Sunflowers have yet to take root as county crop

Pressing sunflower seed to make oil for new bio-diesel equipment may make sunflowers sound like a no-loss endeavor for area producers, but Marion County Extension Agent Rickey Roberts said few farmers here raise them, and fewer still continue with them once started.

Compared to most crops, where he instantly has the answers to who is doing what with which crop, Roberts admitted he has to think for a while to recall somebody who has even tried the crop.

It’s not that sunflowers are unknown to area farmers, or that they are less profitable than some other crops. They have multiple uses for oil, both industrial and cooking, for bird food, and as confectionary food for human food to help prop up prices.

Sunflower history

Archeologists agree American Indians were cultivating sunflowers in the Southwest Four-Corners area as early as 3,000 years ago.

The American native’s seeds traveled with early explorers to Europe, where they became widespread as a food crop in Russia.

Canadian researchers began breeding them from improved Russian Mennonite varieties in 1930, and their cultivation began moving south.

According to federal statistics, the top three sunflower-producing states today are South Dakota, North Dakota and Kansas.

But Marion County’s northern border seems to be where their speed of southern migration slowed a little.

Researchers say northeast and north-central Kansas produce most of the sunflowers in the state.

Sunflower development

Perhaps the profitability just hasn’t been there to make farmers here desire sunflowers more than crops they are used to planting. But researchers acknowledge that might change with the swing to new energy sources.

Kansas State University agronomists in their production models assign costs for fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide just like they do for other crops.

Sunflowers do have drought resistance, but they perform best in optimum rainfall times, just as other crops do. The decision to include sunflowers in an operation seems to vary even within the same locale.

Two experiences

Abe Ensz, who farms southeast of Hillsboro, didn’t find sunflowers the best fit for his farm, and doubted he’ll be trying them again.

But Mark Meisinger, who farms between Durham and Lincolnville, found that sunflowers can complement his operation most years.

Both men took their first big experience with the flowers when other crop prices were down.

Ensz said, “I had the nerve one time to try sunflowers, but I’ll never do it again. I’ve been tempted to try them again, but you have to think ahead, and I usually have another crop ready to go.”

Ensz said he feels that way, even though his sunflower crop was successful, because he had to make a special effort to cut the sunflowers at harvest.

The year was 1997, and he planted 100 acres double-cropped sunflowers after wheat. He said he didn’t get them in the ground until July 19 because he had to wait for moisture, so the sunflowers did get a chance to exhibit drought resistance.

He harvested 1,400 pounds of sunflower seed per acre after an input of 50 units nitrogen, so he was well satisfied with the yield.

His main problem was he had to drive all of the way to South Dakota to borrow sunflower pans from a cousin to attach to headers to harvest the crop. The pans have the length to stick out in front of a combine’s small grain heads to catch seed that shatters out from the long stalks that might otherwise might be lost.

Ensz said the new dwarf sunflowers researchers are coming up with “that you could probably use wheat heads for” might tempt him if he wasn’t satisfied with what he already does.

“And I’m not going to South Dakota for pans again,” he added.

Meisinger added sunflowers to his no-till operation six or seven years at a time when they were priced better than any crops, and stayed with them even though the price comparisons fluctuate from year to year.

At the time he began with them, he said sunflowers went as high as $11.50 a hundredweight at a time when soybeans went as low as $4 a bushel and corn went to $1 a bushel.

The sunflowers seemed more stable in price although intervening years have seen them go down to $8.50.

Meisinger said he liked sunflowers “because they were good scavengers for any nitrogen left in the ground.”

He found them to be a good crop to follow wheat with in double cropping. He said sunflowers like adequate rainfall, just like any crop, but he found them able to tolerate drought at about the same level that milo can.

Meisinger found that the herbicide required for sunflowers compared to other crops can be reduced because the sunflowers take off more quickly in the warm conditions to overshadow any weeds that may come up, and squeeze them out.

The seed cost can be lower than cost for soybean seed, too, he said.

Meisinger said he found other expenses of herbicides or insecticides varied from year to year, according to conditions.

The first year, he had to spray insecticide three times with significant losses of the chemical due to high temperatures that caused evaporation and disintegration of the pesticide.

He found he could eliminate some spraying of a chief pest, the head moth, by planting the sunflowers later.

“Spraying can be pretty costly,” he said.

Meisinger was more fortunate in harvesting sunflowers with the equipment he had. He said row header “works good.” It had no problem with the height of the sunflowers.

He said some new uniform short hybrids may work better for combines with rigid heads.

Meisinger said his future production of sunflowers probably will vary with prices and costs compared to other crops. They have become part of his range of options when he plans for probable conditions from year to year.

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