Seed crop to expand?

Posted 2/16/10

Lyle Evelo, a Heart Mountain farmer who started growing sunflowers in 2004, said he was pleased with the turnout.

“The more that they can know about the crop, the better,” Evelo said.

Evelo attributes the level of local interest in …

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Seed crop to expand?


{gallery}02_11_10/sunflowers{/gallery}Sunflowers blooming in area fields may become a more common sight. Last year, two farmers in the Powell Valley planted sunflower seeds, but more local growers are considering the alternative crop. Grower Lyle Evelo, who harvested the sunflowers pictured here near Ralston last fall, recently spoke to about 25 area farmers about raising confection sunflower seeds. Tribune file photo by Toby Bonner Around 25 area farmers consider growing sunflowersIn summers to come, the Big Horn Basin may be dotted with dozens of bright yellow sunflower fields.A Minnesota-based confection sunflower company, Dahlgren Inc., is looking to contract with growers for up to 2,000 acres of confection sunflowers in the area. In 2009, only two local growers contracted with Dahlgren for about 300 acres of sunflowers. On Tuesday, around 25 farmers turned out for a meeting that outlined specifics about growing sunflowers in the Big Horn Basin. The alternative crop may soon be added to their rotation.

Lyle Evelo, a Heart Mountain farmer who started growing sunflowers in 2004, said he was pleased with the turnout.

“The more that they can know about the crop, the better,” Evelo said.

Evelo attributes the level of local interest in sunflowers partly to a drop in commodity prices for barley and wheat.

Sunflowers “still have a margin of profit, providing you have a good crop, of course,” Evelo said.

Seeds are contracted by size. Large sunflower seeds draw $25 to $30 per hundredweight. A conservative estimate for the average yield in the Powell area is about 2,600 pounds per acre, said Randy Violett, research associate at the University of Wyoming Research Extension Center in Powell.

A lawsuit threatening the future of Roundup Ready beets is another reason some farmers may choose to add sunflowers to their crop rotation.

“If the Roundup Ready injunction holds, I don't foresee anyone here growing beets,” said Violett.

Beet growers also may be interested in producing sunflowers because they would follow frozen beets well, Violett said.

Following a devastating freeze last fall, farmers still have acres of frozen beets in the ground. Sunflowers would be able to absorb the extra protein remaining in the soil without adverse effects — unlike barley or another crop, Violett said.

“Sunflowers could work really well for guys in that situation,” Violett said.

Sunflowers are known as a hearty crop, and they have flourished in the Basin's growing conditions.

“It's a viable crop for us,” Violett said.

Fred Hopkin, who farms at Penrose, has grown sunflowers in the past two years. Evelo plans to grow about 160 acres this year.

“We've delivered a high quality of sunflower seeds,” Evelo said. “The Big Horn Basin is very conducive to producing quality seed.”

Since he started planting sunflowers in 2004, every year has proven successful for Evelo — except '09. A hard freeze last October devastated area crops, including Evelo's sunflowers. Though sunflowers are a hardy crop, a freeze that cold and that early damaged the sunflower kernels within the shells, turning them a dark brown. Evelo sent samples to several labs, including Dahlgren, and they determined that the freeze had ruined the cell structure of the kernel.

“They had never seen this before, not to this extent,” Evelo said.

Evelo said typically, sunflowers survive harsh weather, such as high winds or heavy snow, but the October '09 freeze was too cold, too early.

Evelo lost about 60 percent of his 230 acres to the freeze, but that hasn't deterred him from growing sunflowers again.

“They've never failed me like that before, so I'm not going to jump ship because of one freak incident,” Evelo said.

Violett has grown a variety of sunflowers at the University of Wyoming Research Extension Center in Powell, and he also has had good luck with the crop since he started growing sunflowers three years ago.

Violett shared his research findings with farmers gathered at Tuesday's meeting, such as what works best for planting, irrigation, herbicide and crop rotation.

He told growers they would have to consider what they grew last year and their plans for next year before planting sunflowers.

“Placing these sunflowers into your rotation is going to take some thought,” he said.

In his rotation, Violett planted sunflowers after cereal grains. He said sunflowers tend to be quite aggressive in finding nutrients in the soil.

“They're very rigorous soil miners,” he said. “They've got a very extensive, deep root system ... they'll mine your nutrients.”

Unlike beans or beets, sunflowers typically don't require a lot of water, Violett added.

“They're pretty tough,” Violett said.

Sunflowers grown for confection seeds

Sunflowers in the Big Horn Basin are grown for their edible seeds, rather than sunflower oil. The large confectionary seeds grown in Wyoming likely will be exported to Europe.

Europeans prefer to eat large seeds, not the small ones Americans consume. Europeans eat them one at a time — not a handful at a time like Americans.

“According to the sunflower world, we're rednecks when we eat sunflowers,” joked Randy Violett, research associate University of Wyoming Research Extension Center.

When local grower Lyle Evelo set out to grow sunflowers in 2004, no one had produced the crop in the Powell Valley since a brief period in the 1980s, so there was little history about the crop's success.

Evelo hopes farmers who set out to grow sunflowers have an easier time with the learning curve.

Based on attendance at Tuesday's sunflower meeting, farmers are interested in growing the crop. Whether they add it to their rotation this planting season remains to be seen.

“I have no idea how many local growers will plant sunflowers,” Violett said. “We just wanted to present it, and they could go home and stew over it.”

A representative from Dahlgren, Inc., a company that contracts with local sunflower growers, could not attend the meeting because he was caught in a snowstorm in the Midwest.

“He was bummed that he couldn't be there, but he was excited that there were that many growers who attended,” Evelo said.

Farmers attended from Powell, Lovell and Burlington.

Given the local interest, it will be interesting to see how many growers decide to plant sunflowers this season, Evelo said.