MEDORA, N.D. – When the yellow heads turn upward toward the sun in summer, sunflower producers are already planning ahead for harvest, and when they make it to the combine, they are thinking ahead to next year’s crop.
Four young sunflower producers sat down with a roomful of interested farmers and others at the 2019 National Sunflower Association Summer Seminar in Medora to explain that and more.
The sunflower producers included: Josh Greff, who farms in the Regent area; Jeff Oberholtzer, who farms in the Mohall area; Adam Bettenhausen, who farms in the Wishek area; and Lance Hourigan, who farms in the Lemmon, S.D., area.
“The future of sunflowers is in the hands of these young growers who are up for the challenge of growing sunflowers and keeping up with the ever-changing technology,” said Kevin Capistran, NSA board member and moderator. “As an industry, we’re always trying to get into the mind of the grower. What is he thinking and how does he make his decisions? This group is here to offer some insights into these queries.”
Josh Greff farms with his brother-in law and his father in law, growing half wheat on their acreage, along with corn, sunflower, canola, and recently, some soybeans recently. They have been raising sunflowers for about seven years.
“Sunflowers have been very good to us. We’ve had really good luck,” Josh said, adding with flowers, they grow oil sunflowers and just one field of high-oleics, and the rest.
Jeff Oberholtzer farms with parents and they grow barley, spring wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflowers since the late 70s.
“Sunflowers have been a really good crop for us, and it seems to fit in well with our rotation following corn,” Jeff said.
Adam Bettenhausen farms with his father, two uncles, a younger brother and his uncle’s son-in-law. They raise spring wheat, sunflowers, corn, soybeans, and a little bit of canola.
“We like sunflowers a lot. We’ve also been growing sunflowers since the late 70s,” Adam said. “We like them in a wheat rotation, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve been getting a lot of moisture, and that is nice for warm season crops, but a guy thinks back to the 80s or 90s when a spring wheat/sunflower rotation was a pretty dynamite rotation.”
They have “dabbled” in just about every type of sunflowers, but since 2017, they have been “100 percent high-oleics.”
Lance Horigan farms with his father, and they have been growing sunflowers for about 25 years on the northwestern border of South Dakota/southwestern border of North Dakota. They also grow soybeans, corn and wheat, and run some cow/calf pairs and a few replacement heifers.
“Sunflowers have been a great crop for us, and they follow very well with corn in the rotation,” Lance said. “We’ve grown high-oleic flowers for the last five years. Sunflowers are the most adaptable crop we have – it just fits on every piece of land we have - whether it’s heavy, heavy ground or lighter sand or whatever it is, it seems to work perfect in our operation.”
What is the decision-making process that goes into marketing sunflowers?
For Lance, decisions about their crops and marketing happen year-round, but this year was unusual.
“Usually, we’re in a field harvesting flowers, and we’re already thinking about what we’re going to do next year and then that plan changes four or five, six times over the winter,” Lance said. “And then we have a year, like this year we were wet and struggled to get crops in. I mean it was on the fly where we were adding flowers, taking flowers away, and then we only had about 500-600 acres more than we planned on. So it varies.”
Adam said he agrees with Lance on the timing of marketing and decision-making.
“We have our base rotation that we work off of, and
most changes are tweaks to that. I would like to be 20-25 percent sold going into planting,” Adam said.
Other than that, they take advantage of bin storage they have and “play the market.” However, with confectionary sunflowers, they want a contract that is locked in.
Jeff said they usually have a set rotation and know by October what acreage they will have for which crop.
“On the contracting side of that, we live so far from the crush plants, that we usually won’t do any contracting until we have found out what oil we have after harvest,” Jeff said. “The last couple of years, we have been doing on-delivery, utilizing that option, because the oil content has been so low.”
Josh said they were the same, location-driven, and have all their acres set by late fall. They pre-buy most of their seed around December.
“We had a good contract to store our flowers until June,” Josh said, adding they worked with truckers to haul it.
Lance said he also is far away from the crush plants, so they get delivery from their farm.
“For us to jump in the truck and take a full day just to deliver flowers to Enderlin or Fargo just doesn't work, and we can get delivery in Lemon,” Lance said.
For the sunflower growers, an Act of God contract was important for them if they decided to go with contracting some of their flowers.
These young growers all say they are all into technology, and have apps on their phones to check markets and get advice regularly from agronomists. They have lots of technology coming in through their monitors moved from the tractor, to the sprayer and into the combine, and some of it is not always user-friendly.
They grew up with computers and smartphones and know where to go for information they need to farm.
Here are some of the other comments the growers made.
- Most growers have subscriptions to agronomy technology services, which help them make agronomic decisions. They get full reports on every field they have.
- Updates to software can get costly because they come so frequently, but sometimes there are free trials.
- The growers like all the new technology coming out about soil health and other farming, but they feel there is a lack of knowledge about sunflowers at many agronomy companies.
- Growers would like more varieties of each kind of sunflower to choose from. Choices are very limited.
- Some have a marketer they work regularly with, who lets them know where prices are.
- Growers not only get information from universities about ag-related trials, but they conduct their own on-farm trials.
- Some enjoy having sectional control in their sprayers, so they don’t have to overuse product when they are not paying attention, and some want to accrue data during harvesting for prescription mapping decisions next year.
- The growers get many alerts on their phones, almost too many, but they like it when they have ignored an alert and an equipment company will still call and say, “What is going on with this piece of equipment?”
- Some do worry that companies are finding out too much about the way they farm, but they realize the data on their farm is added to the data from other farms, and it helps everyone farm better in the long run.
- More than anything, sunflower growers would like something that really chases blackbirds out of the fields. Some have tried using cannons, a drone, and nothing seems to work well.