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Sunflower Gains Traction in Texas

Monday, March 28, 2011
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Mission, Texas, grower Mike Hudsonpillar farms on the banks of the Rio Grande River. He can clearly see Mexico from his tractor cab.

Growing sunflower that far south brings with it a unique set of challenges, including extreme heat, unexpected early season frost — and even hurricanes.

Erker Trading Company, which manages the operation of a confection processing plant in Alice, Texas, lost thousands of their sunflower acres to hurricanes last year. Nicholas Erker, company president, says one storm that moved in just days ahead of the 2010 harvest dropped 12” of rain. The next day brought high heat and humidity, followed by another storm that brought an additional 6” of rain. “The seeds were sprouting right in the heads of some of the plants,” Erker recalls. “Prior to that, the plants were as healthy as can be, at seven feet tall with 16” to 18” heads. We were looking at 3,000 lbs/ac before the hurricane came in and destroyed it all.”

“We were lucky last year,” Hudsonpillar remarks about the hurricane season. “I finished up harvest a day and a half before that big storm that wiped out a lot of acres around here. We didn’t get hit as hard as some of the guys in the lower valley and up the coastal bend.”

This year’s crop, in far south Texas, has already faced adversity. An unexpected early season cold snap in early February damaged seeds just as they were about to emerge. Most of the affected acres will not be replanted due to lack of moisture.

For the seedlings that did survive, this year’s challenge in southern Texas is drought. “We are extremely dry this year. We, and most guys here, have turned to sunflower again this year because of the deep tap root that will go down to get what little moisture we have,” Hudsonpillar notes. “We’re counting on sunflower to hang on longer and make us some money again this year.”

The common rotation in this area is grain sorghum rotated with either cotton or sunflower. But cotton, which does not tolerate drought well, has much higher input costs. Hudsonpillar explains that in a dry year like this one, cotton is just too much of a gamble. Even with the high price of cotton, the risk is too great when soil moisture is low going in and there’s no rain in the forecast.

As of the end of February, most sunflower growers in southern Texas had wrapped up planting, with plans to harvest in early to mid-June.

“Around here, if you can get the sunflower seed to germinate and get a stand, they will make it,” Hudsonpillar says of the confection acres. “But we are realistic in knowing that we aren’t going to get the usual 1,500 to 1,800-lb crop that we’re used to with this lack of moisture. We’ll be happy with 600 to 700 lbs/ac. It’s that dry. But despite a lower-than-average yield, Hudsonpillar knows that sunflower will still make them money. “Of course it’s disheartening, but with commodity prices up where they are, it will make up for it.” Dry conditions, thankfully, don’t dominate all of Texas. Growers just a couple hundred miles north and east of Hudsonpillar see a different scenario with decent subsoil moisture.

As of early March, Steven Beakley had just finished up planting 1,500 acres of confection sunflower on his operation about 40 miles south of Dallas. Other than slightly cool temperatures, he says they couldn’t ask for better planting conditions in terms of moisture. Next up to plant were 1,500 acres of oil-type sunflower. Beakley produces wheat and cotton as well. He started growing sunflower in 2009 as an alternative to corn acres infected with aflatoxin. He expects to harvest his ’flowers in late June and early July.

“We’re pretty excited about sunflower around here,” Beakley says. “When we started back in 2009, we ended up with an average of about 1,850 lbs/ac on dryland for confections. It was one of those years that we were told not to expect every year, but it sure was nice.”

The following year, high heat at bloom allowed for perfect conditions for a head moth outbreak, ultimately bringing yields down to an average of about 1,280 lbs/ac on their confections. The later-planted oilseeds fared better in 2010, yielding an average of 1,600 lbs/ac.

Marketing the Crop

Hudsonpillar estimates that about 15,000 confection acres and 5,000 acres of oil-type sunflower will be planted in his area in 2011.

Oilseeds are relatively new to the area, with only about five growers giving it a go. But the market continues to be promising. “We never had a place to take oils, so no one grew them around here,” he explains. “That has changed, with some companies offering contracts for the first time for large acres —which turns out to be big for us this year because of the dry conditions.”

Beakley sees a bright future for sunflower in his area as well. Some growers considering sunflower remained with cotton in response to high prices for that crop this year, but most in the area realize when cotton prices come back to what Beakley refers to as “normal,” sunflower will gain acres.

Oil-type ’flowers are also showing promise in his region. “Oilseeds are really getting competitive in our area,” Beakley notes. “We had four or five companies trying to sign up acres this year, where we had one or none a few years ago.”

When it comes to marketing their sunflower crop, whether it confection or oils, Texas growers now have excellent options. Having choices to contract with the likes of Red River Commodities, Erker Trading Company and SunOpta has created advantages for the growers and awareness of the crop.

Red River Commodities has had a presence in southern Texas sunflower for more than 15 years. The company has a receiving station in Lubbock in addition to its Fargo, N.D., and Colby, Kan., receiving and processing plant locations.

Erker Grain Company, based at Fort Morgan, Colo., recently expanded, entering into partnerships with confection sunflower processing facilities in Alice, Texas, and Souris, Manitoba.

Nicholas Erker says that after 20 years in the sunflower business, joining with international neighbors to the north and south has definitely brought about significant changes. Building the Texas plant put them in the driver’s seat for exports south of the border. “Our in-shell confection plant is the most southern sunflower processing facility in the U.S.,” Erker explains. “It’s just 100 miles from the Mexican border and 380 miles from the port of Houston. We are definitely strategically placed to get our product into Mexico and out to the rest of the world.”

Hudsonpillar says he was happy to see the sunflower processing plant constructed in south Texas, and he believes it will open the market for all growers. “They’ve got a good central location that puts them at an advantage for transporting the crop,” he says. “Acres in that area and around here should continue to increase.”

“Just as in many areas, sunflower competes with other crops for acres in Texas,” Erker adds. “Cotton, grain sorghum, peanuts or melons may be preferred crops; but we’ve created more opportunities for the grower to consider, and sunflower is now an option.

“Not only are we another option for processing, but we create more competition for growers to take advantage of,” he concludes — Sonia Mullally
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