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Sunflower Has a Bright Future

Thursday, November 1, 2012
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Tom Young’s term as president of the National Sunflower Association (NSA) ends in December. But make no mistake: the Onida, S.D., grower will continue to be a strong advocate for this crop and this industry for years to come.

Young, who is closing out his 12th and final year on the NSA Board of Directors, is widely known as an enthusiastic and effective voice on behalf of sunflower. When a north central South Dakota producer was informed earlier this fall of a planned visit to Young’s Sully County farm, his immediate response was, “Oh, you’re on your way to see Mr. Sunflower!”

Larry Kleingartner, now-retired NSA executive director who worked with Young for most of those 12 years, puts it this way: “Tom is one of those individuals who can play many roles because of his many talents. He is able to sort through the details in order to identify the issue at hand. Tom contributed greatly as a board member and leader when the NSA shifted strategy to concentrate on research issues. He can stand in front of any audience and make a credible and professional presentation. Tom has been a real asset to this Association.”

Tom Young’s sunflower roots trace back to the small Corson County community of McLaughlin, S.D., just a stone’s throw from the North Dakota border. That’s Young’s hometown — the place where his father, Guilford, Jr. (“Gil”) farmed and operated a farm implement business. Gil Young was among the first sunflower producers in his area and a hybrid seed dealer by the early 1970s. (“I think he actually grew some [open-pollinated] Peredoviks back in the ’60s,” Tom relates.) No elevators in the McLaughlin vicinity were handling ’flowers at the time, so Gil Young and some of his farmer-neighbors built a set of grain bins along a local railroad spur, installed a dryer — and shipped their sunflower crop to distant processing plants.

After graduating from South Dakota State University in 1982 with a B.S. degree in Ag Business, Tom returned to McLaughlin, working at his dad’s implement dealership. Two years later, he joined SIGCO Research as a sales agronomist, based at Aberdeen. He sold and serviced sunflower and corn accounts with SIGCO for the next six years, working with such well-known industry names as Jay Schuler, Gary Fick, Steve Kent and Sam Heikes. (As of the latter 1980s, SIGCO Research had become the top supplier of hybrid sunflower seed in the country.)

Young’s relocation to central South Dakota and the Onida area occurred in 1989. A large farm there was owned by great-uncle Eugene Young, who, after the Oahe Dam was constructed on the Missouri River in the early 1960s, was among the first to install irrigation. “Ironically, when I moved here in 1989, I had the ‘honor’ of tearing down the original irrigation systems,” Tom recounts. “They had never been updated — and rightly so, because anyone who did went bankrupt. Most of the farms still irrigating around here at the time were on their second or third owner or bankruptcy. It just wasn’t working.”

Young assumed management of the 30,000 acres owned by his great-uncle, transitioning many of them back to dryland crop production. Sunflower had by then been adopted by many area farmers, with a typical rotation of the period being sunflower/ wheat/fallow.

Eugene Young passed away in 1989 — the same year his grandnephew moved to Onida. His daughter owned the large farm for several more years, but eventually decided “enough was enough” and ended up deeding most of the land to her alma mater, other colleges and additional nonprofit entities. Tom had been renting some of the acreage — “but then, because of the gifting, the portion I was renting was gifted and sold. So I was down to almost no land,” he relates.

Then Young received an offer to work as a consultant with Mycogen Seeds (into which SIGCO Research had by then been melded). “That fall, after agreeing to do so, I ended up renting 4,000 acres — more than I’d had before,” he says. “So I farmed and was consulting with Mycogen.” In 2000, Mycogen asked Young to become its sales manager in central South Dakota. He accepted, so for the next 10 years he simultaneously farmed and served in that sales capacity. The year 2000 was also noteworthy in that it was his first as a National Sunflower Association board member, representing the South Dakota Oilseed Council.

Tom Young views sunflower’s path as one characterized by both progress and challenge. As a producer, “progress” has come in several forms — ever-improving hybrids, better herbicide options and new seed treatments among them. “The newer tools we’ve gained access to within the past several years have definitely made ’flowers more manageable,” he states. “In weed control, the Clearfield® and ExpressSun® production systems have been real steps forward. Spartan® herbicide was a big one — and still is. These are weed control tools we can depend on. Sure, there are still people with weed problems; it’s not perfect. But it’s manageable.”

Also, higher prices the past few years have taken some of the financial pressure off decisions regarding whether to spray for insects, the NSA president ventures. “We still have to be conscious of proper thresholds; but the thresholds are ‘smaller,’ so it makes those decisions easier,” he says.

“New seed treatments are helping with disease management, too,” Young continues. “And now there are companies investing in seed coatings to make those sunflower seeds plant more uniformly.”

For central South Dakota, the overwhelming movement to no-till during the past decade has been as big a story as any, in Young’s opinion. Recent years’ NSA crop surveys have revealed that a very high percentage of South Dakota sunflower fields are no-till; in Young’s area, it’s now virtually 100%. “Other than in drought years, South Dakota has, over the past decade, consistently increased its average sunflower yield,” he observes. “When you take into account the fact that sunflower production in the state has been moving west, you can’t attribute that to rainfall. It’s because we’re doing a better job of growing them.”

