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Sunflowers are an alternative in crop rotation

Staff writer

Upon seeing a field the color of sunshine, a family stops along a rural Marion County road to admire and photograph the scene.

The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, and it is the namesake of a Marion County blacktop road, but it is more than that. The sunflower is a plant with several uses.

Duane Kirkpatrick, who lives on Sunflower Road near Marion, has grown sunflowers since about 1976. He uses the flowers in a crop rotation, preceding wheat. A sunflower crop improves the yield of the subsequent wheat planting, and the flowers’ deep roots loosen the ground, he said.

Sunflower seeds are put to three main uses: for oil, snacks, and birdseed. The solids remaining after pressing seeds for oil are also used for livestock feed.

The sunflowers Kirkpatrick grows are exclusively of the variety used to produce sunflower oil. The confectionery varieties used for snacks require too much effort to protect from insects, he said. Snack company Frito-Lay uses a lot of sunflower oil for cooking chips, Kirkpatrick said.

Specialized harvest headers are available for sunflowers, but they are unnecessary unless a farmer grows massive quantities, he said. Such equipment is common in the Dakotas, where sunflowers are a more important crop, Kirkpatrick said.

Sunflowers are a summer crop. Kirkpatrick usually tries to plant during May, but he was delayed until June this year, partly due to weather.

“Dry weather, that’s what they like the best,” Kirkpatrick said.

Farmers have to pay close attention when sunflowers begin blooming to spray for head moth, a sunflower-specific pest. Until the recent development of short sunflower varieties, spraying was done from airplanes.

Sunflowers are harvested in September, and yields of 1,500 pounds per acre are easily obtainable, Kirkpatrick said. He has had yields reach as high as 1,900 to 2,000 pounds per acre.

Sunflower seeds are not a particularly pricy commodity. Current prices are in the 14- to 15-cent range per pound. Prices for sunflower seeds traditionally follow the soybean market, but the ratio has fallen during the past 18 months, he said.

Because of the low price, Kirpatrick is only growing about 75 acres of sunflowers, which is fewer than usual.

And while it can’t be quantified in dollars and cents, the sunflower is a visually appealing crop — at least until the flower flops over from the weight of the seeds. Kirkpatrick said he has seen several families stop alongside the road to take pictures of sunflower fields.

Last modified June 10, 2010

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