Sunflowers bring better prices for Colorado farmers in times of commodity lows | TheFencePost.com

Sunflowers bring better prices for Colorado farmers in times of commodity lows

For third-generation farmer Leon Zimbelman, confection sunflowers, or flowers grown for seeds not oil, were the answer to low commodity prices in the '80s.

They may be the answer for struggling farmers again.

Zimbelman grew corn, sugar beets, barley and a couple other crops, but adding sunflowers helped him diversify his farm and add revenue.

After a few years growing the flowers, he started to work with Red River Commodities, the second-largest sunflower processing company in the country. Now he helps provide resources to other farmers and a drop-off point for their harvests.

Zimbelman, who works and farms in Prospect Valley, Colo., said he started to receive truckloads of seeds from the sunflower harvest around Weld County this week.

Ron Meyer, agronomist at Colorado State University, said the sunflower harvest across Colorado looks like it will be a good one this year, as early spring rain and a dry summer helped the crop develop.

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Since sunflowers are a specialty crop, they also bring in a higher return than other field crops, said Keenesburg, Colo. farmer Dave Rupple. Though the market for sunflowers often follows other crops, and prices are down in all commodities right now, he said having a higher-priced crop around the farm has been helpful.

Though Rupple said he's kept a mostly consistent acreage on the farm — 250 or more acres — that hasn't been the case across the state. When corn prices skyrocketed to upwards of $7 per bushel in 2012, many farmers rotated plots out of sunflowers and into corn. When that happened, Colorado had 50,000 acres of sunflowers planted, Meyer said.

Now that corn has dropped to $3 per bushel and lower, farmers are switching back to sunflowers. In the past several years, sunflower acreage has doubled, Meyer said. Currently, sunflowers are bringing in about $16-$17 per hundredweight at elevators, but most confections sunflowers are sold on contract prices with companies such as Red River.

"The price is very attractive," Rupple said. "They're a pretty good cash crop if you can get the yields."

And this year, he thinks he can. Usually, in the Keenesburg area, where most of Weld's sunflowers are grown, yields and quality are OK if the weather is OK. The deep-rooted plant doesn't need much rain, as it can tap into soil moisture other crops can't. Most years, hail is the biggest threat.

Forty acres of Rupple's sunflowers were hit by hail this summer, which for sunflowers usually means a total loss.

"If the timing is wrong with a hailstorm … there's nothing there to harvest. The seeds are all blank, there's no meat on the inside," Rupple said.

Zimbelman said he's still waiting to see how widespread the hail damage across the Prospect Valley area will be. He knows for some farmers, it cut corn yields in half, but he's hoping the sunflowers won't take that kind of hit.

When they make it through the season, the sunflowers grown on the Front Range are some of the best in the country, Zimbelman said. It's the altitude and cool nights that make the crops grow better in Prospect Valley than some other parts of Colorado. The heads — the middle of the flower, which holds the seeds — often grow to be larger than dinner plates.

Though he's scaled back on his farming now, mostly focusing on the business side of sunflowers, it's a crop he still loves. He grows about 80 acres of sunflowers around his office in Keenesburg, and when he looks out the window at them now, he laughs. This time of year, dried and drooping, they don't look so pretty, he said, but he thinks most of the time, they're the most beautiful things you can grow. ❖

Colorado sunflower acres planted

Year / oil types / non-oil types / all types

2015 / 60,000 / 13,000 / 73,000

2016 / 70,000 / 9,000 / 79,000

Source: National Sunflower Association