A trend toward later planting dates has also helped sunflower yields in his area, Young believes. Mid- to late May used to be quite common target dates; now mid-June or even a bit later is often preferred. No-till plays a role there, too, providing better at-planting soil moisture compared to conventionally tilled fields. “Generally speaking, the guys planting the 20th of June or so have some of the best yields,” he affirms. “And it’s not just early maturing varieties; it’s the full-season, full-maturity ones as well.” Later planting also lessens the threat from head moth and banded sunflower moth, he adds.

Sunflower success comes from a systems approach, Young emphasizes. “It’s the idea of having corn out there, having clean fields going into ’flowers, having good weed control during the sunflower year, maintaining good insect control. It’s an entire program.

“By the time of wheat harvest, we’re already preparing for next year’s crops,” he continues. “I remember years ago in the seed business, we’d be out selling in December — and many farmers still didn’t know what they were going to plant the next spring. Now, I’d say 80% of the farmers in Sully County know [by September] 80% of what they’re going to do next year. It’s planned out, and they’re buying inputs. Again, it’s a system.”

One of the long-time “knocks” on sunflower in many production locales has been the depletion factor — i.e., that the crop depletes soil moisture and sucks out deep nutrients, putting more pressure on the succeeding crop. To that, Young response is what? “How about: ‘right on!’ ” he exclaims. “Sure, there are some other crops that can use some of [the deep nutrients]; but sunflower does a far better job than anything else.

“Moisture reduction? Yes. But through the years, cash-wise, I don’t know what else we could do — especially the western farmer who has been rotating wheat and sunflower. There’s no other crop that consistently produces that kind of income.

“I’m not worried so much about moisture depletion — and we’re obviously in a low-rainfall area,” Young continues. “There are other low-moisture crops that can follow sunflower in our no-till systems, and I’d like to see more research on that. It’s interesting that year after year, at the USDA-ARS Mandan (N.D.) station where they’ve established extended rotation studies, one of the best rotations is with sunflower and those crops following it.

“So as much as people may argue that point, I think the moisture depletion issue is manageable. The profit overcomes the problem. Here we are in a drought year (2012), and I’m confident we’ll see a lot of 2,000-lb ’flowers in this area right next to 30- or 40-bu corn.”

What is the biggest production challenge for Tom Young and his fellow central South Dakota sunflower producers as of 2012? His answer is revealing.

“Prices have been excellent the past year or two, and we know what we need to do. The information is out there to manage this crop properly, to raise ton-plus ’flowers,” he states. “I think one of the biggest things is that we just get in too much of a hurry when it’s time to start planting ’flowers. We do so many crops here: our basic four crops (spring wheat, winter wheat, corn, sunflower); then we’ll throw in some soybeans, grain sorghum, millet, maybe some peas and lentils. By late June, we’re tired and we tend to rush things. We don’t watch the details as closely as we could.

“I think slowing down and managing [the sunflower crop] properly — good timing rather than rushing — is very important,” Young stresses. “Maybe taking the time to tear that planter apart after seeding a bunch of corn acres and rebuilding it for planting sunflower . . . Sure, it’s another day or two of work at a time when everyone is tired. But attention to detail is going to pay off.”

As he nears the end of his leadership tenure with the National Sunflower Association, Tom Young’s face lights up as he discusses the organization’s people and its work.

Among the group’s biggest accomplishments in recent years, he believes, has been its strong support of public research — specifically the USDA-ARS sunflower research team at Fargo, N.D. In 2009, for instance, the NSA provided funding to help the ARS unit purchase much-needed specialized planting and harvesting equipment. The Association also has been a strong supporter, financially and otherwise, of the major ARS undertaking to identify and efficiently utilize molecular markers in sunflower breeding programs.

“It was exciting to sit at one of our board meetings when [ARS] came in and introduced the idea of doing extensive research on the molecular structure of sunflower,” Young recalls. “Our board said ‘Yes’ — and brought forth hundreds of thousands of dollars toward that. In talking with people in government, they’d never seen an industry make a move like that so fast.”

The relatively small size of the sunflower industry — and the fact that seed suppliers and processor representatives sit next to growers on the NSA board — is one key reason for such dexterity. “Being able to go to meetings and know just about everybody in the room makes things move faster,” Young affirms. “We may not always agree, going in, what direction to take. But once the decisions have been made, most people are ready to help.”

Challenges? Maintaining and growing sunflower acreage in the face of strong competition from crops like corn and soybeans is among the biggest, Young says. “But that’s not new,” NSA’s president notes. “It’s always been there, always will be. There are new reasons for optimism — such as ‘no-sat fat’ sunflower oil — that we can hang our hat on. But in the end, to grow acres consistently, it comes down to price and yield — the amount of revenue the sunflower grower receives for his crop.

“I really think sunflower has a bright future,” Tom Young concludes. “We just have to catch up and keep up with all the changing technology. And that can be done.”

— Don Lilleboe
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