Farm Horizons, February 2004

Sunflowers: Some local farmers turning to new crop

By Troy Feltmann

Not a drop of rain fell after July 10 last year on their fields, but Larry and Nathan Ide of Lester Prairie didn't mind a bit.

Their sunflower crop turned out a healthy 1,500 pounds per acre, which is what they were hoping for.

"We broke even. If we would have gotten any rain, we would have made money," Nathan Ide said.

The Ides tried sunflowers for the first time last summer, planting 20 acres of sunflowers south of Lester Prairie.

The last time sunflowers were planted in the area was more than 20 years ago.

"We were looking for a fourth crop alternative, something that can withstand the sandy farmlands around the Lester Prairie and New Germany area. Sunflowers can withstand a drought condition without having a large input cost," Nathan Ide said.

"I found there are going to be more sunflowers planted in McLeod County this spring. Farmers are looking for a third crop. The aphids ate up our soybean crop. Farmers are looking for an alternative," Larry Ide said.

"On similar ground, right next to the sunflower field, we planted 44 acres of soybeans. We yielded 13 bushels of soybeans per acre. We lost $150 per acre, if you throw out the insurance money," Nathan Ide said.

The input costs of sunflowers were minimal. The Ides said most planters will plant the sunflowers, but farmers need to buy special plates for the planter.

For harvest, a special head for the combine is also needed.

"There wasn't a big demand for sunflower heads so we picked one up pretty reasonable," Nathan Ide said.

In the spring, the sunflowers should be worked up like any other crop.

"You don't plant sunflowers until after the corn. We planted them around the middle of May. Some say you shouldn't plant sunflowers until the end of May," Nathan Ide said.

About 18,000 to 20,000 sunflowers get planted per acre.

After the sunflowers start growing, they take care of themselves, he said.

The Ides didn't worry about the sunflowers when the dry spell started last summer.

We wished we would have planted all sunflowers," Ide laughed.

Sunflowers can be raised on 10 inches of rain and be profitable.

The roots go down, on average, 20 to 24 inches deeper than other crops.

"The roots will go down nine to 11 feet to get water," Nathan Ide said.

"The rain is most important to get the crop started. After that, rain need is minimal," Larry Ide said.

"Our sunflowers never showed drought stress," Nathan Ide said.

This year, the Ides are going to experiment with planting sunflowers on black dirt.

The main problem with sunflowers in the past was there was nothing to spray for weeds. There is a new variety of clear field sunflower seeds that you can spray for weeds.

Another problem is blackbirds.

Larry Ide thinks there maybe a problem with bugs and disease for sunflowers if enough get planted in the area.

The Ides said there was a little adjustment to get the combine working right.

In the fall, the ground should be worked up at least 10 to 14 days after combining or farmers may get flat tires when plowing, he said.

"We didn't work the ground up because the stalks act as a natural snow fence to catch snow, Nathan Ide said.

"Sunflowers take a lot of moisture out of the ground. Any extra helps," Ide said.

The Ides figure that this spring they will have to apply extra nitrogen, but they are researching how much they need.

"Sunflowers take out a lot of the deep nitrogen that other plants don't," Nathan Ide said.

According to www.sunflowernsa.com, North Dakota is the leading producer of sunflowers with 1,205,000 acres, producing 1,200 pounds per acre for 2003.

Minnesota planted 85,000 acres, producing 1,405 pounds per acre.

The United States planted 2,274,000 acres overall yielding 1,152 pounds per acre.

The main uses for sunflower seeds are oil, bird seed and human consumption.

The Ides trucked their sunflowers to St. Paul for bird seed. They can also be shipped to Red Wing for making oil.

"People are looking for different types of oil," Larry Ide said.

Sunflowers might replace the peanut in the food system. "With all the allergic reactions to peanuts, people aren't allergic to sunflower," Nathan Ide said.

Most of Minnesota's sunflowers are grown out west and up north.

"A lot of farmers are growing sunflowers by Gaylord. They are not even bothering with soybeans," Nathan Ide said.

Instead of 20 acres, the Ides are going to try about 60 acres this spring.

"We are going to keep increasing our sunflower numbers because of profitability and the disease problems of the soybean," Nathan Ide said.

From Gaylord to New Germany, there could be a lot of sunflower fields popping up in the near future.

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