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Sunflowers need a hybrid lift

With Western sunflower acres dropping sharply in recent years, new varieties are needed to claw acres back from easier-to-grow soybeans

There are fewer sights more appealing than a field of mature sunflowers, but this golden vision is growing rarer.

The reason is simple — sunflowers are losing out to soybeans.

In Canada’s biggest sunflower province, Manitoba, acres dropped under 62,000 this year, with a little more than half the crop going to black oil and the rest to confectionery markets, says Ben Friesen, senior market manager for Scoular Canada. That compares with as high as 220,000 acres in 2003.

Acreage was relatively flat in Saskatchewan, according to Saskatchewan Crop Insurance, with 7,200 acres planted in 2017 compared to 5,700 acres last year and 40,000 to 65,000 acres in the 1990s. Alberta has never been a large producer, and producers there planted roughly 6,000 acres in 2017.

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Friesen says beans are easier to grow, primarily because weed control is an issue for sunflowers: producers can use pre-emergent herbicides but there is no herbicide resistance available in the best confectionery variety, a round-type sunflower that’s been around for three decades.

“I have many guys who have held off growing sunflowers because, without a herbicide-tolerant variety, you have to work harder on your rotation,” Friesen says. “I think that would be one of the biggest steps toward getting more acres in the ground.

“The other part that makes it tough is that over the last 10 years we’ve had quite a lot of diseases in sunflowers — head rot and sclerotinia. Some crops were almost written off for crop insurance. That caused some guys to back away.”

Scoular is Canada’s biggest buyer of confectionery sunflowers, and most of Manitoba’s go through its Winkler processor. Though demand dipped from major Middle Eastern export markets during the Syrian refugee crisis, sales are starting to grow again, and Friesen says the company has been able to move all of the product grown in Manitoba.

There are no sunflower crush facilities in Canada, and most oil-type sunflowers are sold to processors in the U.S., where there’s been overproduction of sunflower in recent years. Friesen says some producers with contracts from U.S. processors haven’t been able to move their product.

“The intel out there from one grower to the next was ‘Don’t grow sunflowers, you can’t sell them,’” Friesen says. “We’re not saying we can buy a huge increase in sunflowers, but we definitely took all the sunflowers in from the acres we contracted. It’s a misconception that growers couldn’t move them.”

In other words, market accessibility isn’t the main reason sunflower acres are dropping: it’s the lack of new varieties.

New hybrid on the horizon

Darcelle Graham, executive director of the National Sunflower Association of Canada (NSA), says the organization has set out a strategic plan to increase acreage to 200,000 acres across Canada by 2025.

The NSA’s goal rests on a plan to inject fresh blood into the industry via new confection varieties, says Graham.

As of 2011, the National Sunflower Association has held federal, provincial and Western Grains Research Foundation funding for a sunflower hybrid development project. If all goes well, a new hybrid should be available following the next round of federal funding.

“There are three hybrids that take up the market share for confection sunflowers. One of those hybrids — 6946 DMR — holds 89 per cent of the acres, and it’s more than 25 years old. Any other crop type, you won’t see a hybrid that old,” Graham says.

Any hybrids that producers are able to source are developed south of the border, but even those grown in Fargo, the U.S. sunflower hub, aren’t necessarily suited to Manitoba’s growing regions, Graham says. They’re also developed with an eye to oil content, and that doesn’t always work for Canadian growers selling oil-type seeds to birdseed or bakery markets.

The NSA’s breeder is specifically working to develop a herbicide-tolerant, long-type confection hybrid bred for Manitoba conditions and geared toward gaining back export markets in the Middle East. But agronomics are a strong focus as well, says Graham, particularly resistance to rust and downy mildew.

Honeycomb

Testing has been underway on another new confectionery variety out of North Dakota State University called Honeycomb, which officially came on the market this year.

According to Anastasia Kubinec, crop industry development manager with Manitoba Agriculture, Honeycomb matures seven to 10 days earlier than most sunflower varieties. “For sunflowers that’s a lot — it’s the difference between combining before the rains start or being stuck in the rain cycle,” she says.

The variety is being tested across Western Canada, but Kubinec says it performs differently based on growing region. In eastern Manitoba, trials have shown a slight yield disadvantage, but moving farther west, Honeycomb has performed as well as later-maturing varieties and shows good drydown.

“The other benefit to its being earlier is that we found that it had less head rot — it’s not resistant but it avoided the disease,” she says.

Sherri Roberts, a regional crop specialist for Saskatchewan Agriculture, says the Saskatchewan Sunflower Committee is counting on Honeycomb to help revive sunflower acreage in that province. The organization is set to launch a new website, sksunflowers.com, and has developed a new sunflower growers’ guide that should soon be online.

Honeycomb was available in Saskatchewan with a limited supply that sold out last year, Roberts says. Producers she’s talked to who grew sunflowers are making a healthy profit selling to North Dakota elevators. “This year in particular they’re going to be, because North Dakota was devastated by drying,” she says.

But Honeycomb isn’t likely to be available in big enough quantities to replace old varieties in the field next year, says Ron Gendzelevich, president and owner of Quarry Seeds, which markets the hybrid.

“We only produced 30 per cent of the expected yield for Honeycomb hybrids. We wanted to launch around 3,000 to 4,000 acres and ended up with less than 1,000 acres,” he says. “Right now it would cost between four to five times more than your normal seed cost, which is prohibitive for producers, so we’re looking at possible methods of getting better production. If we can’t, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board with the breeder.”

But Gendzelevich says Honeycomb meets a major need for sunflower producers and looks extremely promising. “It’s a definite maybe, in a sense,” he says. “The product is what the farmers want and need.”

Altona, Man. erected this giant reproduction of Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting several years ago, celebrating its local sunflower industry. Last summer the painting came down for renovations, a fitting parallel with the need to renovate the variety selection for a crop which is attractive to look at, but not as attractive to grow.
photo: Carey Kehler

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