- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - Brilliant yellows, browns and greens bring Rosalee Tibbits out to the family sunflower fields every summer to take pictures and admire the huge blooms.

“It’s something we don’t want to miss,” she said of the “eye-catching, spectacular” scenes that change throughout each day. Family albums contain kinfolk posing in the sea of color, the Salina Journal (https://bit.ly/1NlbcAq ) reported.

Beauty is one of the byproducts of raising the drought-friendly crop, said John Tibbits, Rosalee’s husband, who has been “seriously” raising sunflowers for 20 years.

But with the changing of seasons, the veteran farming couple can see the big blooms bowing, their luster waning as the gorgeous petals are shed.

In a matter of weeks, the field north of Minneapolis that has provided a wondrous backdrop will wither to be more suitable for a Hitchcock horror movie.

“It goes from real pretty to real ugly,” John Tibbits said.

In this case, “ugly” means the sunflowers are ready to yield some income, and lately, the potential is higher than wheat.

“This year, it compares pretty close,” said Karl Esping, a sunflower grower from the Lindsborg area. He’s first vice president of the National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, North Dakota, and in two years will become Kansas’ first national president. He also is chairman of the Kansas Sunflower Commission.

Sunflower acres are up 3 percent in Kansas, with 65,000 acres planted, and up 8 percent nationwide, with nearly 1.7 million acres, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

“This year, sunflowers are very profitable,” said John Sandbakken, executive director of the sunflower association.

Boosting demand is the Food and Drug Administration banning the use of trans fat oil. Sunflower oil doesn’t have it, he said, which raises the appetite domestically and for export markets, primarily in Canada and Europe.

“Sunflower oil is very important and popular in the potato chip market, with most all of the leading brands,” Esping said.

In these parts, sunflowers don’t come close in popularity to the big four staple crops - wheat corn, milo and soybeans.

Quick math shows $285 in gross income per wheat acre this year - based on a 60-bushel yield and a price of $4.75 a bushel. Compare that to $500 an acre for sunflowers yielding 2,000 pounds an acre. A premium for oil content above 40 percent is factored in, Esping said.

Tibbets figures 1,500 pounds an acre is a good sunflower yield, which would produce $375 in gross income, which still is more than wheat.

The cost of production is about equal to milo, but the profit potential is often lower for sunflowers than milo and other common crops.

“As demand increases, profit potential will rise,” Esping said.

In Kansas, ranked fourth in U.S. sunflower production, the destinations for sales of either oil or confectionary sunflowers are Goodland, Colby, with other sites in Lamar, Colo., or Lubbock, Texas, said Tina Middlesteadt, the sunflower association’s business manager.

The distance sunflowers have to be hauled to market is “somewhat of a factor” in how profitable they are, Sandbakken said.

The sunflower hub is in the Dakotas, where the majority of acres are planted, either for oil for confectionary - i.e., sunflower seeds to eat, or for bird food.

Some local grain companies will store sunflowers.

The crop also requires more management, Esping said, to watch for the dreaded head moth.

“They fly over when the flowers are blooming and lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will eat the seeds,” Esping said. “They can destroy a crop in a week or two.”

Insecticides are available that kill the moth and its larvae, he said, and it doesn’t harm the bees that are necessary for pollination.

Birds are a factor where there are wetlands, Sandbakken said, but not so much in Kansas. Blackbirds can do a number on sunflowers in north-central Kansas, Tibbits said.

“Birds love them. That’s something we deal with in the Midwest,” Middlesteadt said.

When birds are a problem, sunflower growers will use the noise from small cannons to scare away the feathered pests.

Sunflowers also benefit the soil, Tibbits said, by doubling as a cover crop.

“That sunflower will have a tap root as deep as it is tall,” he said. “You read about cover crops that cost 20 to 50 dollars an acre for seed. This is a cover crop with a potential return.”

The tap roots break up the soil and allow moisture and nutrients to reach where they’re needed.

“We’ll get three years of benefits from looser ground,” Tibbits said. “It’s good for crop rotation.”

After the sunflowers are harvested, he will plant wheat on the land. Much of the sunflowers in north-central Kansas are planted as a double crop on wheat ground after the wheat is harvested in the summer.

“The problem with sunflowers is weed control. They’re very susceptible to (the herbicide) 2,4-D,” Tibbits said. “We’ve lost a lot of acres because we don’t have proper weed control.”

Harvesting sunflowers is easy with a row-crop header on a combine, he said. As a rule, they need to be harvested with 10 percent moisture content or less.

Tibbits will harvest at 13 percent moisture, store them on the farm in a bin and lower the content with forced-air fans.

“It works quite well,” he said.

Alternative crops such as sunflowers are a good option to wheat, milo and more traditional grains, Tibbits said.

“Kansas is an area where our acres have rebounded,” Sandbakken said. “As farmers diversify into different crops, (sunflowers) is a crop they should take a look at if they’re not growing it already.”

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Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, https://www.salina.com

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