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Sunflower in the Southeast

Thursday, December 1, 2011
filed under: Planting Systems

Joe Moore, owner of Rasaca Sun Products and a farmer in the northwest corner of Georgia, has a vested interest in crop consultant Brian Caldbeck’s ongoing sunflower research in the nearby state of Kentucky. Moore’s company is a co-sponsor of the project exploring the potential for sunflower to gain acres in Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama.

Moore operates a small oilseed processing plant for sunflower and canola. His firm looks to contract about 7,000 sunflower acres every season. Moore plants 600 of those acres himself. He’s hoping Caldbeck’s research could help increase the sunflower acreage pool for processing.

Moore’s facility offers a market delivery point for growers in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, but realizes it may not be close enough for some to consider sunflower. Lack of delivery points and limited education in the area of both the farmers and the extension personnel hold some back from trying sunflower. “We rely on Brian, but he’s way over in Kentucky,” Moore says. “We need more education of local extension people to help out the farmers in this area.”

Moore also thinks that with the advent of better education, farmers could be choosing the hybrids that would produce better yields. “If we could get consistent sunflower crops that yield between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, more farmers would take notice and maybe consider the crop,” he says.

Over the last few years, Moore’s sunflower has been averaging around 1,500 lbs/ac. With variable planting conditions (i.e., available moisture), it’s been difficult to maintain consistency. The 2011 crop was planted in mid-July (a little later than normal due to wet conditions) after winter wheat and harvested in early November.

“We were looking for a late-season crop after we’ve finished planting our soybeans,” Moore says. “And some farmers in the area are just tired of soybeans and have switched to sunflower.” Various reasons related to production, such as problems with soybean nematodes and herbicide-resistant pigweed, have turned some on to sunflower.

Andy Perkins, a southwestern Kentucky farmer and host of Caldbeck’s research plot, is situated about 250 miles northwest from Moore. Perkins just finished harvesting his sunflower in early November. This is just the second year he’s grown ’flowers, and he’s optimistic about the crop.

“We were looking for something to handle the heat stress better than soybeans,” Perkins notes. “We needed something that we could plant late in the season and still be assured it would handle the heat —and sunflower seems to be doing very well.”

The crop is generally planted in late June or early July and harvested in late October or early November. Perkins doubled his acreage this year — up to 450 — and says people are interested in what he’s doing. Last year’s crop averaged 1,800 lbs/ac, but he figures the potential was there for over 2,200 lbs. Because of harvest shatter loss, Perkins invested in a combine header with pans (purchased from a manufacturer in North Dakota) to use on this year’s crop.

Perkins sees growing potential for sunflower, yet figures he had the only ’flowers in a 50-mile radius this year. Most farmers double-crop soybeans after corn or wheat. The price is comparable to soybeans, and equipment limitations are easily overcome, but the sunflower “concept” is relatively new in the area. Perkins, reiterating what Moore sees, says the key factors limiting sunflower are the lack of market delivery points and education about the crop.

Kentucky farmer, Mark Andrews, agrees that the lack of local delivery points is probably the number-one aspect holding farmers back from growing sunflower. Farmers don’t have the means to store the sunflower if they can’t be hauled to market right from the field. The closest delivery point right now is a couple hundred miles away, in Georgia.

Both Andrews and Perkins deliver their seed to AgStrong, a processing facility in Winterville, Ga., located about 30 miles from Atlanta. AgStrong is planning a processing facility for northern Alabama to have the capacity to hold 30,000 acres of sunflower and canola. That plant, however, won’t be finished for quite some time. AgStrong is also a co-sponsor of Caldbeck’s research project.

Andrews, who also deals with AgStrong on his canola, says the Alabama plant could open up opportunities for more sunflower acres. He didn’t grow sunflower this year because he had difficulty arranging an option for transporting the seed, but he did in the previous three years. “I really like sunflower and I’ll plant them again next year,” Andrews notes. “They withstand drought and heat better than soybeans, and it seems like about every three years or so we have drought conditions in Kentucky.”

Other than delivery issues, the major factors holding his neighbors back, Andrews figures, are the “unknowns.” In the past, he’s had a lot of questions from neighbors, many curious on-lookers and sightseers when his sunflower is in bloom, but jokes that he’s been the “guinea pig” for trying out something new.

The key to tackling the “unknowns” that Andrews speaks of leads all three southern farmers to rely on Caldbeck when it comes to issues like weeds, insects and diseases. So far the crop has been clean, with only a few insect issues (primarily head moth in Georgia), and some concern of herbicide-tolerant weeds in the region that can complicate burndown programs. Very few diseases seem to be affecting the sunflower. Caldbeck notes occasional head rot, charcoal rot and Alternaria, but fungicide use is very minimal. “This is a new and unfamiliar crop, so there are always cost considerations when you look at input,” Caldbeck notes. “There’s much more work to be done on sunflower here in the South.”

— Sonia Mullally
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