Colorado’s status as a top-five sunflower producer in the United States has come to a halt, and experts wonder if the crop that once covered as many as 300,000 acres, primarily in the northeast part of the state, will ever make a full comeback.
Colorado’s total sunflower production was 55.2 million pounds in 2012 — down about 55 percent from the state’s production levels in 2011, at 124.2 million pounds, according to the 2013 Colorado Agriculture Statistics publication, which was posted online last week.
The 2012 drought took a toll on a number of crops’ production levels last year. Colorado’s wheat output fell 8.5 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to the report. Total hay production also dropped about 8.5 percent. Overall corn production was down 22.3 percent.
But no other crop saw a decrease like the state’s sunflowers — which are popular in Spain, of all places, where people eat their confection sunflower seeds one at a time, and rely on Colorado’s climate and farmers to produce the larger seeds they enjoy, according to Colorado State University Extension agronomist Ron Meyer, who also serves as the executive director of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee.
Last year’s decrease in production levels for Colorado sunflowers — also used to produce cooking oils and bird seed — dropped the state’s national sunflower rank from No. 4 in 2011 to No. 7 in 2012.
Meyer believes production levels will be as low, or maybe even lower, in 2013, after the crop is harvested this fall.
And he says those low production levels might be here to stay.
As Meyer and local farmers explained, the price of other commodities, like corn and wheat, led farmers to replace many of their sunflower acres with more profitable crops during the last couple years.
In northeast Colorado, demand and prices for corn and other livestock feed sources are particularly strong, due to the rapidly increasing demand here — and also due to widespread droughts in 2011 and 2012 that limited production across many states.
Some of the largest cattle and sheep feedlots in the nation operate in northeast Colorado to support the likes of JBS USA, headquartered in Greeley, Colo., and one of the four major meat processors in the country.
Additionally, the area’s rapid dairy growth — currently adding tens of thousands of cows in Weld and surrounding counties to meet the increasing demands of an expanding Leprino Foods cheese-processing plant — are adding to the livestock feed needs.
“When you have $7 corn and $8 wheat like we had recently, a lot of guys are going to gravitate that way,” Meyer said. “Those prices have come down since ... but the demand for corn and other sources of feed is still there.
“And that demand isn’t going away.”
Despite its farmers planting about 1.4 million acres of corn in 2012, Colorado still has a corn deficit, because its large livestock operations consume more of the crop than is being produced in the state, Meyer noted.
Most of the sunflowers produced in the state are grown in northeast Colorado.
But fewer and fewer acres in places like Kiowa County — the largest sunflower-producing county in the state — and other parts of Colorado are growing the crop now.
Meyer said there were about 300,000 acres of sunflowers planted in Colorado around the year 2000.
By 2005, that number had dropped to about 215,000 acres, according to numbers provided by the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Colorado office.
In 2012, there were about 86,000 acres planted, and Meyer estimated this year’s sunflower acreage to be a little closer to 80,000.
In contrast, corn acres from 2005 to 2012 increased from about 1.1 million acres to 1.4 million.
Vern Cooksey, who farms in the Roggen, Colo., area, said this year marked the first time in about 15 years that his family didn’t plant sunflowers.
Dave Rupple, who also farms in that area, said his family typically grows about 800 to 1,000 acres of sunflowers, but is only growing about 120 acres this year.
It’s not only crop prices and feed demand that’s led many Colorado farmers to make the switch from sunflowers to corn or other crops, Meyer and local farmers noted.
While a sunflower crop uses less water than corn (sunflowers need about 18 inches of water, compared to about 28 inches for corn, according to Meyer) sunflowers’ roots grow deep into the soil to get their moisture. That disruption of the soil makes it harder for farmers to plant another crop on those same acres the next year.
There are disease issues with sunflowers as well.
While the large shift in acres from sunflowers to corn has been done to serve a purpose — largely to help meet local livestock feed needs — it also serves as a reminder to local farmers that agriculture is ever-changing, they noted.
Like sunflowers, potatoes and other crops have seen their roles in northeast Colorado agriculture change significantly, as population growth, water demands, livestock needs and other factors have changed the economic landscape.
Weld County — the No. 8 ag-producing county in the nation — is still home to potato festivals and dotted with spud-growing artifacts, but the local potato industry is a shell of what it once was. Since 1987, Weld County has gone from growing 3,855 acres of potatoes on 66 farms to what’s expected to be about 550 acres this year grown by just two farmers, with many past potato farmers citing water issues as the reason for dropping the crop. ❖