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Where Your Seed Is Grown

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
filed under: Hybrid Selection/Planting

Up until 2009, you would not find California on the list of states delineated in USDA’s sunflower acreage and production reports. Yet the nation’s sunflower sector would be but a shadow of its present form if not for the Golden State.

California — specifically the Sacramento Valley — produces roughly 95% of the hybrid seed planted each year by U.S. sunflower growers. And, an even larger volume of California-grown seed is destined for sunflower producers in Europe and Asia. During 2009, the California Crop Improvement Association — which regulates and certifies seed production — approved 37,200 acres of sunflower, thus making it, in acreage terms, the number-one seed crop in the state.

Most of California’s sunflower seed production is contracted with farmers by five companies: Sunfield Seeds, headquartered near Glenn, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Eureka Seeds, Flower Genetics (Tom Heaton) and Cal/West Seeds (a farmer-owned cooperative), all based at Woodland. Sunfield, Eureka, Flower Genetics and Cal/West have working agreements with various commercial seed companies, while Pioneer produces and processes seeds exclusively for its own needs, domestic and foreign.

What makes the Sacramento Valley such an ideal location for the production of hybrid sunflower seed? Climate is the key factor. While no environment is totally risk-free, this part of California comes about as close as any to that designation — particularly during the March-October growing season — for several reasons:

• Rainfall is almost negligible during the spring, summer and fall. All of the seed production fields are irrigated, so plants seldom are stressed from too little or too much moisture.

• Daytime temperatures are warm to hot, with the valley floor cooled at night by ocean air flowing in from San Francisco Bay. There are plenty of heat units for optimum crop development.

• Plant diseases that may plague other sunflower production areas are virtually nonexistent in the Sacramento Valley due to lack of rain and low daytime humidity.

• The sunflower planting season typically kicks off in late March, allowing for the harvest of many fields by mid-August or early September. That provides adequate time for the receiving, processing, bagging and shipping of the hybrid seed to domestic and foreign customers.

• Finally, the broad planting window and long growing season allow what’s known as “time isolation” in the seed production fields. It’s extremely important to avoid cross-contamination of hybrid or inbred production fields by other sunflower sources (e.g., another seed field, volunteer plants, wild sunflower or the occasional commercial oil or confection field). This essential isolation is achieved in one of two ways: by distance (a minimum of 1.25 miles between hybrid seed fields or 2.0 miles between foundation seed fields), or by timing — i.e., planting nearby fields at offset intervals so that their bloom periods do not overlap.

Sunfield Seeds/California contracts with valley farmers to produce hybrid sunflower seed for several companies. Formerly known as Vaccaro Seeds, Sunfield moved its headquarters from Chico to rural Glenn in 2005 and has since been expanding its processing capabilities. That includes the ability to apply seed protectants and package the final products. “Most of what we ship now is finished seed, treated and put into customer bags — whatever size they might want,” says Ed Eggers, the company’s president and CEO. “It could be a 3.0-kilo bag going to China, a 150,000-kernel bag going to France or a 200,000-kernel bag heading up to the Dakotas.”

Eggers says that while the domestic sunflower seed market has not expanded much in recent years, foreign demand has increased significantly. Europe and China are the main destinations. “If there are 2.0 million (commercial) acres in the United States, the number of seed acres needed might be around 10,000,” he points out. With nearly 30,000 acres of hybrid sunflower seed grown in California in 2008, that obviously meant the bulk of production ended up somewhere else.

On the flip side, a U.S. sunflower grower may, at times, be planting a hybrid that was produced in South America. “Another growing part of our business is ‘counter-season’ production, where our customers produce seed in Argentina or Chile,” notes Bill Vaccaro, Jr. (Vaccaro, who owned Vaccaro Seeds with his father, Bill, Sr., prior to selling to Sunfield, remains with the company in a consulting capacity.)

“It arrives here in March, at one of our ports. We can turn it around (process, treat and bag) in a week, and our customers then distribute it from here to their sites in the Midwest.” South American seed production is particularly useful if a company is “ramping up” a new hybrid, or if there’s a U.S. shortage of a given variety, Vaccaro notes. By growing it in South America, they can get it into the marketplace a year sooner.

About 90% of Pioneer Hi-Bred International’s California sunflower seed production currently goes overseas — mainly to Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, notes Ann Walker, the company’s assistant plant manager at its Woodland production facility. While Pioneer does conduct seed production in Europe, it’s presently not enough to meet demand, Walker says.

As do the other companies, Pioneer certifies the vast majority of its California-produced seed. Phytosanitary certificates are provided for each importing country, as well as any necessary additional addendums for diseases or anything else that needs to be accounted for, Walker relates. The one difference between hybrids being produced for foreign versus domestic sale is the source of the foundation seed. Planting stock for U.S. hybrids comes literally from “next door” — Pioneer’s sunflower breeding nursery at Woodland. For European-bound hybrids, the foundation seed is sent over from the company’s European nurseries, with the inbreds then grown out in the Sacramento Valley to produce the hybrid seed varieties.

