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Confection Scenario: ‘Good News, Bad News’

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
filed under: Utilization/Trade: Confection-Non-oil

The news these days out of the confection sunflower industry is mixed — some good, some bad.

The good news is that demand is increasing, and U.S. confection seed quality continues to improve. The bad news is that U.S. producers are having a difficult time keeping up with the demand.

As an offset, the confection sunflower industry is looking for better-yielding hybrids with a good package of disease and insect resistance. That was the word from a panel of confection industry experts to an audience of more than 200 attending the annual National Sunflower Association Summer Seminar, held at Alexandria, Minn., in late June.

Bob Majkrzak, Red River Commodities president and retiring NSA board member, said farmers are preferring to plant crops that require less management — despite confection sunflower dollar returns that have been well outpacing other crops. According to USDA figures, confection planted acreage declined in 2009 to levels that will likely require the market to ration a limited supply. "That means certain export markets will likely be limited in supply and may need to look to Argentine or Chinese for supply," Majkrzak indicated.

The good news is consistent market growth in the large in-shell sector. Jay Schuler, president of GIANTS™ Seeds, a regional supplier of consumer-packed extra-large in-shells, stated that domestic demand has been increasing despite the sharp economic downturn. "In terms of consumer outlays, confection sunflower is not a big item. Most purchases are randomly made in a convenience store, and shoppers are looking for quality as opposed to price shopping," Schuler reported.

The biggest concern for the industry is flat yields. Schuler compared yields of corn and confection sunflower in central North Dakota over the last 20 years, finding that corn yields have increased by 97% during that period, compared to the confection sunflower yield increase of 25%.

Jim Gerdes, sunflower research leader for Mycogen Seeds, reported that for the last 10 years breeders of confection sunflower have been working on seed size, color and stripe orientation. "Each consumer group has specific requirements. The Spanish market wants extra-long seeds; Middle East markets have specific color requirements; [and] the U.S. market wants a slightly smaller seed," Gerdes said. Breeders have had to focus on those quality aspects, and there is general agreement that this work is largely complete. Majkrzak pointed out that in addition to success with seed size, the new hybrids produce a much higher level of in-shell. In 1995 the average percentage of in-shells classified as "large" was 42%; in 2008 the level was 71%, he noted. Majkrzak described that trend as "great progress when one acre is producing considerably more of what the industry needs: large seeds."

Not content or able to sit on its laurels, the confection sunflower industry is now striving for agronomic improvements.

But there are challenges. Gerdes noted that when a breeder transfers insect or disease resistance genes into confections, a lot of other "stuff" comes along that can compromise the quality traits of seed size and color.

Also, weed resistance genes in the Clearfield® and Express® systems are in an oilseed background, so it takes more time to transfer them into confection hybrids. "The confection breeder has much greater challenges than the oilseed breeder. We have less material to work with — a very narrow pool of germplasm," said Gerdes. Additional germplasm for the confections may need to come from other regions of the world where extra-long seeds have been grown for some time, he suggested.

The confection industry recognizes that this is a "management" crop, so it needs to choose growers carefully. Growers must be willing to take on additional challenges compared to, for example, a crop like Roundup Ready® soybeans. "We know that planting these large seeds can be a challenge. We know that emergence can be delayed and sometimes inconsistent, and we know that insect control is mandatory," Majkrzak acknowledged.

He said that the confection industry is continuously adding new and sophisticated equipment to help solve field- and weather-influenced issues like dockage, insect damage and off-color seeds. "We can get more good seed out of one acre than just a few years ago." Majkrzak also stated that in addition to Act of God contracts, premiums for insect control and storage payments, the industry is adding more delivery locations for farmers. On-farm pick-up is another option to lighten the load for growers.

The road to weed, insect and disease resistance will be made shorter with new molecular tools such as gene marking. The USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit is making strides in that regard. Some of the private breeders have access to molecular tools as well.

The word from board president Don Schommer is that the NSA continues to put grower and industry dollars into research. "The private and public sunflower research community spent most of the last 10 years working on NuSun® in oil-types and seed size and color on confections. We are done with that work, and now it’s full-speed ahead to increasing yields through herbicides and insect and disease resistance," said Schommer. — Larry Kleingartner

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