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On a Mission From Spain

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Spaniards may be different from Americans in a lot of ways, but one thing we have in common is our love of snacking. And high on that snack food preference list is sunflower seeds — or pipas, as they are called in their country. This love of sunflower seeds has propelled Spain to the number one spot among importers of U.S. in-shell seeds.

In early August, a group of four journalists and their liaison/interpreter traveled thousands of miles from their home in Madrid across the Atlantic to get a first-hand glimpse of the confection sunflower market in the United States. Their field trip included tours of key sites within the sunflower industry in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. With National Sunflower Association staff members as guides, the group visited area sunflower breeding programs and processing facilities. Also on the agenda was a stop at a sunflower farm in southeastern North Dakota.

Meet the Group

Pablo Esteban, a senior editor at Aral magazine, has worked for food trade magazines for four years and the last two at Aral. Topics he covers include dried fruits and the overall snack industry. This was Pablo’s first trip to the U.S.

Noelia Huerta has been a journalist for seven years. She is currently a senior editor at Gondola magazine where she has been working for the past five years. Like Pablo, she covers dried fruits and the snack industry as a whole. She, too, had never been to the U.S.

Another on his first trip to the States, was Rubén Codeseira, who works for the magazine Dulces Noticias. As a senior editor, he has worked in communications for over 16 years, including radio, news agencies, etc. He also covers dried fruits and the overall snack food industry.

Julián Moreno is a senior business manager at Distribución Actualidad, where he manages business travel for the food trade magazine. He has worked in communications for 10 years and six at this magazine. Julián had been to the U.S. prior to this trip when he visited the East Coast.

Paula Entwistle was the group’s liaison/interpreter. She is the pipas account manager for the public relations/marketing firm Fleishman Hillard in Spain. For several years, Paula has worked closely with National Sunflower Association on marketing campaigns promoting sunflower to the Spanish consumer. Paula attended college in the U.S. before returning to work in Spain where she grew up.

The Week’s Agenda

The group wanted to experience the industry from start to finish – genetics to processing. First on the list of stops was the USDA-ARS research site in Fargo, N.D., to visit Dr. Brent Hulke, research geneticist within the sunflower unit. Dr. Hulke explained the latest advances in agricultural biotechnology and how it serves the U.S. sunflower seed industry by working to develop the best available hybrids.

Of note, the journalists were most interested to have Dr. Hulke verify that sunflower is non-GMO. It is the tendency for them to be under the impression that all food imported and consumed in Spain is genetically modified.

The journalists were then taken to visit a farm – the next stop on the sunflower seeds’ journey. Arnold and Lynn Woodbury and their son, Todd, and his family welcomed the group into their homes near Wyndmere, N.D. For the journalists, this was a highlight of the trip, to not only learn about American farm culture, but to see the farmers’ way of life first-hand. None had ever visited a farm before, whether in Spain or the U.S.

Of the Woodbury’s farm, about 600 acres are devoted to sunflower this year – both confection and oils. They have been growing sunflower since the 1970s. Three generations of Woodbury’s met the group at one of their sunflower fields, which was just approaching the bloom stage. Arnold, Todd and Todd’s five-year-old son, Jack, were on hand to explain the process from planting to harvest.

The journalists had full access to the Woodbury farmsteads, including an impromptu lesson in tractor driving. Though only two journalists were brave enough to jump on the late-model International tractor, the Woodbury family graciously offered everyone the “full farm experience.”

From the farm to the processing plant was the next leg of the journey. Processing facilities visited during the week included: Dahlgren/SunOpta in Crookston, Minn., CHS in Grandin, N.D., and Red River Commodities in Fargo, N.D. The journalists were given tours of facilities and met with company personnel at each location.

A point that the U.S. companies made clear regarding selling confection sunflower seed to Spain is that high-quality seeds are a given, not something that Spanish roasting companies receiving U.S. sunflower seeds have to worry about. Other factors such as price or delivery timings are likely to be negotiated, but not quality.

Throughout the trip, the journalists conducted interviews in preparation for writing stories about the U.S. sunflower industry for their Spanish publications devoted to the snack food industry. They have a vast knowledge of food companies, but their knowledge and expertise about crops, or about the different commodities and countries where they are sourced from, is limited. They returned to Spain with new-found knowledge of one of their country’s most popular snacks – from start to finish.

— Sonia Mullally
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