The California Crop Improvement Association (CCIA) plays a vital role in certifying seed — whether it’s grown within California or comes in from South America. “With so much seed produced in California, they really know the business,” affirms Sunfield’s Bill Vaccaro. “They ensure the seed is a quality product when it’s shipped.” The CCIA approved the production of more than 154,000 acres of seed crops in 2009, of which sunflower accounted for — as noted previously — 37,200. (That’s up, by the way, from the three prior years’ acreage levels of 29,757, 24,073 and 33,055, respectively.)

The CCIA also acts as the clearinghouse for ensuring field isolation. This is a coordinated effort involving all of the seed production companies. Every year, they meet to agree upon the geographic area(s) in which each company will be contracting with farmers for sunflower seed production. As they proceed with contracting during the winter months, they enter each field on a map on the CCIA’s website so that everyone knows where the field is located. That way, no one else will contract another nearby production field without the required isolation, i.e., a minimum of 1.25 miles distance between hybrid seed fields and 2.0 miles on foundation (inbred production) seed fields.

(The field entry procedure previously was done manually at the CCIA office during what was called a “pinning party.” Representatives of the various companies would gather around a large map of the valley and literally stick a color-coded pin into each of their contracted fields.)

Achieving the necessary field isolation is not a simple task. “Our average field size is 62 acres,” says Pioneer’s Ann Walker. “Based on an average of 62 acres, we figure that for every field, we’re looking at about 4,500 acres of [surrounding] isolation. “So it’s pretty intense.” Pioneer alone had about 13,000 acres of sunflower in bloom during a single week in 2009.

The grower typically is responsible for most of the crop’s management, such as field prep, fertility, planting, irrigation, weed control and harvesting. However, the company is directly involved in certain facets — the first one obviously being to provide the seed itself. Depending upon isolation zones and the acreage of a particular hybrid, growers might plant the same inbreds year after year. “We typically go back with [varieties] a grower likes,” says Bob Megli, Sunfield’s general manager. “But we do need to consider the isolation factor.”

The male-to-female row ratio depends upon which hybrid is being produced. Both the seed company and the grower prefer a high percentage of female rows, since that translates into more pounds of hybrid seed yield. But some male parents are better pollinators than others; so the ratio can range from 2:6 all the way up to 2:14. (Foundation seed fields may go as low as four rows of females to every two rows of males with the poorer pollinators.)

One of the biggest changes over the past decade has been in the types of planters used by growers. Whereas John Deere plate units were still very common as of the latter 1990s, now the majority of growers use six- or eight-row precision planters (usually a Monosem or Gasparto pneumatic unit). That switch has resulted in improved seed spacing and uniformity of plant emergence — which, in turn, produces a more-consistent hybrid seed size. It also facilitates timing of the midsummer rouging process and the crop’s harvest.

What are some of the larger challenges facing the California hybrid sunflower seed industry?

One is the annual battle for acres. With so many other crops — both seed and commercial — being grown in the Sacramento Valley, the grower has plenty of options. So the sunflower sector has to be able to compete, economically, for his acreage. When corn and wheat prices were high a couple years ago, for example, some growers opted out of hybrid sunflower seed production. Tomatoes are a consistently strong competitor for acreage.

Fields with new owners or renters also may present issues. Controlling volunteer ’flowers is critical, and if the new farmer is not a sunflower producer, he may not be as conscientious about destroying volunteers. In those cases, the seed company may offer to come in with its own crew, or at least provide a cost-share volunteer control option.

Bee hive strength is always a concern. “You can do everything right, but if you have a hive of bees that doesn’t want to work or is not strong, that can ruin the whole thing” says Pioneer’s Ann Walker. The standard requirement is to have 1.5 hives per acre of sunflower (arranging and paying for them is the grower’s responsibility). Almonds — of which there are many acres in the Sacramento Valley — are huge users of bees. Once the almonds are pollinated, beekeepers are looking for a new home for their hives — and the timing of sunflower pollination period is ideal. “We have more than enough bees to cover any of our seed crops,” says Sunfield’s Bill Vaccaro. Drought can be tough on bee diets, however, and mites and viruses also caused problems earlier this decade.

Availability of sufficient irrigation water has been a real concern in recent years due to drought conditions around parts of northern California. “The canals that feed our main production area didn’t release any water until about the middle of May this year,” Walker relates. Fields relying upon groundwater were fine, but some of those fed by canals actually ended up being fallowed, she says.

Then there is the inherent complexity of the business. In 2009, for instance, Sunfield worked with close to 100 different male and female inbred lines. Along with the all the logistics of receiving, growing, processing and shipping, the seed company must have detailed knowledge of the particular characteristics of each inbred —days from planting to bloom, and length of the bloom period being a couple prime examples.. That’s critical, as the worst possible scenario for everyone — the grower, the seed company and its customers — would be to have inadequate pollination.

“These customers are entrusting us with their ‘crown jewels,’ ” emphasizes Sunfield’s Ed Eggers. “This is their future.

“Ultimately, we all want reliable production at a fair cost. The best way to achieve that is to contract with good growers, plant the crop early and get a high seed yield.” — Don Lilleboe

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