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‘Let the Work Begin’

Thursday, November 1, 2007
filed under: Research and Development

By Larry Kleingartner

It wasn’t many years ago that the focus of every commodity group was expanding markets domestically and overseas. The National Sunflower Association (NSA) was certainly no exception.

But things have obviously changed. The market is now coming to the commodity willing to pay previously unheard of prices. This is a combination of increasing world consumer wealth and short crops. But consumers are also requesting changes in what and how they buy processed food products. Consumers no longer allow serious food manufacturers to have a laundry list of ingredients on their food labels. A good example is that most snack food manufacturers used to include every vegetable oil on the ingredient panel, thus allowing them to utilize the cheapest oil. Consumers will not put up with that today, and food companies have responded accordingly.

The U.S. sunflower industry is in a great position to take advantage of this market dynamic. NSA members spent six years developing new planting seed for NuSun® hybrids. That work is done, and the market has responded favorably. Now the challenge is to maintain and grow the acreage base to supply a growing market for both oil and confection markets.

At the annual NSA Summer Seminar held in Medora, N.D., in late June, attendees spent a large part of a day planning for the future. Expanding markets did not make the charts. But making this crop as “farmer friendly” and profitable as possible was at the top of the priority list. A key question was, “How do we keep sunflower in a farmer’s rotation when most crops are profitable and competitive?”

Producing the Crop

• Consistent weed control was on top of the list. Many new herbicides have been added to the sunflower arsenal in the last several years, but more needs to be done. Canadian thistle, marshelder, common lambsquarter and palmer amaranth were some of the weeds listed as a concern. The industry recognizes that a GMO sunflower is not in the cards in the foreseeable future, largely due to the issue of potential pollen transfer to North American wild sunflower species. But developments in Clearfield® and Express® herbicide technologies are huge improvements. We cannot, however, stop making progress in weed control.

• Disease resistance was second on the list. Researchers have made great progress on downy mildew resistance. Most new hybrids are resistant to the existing races. Progress is being made in Sclerotinia, certainly the most devastating of sunflower diseases. The National Sclerotinia Initiative has provided key funding to accelerate research in this disease. Already there are hybrid differences, and USDA- ARS continues to make releases of resistant genetic stocks, including releases specific to confection types. This work needs to continue on a priority and accelerated pace.

• A third area was blackbird damage. This is indeed the most frustrating of sunflower production problems. Controlling cattails in wetlands continues to be the most promising tool; but there is no single magic bullet. Getting the crop off as early as possible is a realistic goal, with new desiccants registered and more on the way. More research in baiting efficacy is needed before that can become a viable tool. Additional work in other dispersal agents is necessary. Looking at blackbird damage and control nationally is now coming together, with a national symposium set for January 2008.

• Good progress has been made in controlling most of the serious insects. But more education is needed in scouting for the difficult-to-scout-for insects like head moth and banded moth. Breeding hybrids for insect resistance was stressed. Preliminary work has already been done in this area, with the industry likely to accelerate that work.

Several positives also were identified during the June session. Among them:

• Sunflower’s ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions such as heat and drought tolerance.

• Limited irrigation is an excellent option for sunflower in areas where reduced well water is limiting crops like corn.

• Sunflower has the ability to reach unused nitrogen at deep soil profiles.

• It has a huge planting window and can be planted as a primary crop or as a second crop in much of the High Plains.

• ‘These are not your father’s hybrids’ was a theme that came out of the discussion. Great progress on “stay green” and a number of diseases is making this crop easier to produce and thus more profitable.

The Marketplace

Here is where sunflower has many advantages. The work on developing NuSun oil is now paying significant dividends. It has become the “gold standard” of frying oils. Confection in-shell sunflower has carved out a very unique market both domestically and internationally. There are no real substitutes for the person that loves to “chew and spit.”

• Producers also now have many market choices, based on the types of sunflower they grow: from three types of oils to multiple types of hulling and confection markets.

• The Act of God provision in contracts was highlighted as the most positive factor in sunflower marketing. Premiums for high oil content and large confection seed size are obvious positives. Major food companies have committed to both types of sunflower with identified labeling.

An area of concern is the distance to the market. Much of the movement from field to processor is by truck, and more effort is needed in backhauls to lower the overall cost of transportation. A lack of local delivery points was also stressed, and processors are taking heed of that concern.

Overall, the participants felt comfortable with the marketplace. Sunflower returns per acre have been — and will continue to be — within the top tier of crops. Price discovery without a futures market is a negative; but that’s been the case since the crop was introduced in the mid-1970s, and it is unlikely to change in the near future.

So the emphasis is moving from markets to production. The challenge is to make faster and further inroads in hybrid pest resistance, better stands, higher yields, earlier harvest . . . all reflecting in more profit. The table is set. Let the work begin.

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