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Price strength may boost sunflower acres

FARGO – Farmers at planting time are like quarterbacks eyeing the line of scrimmage.

They face a challenge with a plan in mind, but a last-second reading of the situation may force them to improvise.

As spring planting nears, some farmers and a few agricultural experts shared their thoughts on the subject.

Most agreed major factors in deciding what to plant include:

  •  The price of corn and soybeans, which have flown high in recent years but now are seeing weakness that may lead to fewer acres planted.
  •  Depressed sugar prices, which have reduced profits for Red River Valley sugar beet growers and raised worries about the future of the beet industry.
  •  The attractiveness of sunflowers as a cash crop. A relatively strong price picture may lead to more acres planted.

While acreage numbers won’t become clearer until the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues its first report in March, John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, said he believes sunflower acres in North Dakota will take a jump this year.

Sandbakken bases that view on what sunflower processors are sharing with him regarding what farmers are saying.

“There are people that haven’t grown sunflowers in quite a few years who are interested in getting back in the business,” he said.

Salad days

Sunflower acres in North Dakota dropped sharply between 2012, when about 840,000 acres were planted, and 2013, when less than 490,000 acres were planted, USDA statistics show.

Both numbers are a far cry from what they were in the late 1970s, the heyday for sunflowers in the state.

In 1979, more than 3 million acres were devoted to sunflowers in North Dakota and the crop’s popularity was one reason North Dakota was made the home of the National Sunflower Association when the organization formed in 1981.

Today, the Dakotas and Minnesota remain the top sunflower states in the nation, according to Sandbakken, who said adaptability is among the crop’s strengths.

“That’s one of the reasons a lot of people are looking at it,” he said. “It’s the price, but it’s also a crop you could plant a little bit later in the year and still have a very good yield.”

Bill Hejl, who farms near Amenia, N.D., with his son, brother and several partners, believes many growers will give sunflowers a look this year.

“That’s most definitely an option that I’m sure a lot of people will take,” said Hejl, though he added he himself will not be planting sunflowers.

The reason goes back many years, Hejl said. His family grew sunflowers in the past but swore off the crop after root rot showed up in their fields decades ago.

When strong prices in the early 2000s tempted some farmers in his area to try sunflowers again, the problem was still there, apparently lurking in the soil, Hejl said.

Today, the Hejl farm focuses on sugar beets, corn, soybeans and wheat, though with corn prices being what they are Hejl said they will likely cut back on that commodity and go heavier with soybeans this year.

Sticking with sugar

Hejl, a member of the board of directors of American Crystal Sugar Co., said his farm may plant additional sugar beet acres this year, despite low prices that are causing some to worry about the future of the industry.

Hejl acknowledged the current situation isn’t encouraging to anyone contemplating a sugar crop, but he said news reports about production in places like Brazil and Thailand raise hope that U.S. sugar prices will turn around.

“Time will tell,” he said.

When it comes to sunflowers, Frayne Olson is among those who anticipate a boost in acreage this year.

“If you look historically to where we were last year, I do expect to see a rebound,” said Olson, a crop economist and marketing specialist in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University.

Olson doesn’t think the number of acres devoted to sugar beets will change drastically.

That’s because shareholders in beet cooperatives such as American Crystal are obliged to devote a certain number of acres to the crop and as long as they own shares that responsibility is there, Olson said.

However, he added, co-op members can and do enter into agreements with other growers that allow required beet acreage to be planted elsewhere, freeing members to plant crops such as corn and soybeans.

“What we’ve seen is a slow shift over the last several years to more of the (sugar beet) production coming from the northern part of the valley and some of that has been the profitability of growing corn and soybeans,” Olson said, adding that the latter do very well in the southern Red River Valley.

The northern valley can also produce corn and soybeans, but the risk is higher due to the shorter growing season, Olson said.

“It will be interesting to watch those dynamics and see if it (the shift) continues,” Olson said.

Hejl, for one, doesn’t think so.

“I’ve actually seen some of that (sugar beet acreage) come back south again,” he said.

Shucking corn?

Alan Juliuson, who farms with his sons near Hope, N.D., doesn’t grow sugar beets.

While he said sunflowers would do well on their farm, they haven’t planted that crop since the 1990s.

“Traditionally, we’ve been corn, soybeans, wheat and we do a lot of edible beans,” Juliuson said.

They’re going to change things up a bit this year, he said.

“We’re cutting our acreage on corn. We’re just thinking the price is not going to be very good this year, so we want to limit our losses,” Juliuson said.

And while he doesn’t grow sunflowers, Juliuson expects sunflower acreage in the state to increase.

“It’s a good crop,” he said.

Brad Koetz, manager of the Emden (N.D.) Grain Co., said many growers in his area are undecided about what to plant and are watching commodity prices closely before making any moves.

“The corn market between now and planting will be a big deciding factor,” Koetz said.

“If we could rally corn 50 to 75 cents between now and planting time, I think the corn acres will get planted.

“We’re a long ways from planting season and farmers can change their minds in a hurry,” he added.