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Sunflower Gains Traction in New Production Areas

Monday, September 1, 2008
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Back in early 1982, The Sunflower conducted a survey of industry personnel, state crop reporting services and university specialists in an attempt to estimate sunflower acreage in states not included under USDA’s sunflower crop reporting umbrella. (At that time, only four states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Texas — were included in USDA surveys.) After contacting numerous people around the country, The Sunflower estimated there were more than 220,000 acres in 31 additional states as of 1981. The biggest of the decidedly unofficial state estimates was for Kansas at 40,000 acres, followed by Colorado at 18,000.

Those two states and Nebraska have since been incorporated into USDA’s sunflower acreage and production estimates. All along, though, pockets of production have existed in a number of other states as well. Lately, with today’s climate of high prices and expanded uses, even more sunflower pockets have been emerging. Three of them were highlighted during the 2008 National Sunflower Association Summer Seminar, held in Rapid City, S.D., in June.

• Oklahoma — Brandon Winters, sunflower and canola manager for Producers Cooperative Oil Mill (PCOM) of Oklahoma City, outlined his company’s entry into the sunflower market. A 62-year-old cottonseed processor, PCOM serves farmers in six south central states. In the summer of 2007, the cooperative entered into an agreement with Plains Oilseed Products to crush sunflower and canola. Most of the sunflower acreage feeding the Oklahoma City mill is double cropped after wheat. The majority of grower interest runs from the southern tier of Kansas throughout Oklahoma and down into the Texas Panhandle. Between 40,000 to 50,000 acres were planted to sunflower in that region this year, Winters estimated. The double-cropping option is quite attractive to area growers, he says.

PCOM presently crushes only NuSun varieties, paying the standard two-for-one premium for oil content above 40%. The Oklahoma City mill is able to partially refine the oil as well, producing a crude-degummed grade.

Among the challenges faced by the area’s fledgling sunflower sector, according to Winters, are the need for more acreage-based contracts, additional delivery and storage points, the expansion of the crushing plant itself, the overall establishment of significantly more sunflower acres, and the ongoing education of growers in the production of this crop.

• Kentucky — Miles Enterprises is a multi-state agribusiness firm based in the western Kentucky city of Owensboro. The expansion of Asian soybean rust in the area, coupled with the trans fat dietary issue and the growing global demand for vegetable oils for fuel, prompted the company to start exploring sunflower opportunities in 2005. Again, as in Oklahoma, the focus is on the production of double-cropped ’flowers following wheat.

Miles has conducted sunflower trials in Kentucky since 2005. The Southeast’s hard drought last year reduced yields sharply, down to 25-30% of plot yields the previous two years. However, that was still better than the performance of double-cropped soybeans, which yielded only 10 to 25% of the five-year average. Miles-related commercial sunflower acreage in Georgia and Missouri yielded 1,500 and 1,700 lbs/acre, respectively, in 2007.

Brian Caldbeck, agronomist for Miles Enterprises, estimated that between 5,000 to 6,000 acres were being double cropped to sunflower in his company’s operations area during 2008. Some of that production consists of high-oleic varieties, slated to be crushed at a plant in Georgia. The Kentucky portion of the acreage likely will end up in the birdseed market. Caldbeck anticipates significantly more sunflower acreage in the region in future years if the market wants it.

• Southwestern Colorado — While most Colorado sunflower acreage is in the eastern part of the state, San Juan Bioenergy is promoting production in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. Jeff Berman, CEO of the Dove Creek, Colo.-based company, says its initial target market was strictly for biofuel; now, sunflower oil for human consumption is part of the company’s focus as well. San Juan Bioenergy is presently constructing a crushing facility at Dove Creek. Along with selling sunflower oil into food markets and biodiesel for fuel, the company also plans to produce its own renewable heat by gasifying sunflower hulls and dockage, then burning the resulting syngas along with glycerine from the biodiesel process.

As of the summer of 2008, San Juan Bioenergy had approximately 15,000 acres of sunflower under contract in its operations region. Berman said the goal is to procure 60,000 acres of production — dryland and irrigated — by 2010. One of sunflower’s advantages over several other area rotational crops, he added, is its need for less irrigation water. The company also contracts for safflower and canola production. — Don Lilleboe

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