Outlook looks sunny for sunflower farmers | TheFencePost.com

Outlook looks sunny for sunflower farmers

Bill Jackson
Greeley, Colo.
- BILL JACKSON/bjackson@greeleytribune.com

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PROSPECT – They’re grown in southeast Weld County but end up in Spain.

And for that reason, the sunflowers produced in southeast Weld fields produce considerably larger seeds, or kernels, than those found in the snack aisles of American grocery stores.

“We like to eat them in handfuls,” Leon Zimbelman said. “In Spain, they prefer to eat them one at a time, so that’s why these are so much larger.”

Zimbelman operates a receiving station for Red River Commodities south of Prospect, where farmers, like Dave Rupple and Rich Huwa, take their harvested crop. From there, they are trucked to a processing plant in Colby, Kan., where they begin their trip to Spain. Zimbelman said 90 percent of the sunflowers grown in southeast Weld will eventually end up in Spain as a snack food.

Rupple said he planted 900 acres of the crop this year but lost 200 acres to devastating hail storms that pounded that area of Weld in May and June.

“The flowers were up about 6 inches and really took a pounding,” Rupple said. He said the storms were stranger than most hail storms he’s seen move through the area over the years.

“Usually they beat up crops, or buildings. These beat up crops and buildings,” he said.

Huwa agreed.

“This was the first year where we had broken windows at the house,” Huwa said.

Despite that, the surviving sunflower crop has been good, with yields averaging 2,300-3,200 pounds to the acre, the farmers said.

Sunflowers have gained a foothold in the southern and northern areas of Weld. Farmers started growing them in the early 1990s and this year the state has seen a jump in acreage from 87,000 in 2009 to 120,000 acres. They are grown as a confection crop – consumed by humans as a snack and for bird seed – and for their oil, which is popular in cooking.

Weld has been ranked in the top three counties in the state in acreage of sunflowers, according to the Colorado office of USDA Agricultural Statistics Service.

“I call it a mining crop,” Zimbelman said, explaining the deep root system of sunflowers reaches water and fertilizer not obtainable by other crops, making it a good rotational crop for farmers on irrigated and dryland cropland. They are planted as early as May 10 or as late as early June, then are harvested once the plants die and the heads dry.

Zimbelman, who serves as president of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee and sits on the board of the National Sunflower Association, said sunflowers grown in southeast Weld use about one-third the water required by corn, as well as one-third the inputs with a net return to farmers comparable to corn.

All the southeast Weld crop is confection, Zimbelman said, adding the smaller kernel crop is marketed as bird seed. Much of the northern Weld crop are oil varieties.

Huwa said he grew 300 acres of sunflowers this year and harvested another 800 acres for farmers in the area, using a standard combine with a special 30-foot head designed to chop the plant just below the heads, then shake the kernels from the heads.

“It does 12 rows at a time and I can do about 12 acres an hour,” Huwa said.

He said he was enjoying harvest weather this year, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, a complete turnaround from last year when early snow and cold delayed the harvest of sunflowers and corn well into the winter months.

“Last year we mudded everything out. It was just a pain,” he recalled.

Copyright 2010 The Greeley Publishing Co.. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Greeley Publishing Co. November, 9 2010 1:05 am

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