A Conversation with NSA President Don Schommer
Though he’s about to wrap up a two-year term as president of the National Sunflower Association, Don Schommer’s commitment to this crop and industry remains as strong as ever.
The Munich, N.D., producer is now serving his fourth and final three-year term on the NSA Board of Directors, having been first elected in 2000. He’ll become board chairman in December, with Onida, S.D., grower Tom Young taking over the reins as president.
The road to Schommer’s NSA leadership role winds back 31 years. He planted his first sunflower crop in 1979 — the same year U.S. sunflower acreage peaked (at 5.4 million) following several years of rapid expansion.
“I’ve had sunflower every year since then — except one,” the Cavalier County producer recounts. That one year was 2005. “I got about eight acres planted — and then it rained, rained and rained.” When the third week in June arrived and conditions were still too wet, “I got my planter and brought it home.”
Schommer’s sunflower acreage through the years has ranged from 400 up to 1,000, depending on rotational considerations and price levels. After raising oil-type ‘flowers in 1979 and 1980, he switched over to confections in 1981 — and stuck with them until two years ago. A series of wet years in his northeastern North Dakota district has contributed to more disease — especially Sclerotinia and Phomopsis. With discounts for Sclerotinia being stricter in confections, Schommer hoped to partially alleviate the disease’s financial impact by switching to oils.
Another challenge to growing sunflower in his area is blackbirds. A number of local farmers have stopped raising the crop because they grew tired of contending with bird damage, Schommer notes. Some of his own land is in or near “pothole heaven” that’s heavily populated with cattails. “I just can’t put ’flowers on that kind of ground anymore,” he says.
Schommer, who views blackbirds as “probably the number-one detriment to [increased sunflower] acreage in North Dakota,” applauds the USDA Wildlife Services program that assists Northern Plains producers who are battling blackbird depredation. The National Sunflower Association worked closely with senators from the Dakotas and Minnesota to secure funding for the program, which uses frightening devices (e.g., propane cannons), cattail management and other means to disrupt blackbird roosting and feeding patterns.
Since he’s only about 15 miles from the Canadian border, one might assume a shorter growing season would be another challenge for Schommer’s sunflower game plan. Not so much, actually. “Since I started raising sunflower more than 30 years ago, I’ve had them freeze on me [prior to maturity] only twice,” he observes. “So even with our relatively short growing season, we manage.” Shorter-season varieties, coupled with an optimum planting date of around the third week in May, have minimized the issue, he affirms.
Going to oils has afforded Schommer the opportunity to plant sunflower with his John Deere 1820 air drill while simultaneously applying fertilizer. His seed drop has been around 25,-26,000 per acre in 15” rows (compared to a standard confection rate of 17,-18,000 in 30” rows). That population provides a tighter plant canopy, which aids weed suppression. “But on the down side, it may lead to a little more Sclerotinia because your plants are closer together,” he admits.
Schommer’s spring weed control program consists of a harrow pass prior to seeding, then a pre-emerge application of Spartan. “That’s been working out very well,” he reports. He’ll then come back with a grass herbicide if needed (typically Assure II) when the sunflower is about 8” tall. This year, he also applied Express at the 0.4 oz rate to his ExpressSun® hybrids about two weeks later for added broadleaf control.
As one who farms in an area where sunflower acreage has dropped off in recent years (due to disease, blackbirds and competitive crops like canola, soybeans and pinto beans), Don Schommer is in full agreement with the National Sunflower Association’s current emphasis on production research funding in such areas as Verticillium, Sclerotinia, rust and insect resistance. It’s all about keeping the crop profitable for growers, he emphasizes — which in turn assures end users of a stable, reliable supply.
“Much of the public research we’re supporting is focused on a good disease package,” Schommer notes. “Of course, it would be wonderful if we could add in some blackbird resistance, but that’s been a tough nut to crack for many years.”
A primary reason behind NSA’s increased funding support for public research has been the budgetary limitations faced by USDA and state university sunflower scientists. “It’s unfortunate that the public funds are not there at levels we’d like to see,” Schommer says. “But we (NSA directors) feel comfortable going back to growers in our districts and saying, ‘This is where your checkoff dollars are going.’ This type of work is very important to the future of our industry.”
Schommer points to NSA’s 2009 purchase of a new plot planter and harvester for the Fargo-based USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit as a classic example of how the association has stepped up to the plate — proactively — to help advance critical sunflower research. The equipment being used by the ARS unit was very old, but there simply were no dollars available for its replacement — until the NSA stepped in (along with contributions from several of its industry members).
“That carried a lot of weight in Washington, D.C.,” Schommer states. “When we went there later for meetings with our congressional delegations and at USDA, they really respected us for that ‘self-help’ undertaking. And I think that will only help us down the road.”
Though the majority of members on the NSA Board of Directors are growers, the group also currently includes a seed company leader, three processor members (two oilseed and one confection) and an ag chemical company representative. While those industry segments sometimes may have differing perspectives on certain issues, Schommer is pleased with how the board works together for the betterment of the entire sunflower industry. “It’s good to have their perspectives at the table,” he affirms. “We know that to be viable as an industry, it has to be a ‘win:win’ situation. Everyone — growers included — has to make a profit. So while there are times when opinions may differ, at the end of the day we walk out of there with an agreement as a board.
“We try to be very vigilant with what we do with those [checkoff] funds. We don’t ‘throw money into the wind.’ We want to make sure there’s a purpose for every dollar spent.”
Along with support of production research, the NSA continues to press its other main agendas: domestic and foreign market development, education (of growers, food manufacturers and consumers), and direct-benefit advocacy for growers in such areas as crop insurance.
“I’ve had a number of insurance agents tell me ‘the NSA must have a lot of pull’ because we get things done,” Schommer illustrates. Working with USDA’s Risk Management Agency to extend final planting dates for crop insurance coverage has been one recent success story; another is in higher price elections. “I give a lot of credit to John (Sandbakken, NSA marketing director) and Larry (Kleingartner, NSA’s executive director) for those achievements,” he says.
Looking to the future, Schommer sees the maintenance of a solid production base as a key challenge for the NSA and the sunflower industry in general. “Keeping the acreage up there is a high priority,” he stresses. “Sometimes, as producers, we like to see a short crop because that means prices will go up. But a nice price and stable production is what we all need in the long run.” — Don Lilleboe
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