A recent move by the FDA to designate high oleic sunflower oil as a cholesterol-reducing product could fuel further growth in demand, according to industry leaders who attended a production meeting early this week in Lamar, Colorado.
Sunflowers require more management and leave behind less residue than some other crops, but they have unique advantages too, including strong domestic demand, growers were told at the first of several informational meetings to be held this winter across the High Plains.
"We'd like to get back to around 2 million acres of sunflowers annually, that's what wed like to see," said Karl Esping, the president of the National Sunflower Association whose term ends this weekend at the group's annual meeting in North Dakota.
Esping farms a four-way rotation that includes corn, soybeans and winter wheat as well as sunflowers in central Kansas near the town of Lindsborg. He is the group's first national president from the Sunflower State.
Kansas and Colorado both grow around 70,000 acres annually, a figure dwarfed by the production in the northern Great Plains, he said.
"It's not unusual for farmers up there to plant 6,000 or 8,000 or even 10,000 acres of sunflowers at a time," he said.
Esping believes the High Plains has room to expand production. At one time, Kansas was growing more sunflowers.
"Then soybeans started coming in, and everyone said how much easier they are to grow," he noted. "Roundup made poor soybean growers good. But weve abused Roundup and now we are paying for it (with herbicide resistant weeds)."
He expects things to shift back the other way.
"There's no question we could double production easily on the High Plains," he said. "Right now the soybean thing is difficult, with seven-and-a-half dollar beans. At 18 cents a pound for sunflowers, that's a pretty good price. If you're growing 2,500-pound sunflowers, it's a profitable deal."
Kevin Swanson, marketing manager with Colorado Mills in Lamar, admitted there's a perception among farmers that sunflowers are hard on the soil. To produce the rich, oil-laden seeds, the plants draw on a long taproot that pulls nutrients from deep in the ground, and those nutrients have to be replaced.
But Swanson contends area farmers often get higher yields from other crops following sunflowers because they loosen up the soil.
In central Kansas, where annual rainfall is around 25 inches, Esping plants his sunflowers as a double-crop after wheat.
"It works really well. The sunflowers can find nutrients that would otherwise be lost," he said.
Swanson acknowledged that management has become an issue, too, as farms get bigger.
"Sunflowers take a little more management, but growers repeatedly tell us it's their most profitable crop year after year," he said.
Growers do need to scout and carefully manage several pests, including worms, weevils and moths, according to Ron Meyer, executive director of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee and an area agronomist for Colorado State University.
But sunflowers have unique advantages, he pointed out.
Because they require less water, especially late in the season, some farmers with declining irrigation wells are planting half of their circles to corn and the other half to sunflowers. The sunflowers get full irrigation early in the season, during stand establishment, and the corn gets the water late in the season, when its needed for ear fill.
"We grow a lot of grassy crops, like corn, wheat and millet, so it's good to rotate away from that to help control weeds," Meyer added while speaking in Lamar. "Any grass is easy to take out of sunflowers."
John Spring, an area weed specialist with Colorado State University, went through a list of 18 herbicides labeled for use in sunflowers. He said it's important to start with a clean field, since sunflowers aren't very competitive when they first emerge.
For optimal weed management, farmers should plan on three or four herbicide passes in a season, he added.
Meyer doesnt recommend attempting to double-crop sunflowers in eastern Colorado, due to soil moisture constraints, but noted equipment is available that allows farmers to plant right into standing wheat stubble, which helps alleviate crop residue concerns.
In a well-managed irrigated trial in the Prospect Valley area, Meyer came close to cracking 5,000 pounds per acre yield in 2015. Although successive crops have fallen short of that goal, he thinks it's still possible to hit that mark in the future.
Growers in southeast Colorado have a great marketing outlet right at their doorstep. Esping credited Colorado Mills with being a national leader in marketing sunflower-derived products, partnering with the national association on several promotional campaigns and undertaking consumer outreach efforts of its own.
Since branching out from specialty feed manufacturing into oil refining back in 2010, Colorado Mills has taken a unique approach.
"We do not solvent extract," said Rick Robbins, Colorado Mills' general manager. "That makes for a very high quality feed. Our goat feed is now nationally known. We make over 4,000 ton a year, and it's just an amazing product."
The processing method sets the mill apart from ADM, Bunge and other large oilseed crushers that use chemical extraction.
"We are continually value adding to the end consumer, and we haven't come to the end of what's possible on that road yet," Robbins said.
Chefs and restaurateurs like high oleic sunflower oil because it checks all of the trendy boxes: it's nonGMO, zero trans-fats and heart healthy. It's also a long-lived frying oil.
FDA's recent announcement that edible oils with at least 70 percent oleic acid likely reduce the risk of coronary heart disease was also a boon for the industry.
"Sunflower and soybean oil used to be considered equivalent products, but now sunflower oil has separated itself out, and soybean oil is exiting the food industry," Robbins said.
"What's neat is that the high oleic oil makes a crispier chip, but when you put it on the skin it absorbs readily too," he added. After supplying a cosmetics company for several years, Colorado Mills decided to enter that market by creating its own line of skin care products.
Sunflower oil is also being used as a natural fly and mite repellant and as an adjuvant for crop inputs.
"Crop oils are actually more expensive than cooking oils are," Robbins said.
Colorado Mills is passing back the added value to producers through a loyalty program that can add up to an extra dollar per hundredweight premium to a grower's contracted price. The contracts also contain an "act of God" clause that helps limit production risk.
Colorado Mills sources most of what it needs within 175 miles of Lamar, according to Swanson, but its reach extends beyond that. Esping, for example, often delivers his crop to Lamar on trucks that need a backhaul after delivering white wheat from Colorado to mills and food manufacturers in central Kansas.
Colorado Mills is ready to take more seed from more suppliers, Robbins said.
"We can crush up to 60 million pounds a year, and we can market every bit of that oil," he said.