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Farming in the Shadow of a Major Airport

Friday, December 1, 2017
filed under: Rotation

Tom Kirkmeyer
       Tom Kirkmeyer of Brighton, Colo., is the newest member of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee and the second-newest member of the National Sunflower Association Board of Directors.  Like any sunflower producer, Kirkmeyer faces a variety of in-season challenges.  But he also deals with one that is, to say the least, “unusual.”
       Should Kirkmeyer need to catch an airplane flight, it’s a very short hop to the airport.  The Adams County producer not only farms within easy view of Denver International Airport; he actually leases acreage on airport property in some years.
       Overall, it’s been a good arrangement — with one exception.  Once his sunflower crop comes into bloom, Kirkmeyer can count on hundreds upon hundreds of vehicles driving by his fields for a peek at all those acres of bright yellow ’flowers. That’s fine.  It’s a public road.  People going to or leaving the airport can do that.
       What’s not so fine, however, is when people drive their cars into a field corner, walk out amongst the rows — and break off sunflower plant heads to take with them.  Pointing to a patch of flattened wheat stubble in a 2017 sunflower field, Kirkmeyer says, “It’s been so dry the sunflower didn’t come up [in that spot].  But there would be 20-25 cars parked there this summer.”  It wasn’t the snapping of photos that became tiresome; it was the snapping off of those sunflower heads.  Though signs were posted, the activity still resulted in an unwelcome economic impact.  And for those who thought they were walking off with mature, edible seeds in those blooming heads, “they had a surprise when they got home!”
       Light-fingered humans aside, sunflower has proven to be a reliable staple in the Kirkmeyer rotation during the past 15 years.  Initially an oil-type producer, he now plants strictly confections — usually around 1,000 acres each year.  Like many High Plains producers, his dryland ’flowers are no-till following wheat.  After fallow, more wheat and then millet round out the rotation; occasionally he’ll also plant some dryland corn.
       “In our area, there’s a lot of rye with the wheat,” Kirkmeyer notes.  “So breaking up the rotation with something other than a grass is beneficial.  I’ve had good luck cleaning the rye up with the sunflower.”
       Weed control in the ’flowers “can be tricky for us,” Kirkmeyer allows.  “It can be either real wet or real dry at the time we’re putting the chemical down.  This year, for instance, we [applied herbicide], and Mother Nature shut off the spigot.  So we didn’t have much moisture to help incorporate that chemical.”  As in other High Plains locales, glyphosate-resistant kochia has become an increasing challenge in recent years.  A tank mix of Aim® EC and Authority® Elite preplant, and followed by glyphosate pre-emerge, forms the basis of Kirkmeyer’s weed control program.
       While he experimented with plant populations upon switching from oils to confections, Kirkmeyer has found that a seed drop of around 12,500 is a good target in most years.  “Depending on the field, we may go as low as 11,800,” he says.
       His sunflower planting date typically lies within the first half of June, partly to skirt the head moth.  He’ll usually spray for head moth and seed weevil control when his ’flowers are 25-35% in bloom.
       Bloom period human traffic notwithstanding, sunflower has proven a reliable economic pillar in Tom Kirkmeyer’s cropping program.  His involvement on the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee and the National Sunflower Association Board of Directors is giving him a widening familiarity with the industry — an industry he wants to help grow, both locally and nationally.
— Don Lilleboe     
The iconic peaked roof of Denver International Airport's main terminal provides the backdrop to this 2017 Tom Kirkmeyer sunflower field

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