Things weren't so merry and bright for the sunflower industry on the High Plains in 2013. Acreage in Colorado alone plummeted by more than half from the days of peak production to well below 100,000 acres last year and an effort to increase the state's check-off assessment fell short of passage.

Things weren't so merry and bright for the sunflower industry on the High Plains in 2013. Acreage in Colorado alone plummeted by more than half from the days of peak production to well below 100,000 acres last year and an effort to increase the state's check-off assessment fell short of passage. “It failed by 11 votes,” said Ron Meyer, Burlington-based extension agronomist and executive director of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee. The proposed change would have raised the current assessment of 3 cents per hundredweight to 6 cents per hundredweight. Meyer expects grower leaders to make a second attempt at gaining approval for a similar increase in 2014. Colorado is among five states that collect check-off money for research and market promotion, according to John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association based in chilly Mandan, N.D. “It's a way for producers to influence research being done to improve hybrids and to invest in developing new products,” he said from his office. In fact, Sandbakken and others see plenty of bright opportunities ahead for the industry and expect sunflower acreage to rebound in 2014. “There's a lot of opportunity to increase sunflower production in the U.S.,” he said. It's not unusual for sunflower plantings to vary dramatically from year to year based on a number of factors. “The acres will swing back and forth, depending on the weather and on market conditions,” Sandbakken said. “Of course up until now we've had corn prices at very high levels. I think in 2014 you'll see a swing from corn to other crops, as we start capping the amount of corn going into fuel.” While sunflower production on the High Plains has drooped in recent years, 2013 concluded with some promising food marketing developments to brighten the outlook. Sunflower seeds, kernels and oil continue to enjoy a “healthy halo” effect among increasingly health conscious consumers, Sandbakken said. Sales of bottled Ukrainian sunflower oil at Walmart Supercenters have been so strong that the mega-retail giant is now introducing an American version under its Great Value label. “It's part of a very positive trend, and we think other retail markets will follow,” Sandbakken said. In addition, news that FDA is considering banning trans-fats is another big positive, since such a move could increase demand exponentially, he added. Sunflowers are naturally trans-fat free with no need to use hydrogenation to make the oil shelf-stable, according to Sandbakken. One more aspect that might be in sunflowers' favor long term is its status as a non-genetically modified crop, which sets it apart from other oilseeds like soybeans and canola. With GMO labeling initiatives under way in multiple states, it could become a bigger selling point in the future. “It's a hot button issue,” Sandbakken acknowledged. Rick Robbins, the general manager of locally-owned crusher and refiner Colorado Mills LLC in Lamar, said while “the jury's still out” on the long-term health and market impacts of GMOs, cultivated sunflowers are too close a cousin to wild sunflowers — a prevalent weed — to allow for safe genetic modification of herbicide resistant hybrids. Drought pulls harvest down Colorado Mills operates year round and contracts around 20,000 acres of production, or 40 million pounds of seed, for producing more than 6,000 gallons of oil daily. As a zero-waste facility, the mill turns the by-product, a high-oil meal, into popular livestock feed sold through a network of dealers. In recent years, the drought has hit the area hard and pushed the plant's freight costs higher. “We get around 70 percent of what we need in a normal year from within 150 miles of Lamar,” Robbins said. “The last couple of years, not being normal years, we've brought some of it up from the Texas panhandle and railed some of it all the way from South and North Dakota. The dryland acres have pretty much gone away until we start getting rain again.” But he, too, sees sunflower acreage poised to rebound, especially in irrigated situations where water has become more limited than in the past. Sunflowers use roughly half the water of corn. Robbins is also working to grab expanding market opportunities created by high oleic oilseed. The company just recently entered the restaurant and grocery market for the first time, after traditionally selling in bulk directly to food manufacturers like Frito-Lay. Some of the plant's first individually packaged products are now being sold under the CM sunflower oil label in the Fort Collins area, he said. One drawback to growing sunflowers, especially in these dry times, is that they don't provide much ground cover for fragile soils vulnerable to wind erosion, Robbins conceded. Dust storms continue to plague eastern Colorado due to historic drought. But Sandbakken points to another attribute of sunflower production that could appeal to farmers dealing with extreme weather uncertainty. Somewhat unique among the predominant crops, sunflowers are typically marketed through production contracts that contain what are called “act of god” clauses, releasing producers from their delivery obligations in the event of a weather catastrophe. “With a lot of other commodities, you'd have to go out and buy the commodity to replace it,” Sandbakken pointed out. So having a percentage of the farm planted to sunflowers is a way to hedge your bets. “For a lot of farmers, with the huge investment they are putting in with every crop, they can sleep better at night knowing that at least they've diversified their acres and spread out their production risk,” Sandbakken said.