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California's Sacramento Valley

Tuesday, February 1, 2000
filed under: Planting Systems

The seed production industry of California's Sacramento Valley is a vital - though not widely understood - sector of the overall U.S.

sunflower industry. More than 90 percent of the hybrid seed planted

each year by this nation's commercial sunflower producers is grown in

the Sacramento Valley, as are increasing amounts of hybrid seed destined

for foreign producers of sunflower.

Most of the current seed production is contracted by three

companies: Vaccaro Seed/California, based in Chico, and Pioneer Hi-Bred

International and Eureka Seeds, both located at Woodland. Vaccaro and

Eureka each have working agreements with various commercial sunflower

seed firms, while Pioneer handles its own seed production and


At its essence, the role of these Sacramento Valley companies and

their growers is to take the elite products of the breeder's nursery and

transform them into the hybrids which will, after processing and

packaging, be poured into planter boxes in thousands of sunflower fields

throughout the Northern Plains, High Plains and other locations where

the crop is grown.

How did the Sacramento Valley emerge as this mecca for hybrid seed

production of sunflower and numerous other crops? In a word, "climate."

No climate is entirely risk-free, of course, but this part of

California comes as close as any to that designation- particularly

during the April-October growing season. The result is an unusually

predictable and consistent crop production environment. For example:

o Rainfall is almost nonexistent during the spring, summer and fall

months. All seed production is irrigated, so fields seldom if ever are

stressed from too little or too much moisture.

o Daytime temperatures are warm or hot, with the valley floor

cooling off at night on the heels of ocean air flowing in from San

Francisco Bay. Crops are not short heat units for optimum plant

development and yield performance.

o Plant diseases which plague other sunflower areas are virtually

nonexistent in Sacramento Valley fields.

o The sunflower planting season normally begins in latter March,

allowing the harvest of many fields by mid-August. That timing allows

the seed production companies to receive, process and ship the hybrid

seed in time for packaging and distribution by their own customers,

i.e., commercial seed suppliers.

The broad planting window also permits what's known as "time

isolation" of seed production fields. It's extremely important to avoid

cross-contamination of a hybrid production field or foundation seed

field by other sunflower sources (i.e., another seed field, wild

sunflower plants, volunteers, or the occasional Sacramento Valley

commercial confection field).

This essential isolation can be achieved in one of two ways: via

distance (a minimum of 1.25 miles between hybrid seed fields or 2.5

miles on foundation seed fields); or by timing (minimum of a 35- to

40-day difference in planting dates) so nearby fields' bloom periods

don't overlap.

o Access to water shipping facilities is another advantage. Since a

significant quantity of California-grown hybrid seed moves into export

channels, the nearby ports of Sacramento, San Francisco and Stockton are

strategically located for the valley-based seed producers.

A thorough explanation of the hybrid seed production industry of

California would require much more space then we have available. So

we've chosen to focus on three producers in this issue. Each is, in

several areas of his sunflower operation, representative of most

producers in the Sacramento Valley. But their operations also possess

certain unique aspects which we've addressed.

Page 18 carries an article about foundation seed producers Euvene

Gilbert and his grandson, Warren. On page 20 we visit with Pete Knight,

who gives us a peek into a realm where a $600 per-acre return on

sunflower is "merely" a break-even price level. And on page 22 we

feature Stacy Argo, whose tillage regimen is at the very opposite end of

the spectrum as compared to Great Plains no-till producers.

We hope you enjoy these glimpses into the world of those who bring

you the seed you plant each spring. - Don Lilleboe

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