and the marketplace is responding. The most dramatic development has been the May 2006 announcement by Frito-Lay, Inc., the world’s largest snack food maker, that it was switching the oil used to manufacture its Lay’s and Ruffles potato chip brands over entirely to NuSun.

“Other companies also have come forward and said, ‘This is going to be our product of choice,’ ” Sonnenberg observes. “And that’s because [NSA] has been out in front, promoting NuSun and anticipating what the food industry’s product needs were going to be, what characteristics they needed, and showing them, ‘Yes, we can meet that need.’ ”

Would the U.S. sunflower industry be significantly different today — in a negative way — had the NuSun route not been taken? “Absolutely,” says NSA’s president. “We would not have been in the position to be the answer for the trans fat issues. We’d still be primarily exporting oil. Market stability has come about as a result of becoming primarily a domestically consumed product as opposed to following the world oil market.”

While he remains as committed as ever to NSA and the success of the nation’s sunflower industry, Dean Sonnenberg’s own ’flower fortunes have been challenged by the past several years of drought in his northeastern Colorado vicinity. As a dryland farmer, he has had to re-evaluate his own cropping options each year. Severe shortages of spring subsoil moisture have forced him to forgo planting sunflower and other row crops two out of the past five years, including 2006.

“I finally came down to the decision that if I couldn’t find a three-foot [soil moisture] profile at planting time, I wasn’t going to do it,” he says of last spring’s planting decisions regarding sunflower and corn. “I’d done it before on two feet, and the consequences show up on your insurance. You knock down your proven yield; and if it goes down far enough, your premiums start to rise.”

Given the ongoing drought in his area during 2006, Sonnenberg made the right decision. Logan County’s better winter wheat yields ran around 15 bushels this year; meanwhile, spring-planted crops largely failed. The drought also impacted sales of Sonnenberg’s sunflower harvest systems. “Last year (2005) was a tremendous year for sales; this year was pretty slow,” he reports.

Sonnenberg’s tillage regimen across his two decades of sunflower production has always leaned toward the minimal side. “I started primarily as a two-till operation, and I preferred both of them to be (spring) undercutter passes,” he says. “Sometimes weed control after wheat harvest was [strictly] chemical; in other years it also included tillage.”

Given sufficient moisture, his rotational preference is to plant no-till corn following no-till wheat; then come back with no-till sunflower behind the corn. “I think the no-till [sunflower] is a little more cost effective, because you’ve already taken care of the post-wheat harvest weeds in your corn program,” he says. “So you’re dealing with pretty clean ground, and you don’t have any additional weed control costs until it’s time to go out and plant sunflower in the spring.” Plus, a fair amount of wheat stubble usually remains through the corn year and into the sunflower season.

One of sunflower’s early benefits for Sonnenberg was its contribution to battling jointed goatgrass. “I had one quarter with 80 acres of sunflower, 40 of corn and 40 of wheat,” he recalls. “It went through fallow; then I came back to plant it a year later. I had to tear up the wheat planted where the previous wheat crop had been and then replant it. The jointed goatgrass was that thick.

“[But] even now, 25 years later, I can walk back and tell within 100 feet where those 40 acres of sunflower were planted. Having that broadleaf in there has given us a real opportunity to fight grassy weed problems, and I remain committed to that concept.”

Treflan and Prowl constituted the herbicide options in sunflower back in the ’80s. Like many other High Plains producers, Sonnenberg eagerly added Spartan to his weed control arsenal when it was labeled several years ago. “But I had some ‘wrecks,’ ” he admits, “because I forgot my emphasis was on controlling the grasses. I also found that without adequate competition (from the sunflower), there was a real opportunity for lanceleaf sage to come on.

“You have to remember that Spartan is a tool to use in combination with other chemicals as part of an integrated program.”

Currently, Sonnenberg is “basically sticking with trifluralin, incorporating it or going granular if I don’t want to do any incorporation.” If spreading granules, he’ll come back postemergence with a hooded sprayer and apply Roundup between the sunflower rows. “That’s pretty cost effective,” he emphasizes. “If you’re in an area where you can anticipate 1,800-lb ’flowers, you can afford a bigger herbicide budget than if you’re looking at a top yield of 1,000 to 1,200 lbs.”

One facet of High Plains sunflower that has improved dramatically over the past couple decades, Sonnenberg affirms, is the availability and diversity of nearby market outlets. If a Colorado or Kansas grower wanted to sell into the oil market during the mid-’80s, he had to truck his seeds to Minnesota or eastern North Dakota crushing plants. As long as the oil content was in the mid-40s or higher, “the premium enough to pay for the trucking,” he recalls.

The existence of the Northern Sun crushing plant near Goodland, Kan. — and more-recent opening of other plants — has been a huge boost for High Plains sunflower. Also, confection and birdseed markets are more numerous — and reliable. “When I started, it seemed like there was a confection [buyer] who would go broke every five years or so. That was hard on participation,” Sonnenberg says. “It has become a great deal more stable.”

Ironically, the drought has actually provided a boost for High Plains irrigated confection sunflower acreage, he adds. A number of center pivots, unable to pump enough water for a full circle of corn, have been switched over either partially or entirely to confection ’flowers. “As long as there’s a reasonable bid when they’re in the decision-making process, you can attract confection acres onto irrigated ground in this country,” Sonnenberg notes.

With several large buyers in the region, the birdseed sector has become a major player as well. “We were moving 300,000 acres of sunflower here in the High Plains into the birdseed market before we got a crushing plant (at Goodland),” Sonnenberg points out. “And they (birdseed buyers) still take at least that many. Nationally, the figure is about 600,000 acres, and half of it is right here in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.” — Don Lilleboe

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