Sunflower Markets Ride on Weather, War

Market to Market | Clip
Jul 22, 2022 | 7 min

The 2021 growing season offered a challenging dry-weather test for many sunflower-growing regions, and some may struggle this year as well.


The 1980s Farm Crisis hit southeastern South Dakota just like it did across the rest of the country, bringing a severe economic downturn that affected many farmers and their communities. The Edinger family of White Lake survived the crisis by relying on their father Wayne’s second income as a teacher, but they received additional help when the elder Edinger planted a field of sunflowers.

Charlie Edinger, Edinger Brothers Partnership: “It was tough times in the ‘80s. Dad was, luckily for us, did a good job of forward-thinking.”

Forty years later, his sons, Charlie and Chet, still raise sunflowers, dedicating about 15 percent of their row crop acres to the edible seeds.

Charlie Edinger, Edinger Brothers Partnership: “I would say year-in, year-out, they’re one of our best money-making crops. I mean it’s definitely challenging. I think we live in a good area with our amount of rainfall or our climate and soils that, you know, we are in that 20 to 24 inches of rainfall every year. So they are a good dry-weather hedge.”

The 2021 growing season offered a challenging dry-weather test for many sunflower-growing regions, and some may struggle this year as well.

John Sandbakken, National Sunflower Association: “The weather has just really taken a dramatic turnaround here in the Dakotas and Minnesota. We went from extreme drought conditions to now we are out of the drought…The High Plains states – Kansas, Colorado,Texas – you know, obviously that’s a different story; they are in a very dry situation. But a lot of the sunflower that’s produced in those state is under irrigation and so it’s something that’s not going to affect our yields as much.”

USDA estimated yields were down about 15 percent last year, but some industry leaders were happy it wasn’t worse.

John Sandbakken, National Sunflower Association: “We did drop about 300 pounds an acre overall but, you know, given the drought conditions that we faced – many areas had only about six inches of rainfall last year - so that still turned out pretty well.”

With that loss in production and the Russian-Ukrainian war affecting that sunflower-producing region, prices climbed in the spring and farmers responded by adding acres.

John Sandbakken, National Sunflower Association: “We are seeing a lot more sunflower acres this year. … overall we are up 29 percent …the biggest reason for that is obviously the situation in Ukraine. That’s really created a lot more demand for sunflower products in the U.S., whether that be in domestic use or in the export market. You know, Ukraine and Russia combined, they are about 60 percent of all the sunflower oil production in the world and 75 percent of all the exportable sunflower oils so I mean when you take that oil off the market, that just creates just a huge vacuum.”

During the COVID pandemic, sales for sunflowers used as bird feed surged as more people were home and looking for entertainment. Sandbakken suspects a fall report will show a slight reversal for bird-feed types of seed.

John Sandbakken, National Sunflower Association: “I think overall demand slipped a little bit because I think people got out a little bit more. The winter wasn’t quite as harsh in a lot of our key markets…but I think people are still feeding birds to a greater extent than they had the last few years.”

Sandbakken believes the U.S. sunflower industry could easily support another half million acres of production on top of the estimated 1.7 million acres being grown this year.

The Edinger brothers, who now raise confection sunflowers for human consumption, are based in southeast South Dakota, which, as of October 2021 had received less than 14 inches of precipitation, seven inches shy of normal. Even with the reduced moisture, their sunflower crop still did well, beating their five-year average by 22 percent.

Charlie says that anyone considering getting into sunflower production, however, needs to be ready to work.

Charlie Edinger, Edinger Brothers Partnership, Mitchell: “Insects can be a challenge: seed weevils, sunflower moths. Diseases can be a challenge in wetter climates. They may not be a good fit for you. Blackbirds are one of our biggest challenges here…. If you were to start raising sunflowers, I would start with the black oil variety. That way you can kind of get a feel on how to raise them and other production issues you may have with them before going to go toward the more specialty option.”

Once their sunflowers are harvested, the Edingers’ edible seeds are delivered to Advanced Sunflower in Huron, South Dakota, an hour’s drive to the north. Advanced Sunflower handles about 120 million pounds of sunflower seeds annually. The seeds are cleaned, sorted by size, roasted, salted or flavored, and sometimes de-hulled.

Nationally, about 20 percent oil-variety sunflowers are exported.

Danny Dale, Advanced Sunflower, Huron, SD: “The U.S. was the primary area where the selective breeding was done to move them from wild to something we could use for snacks and oil and that, but now some other countries have gotten into producing sunflower seeds so there’s been a shift in the last 15 years.”

Sunflowers are typically contracted ahead of time by companies like Advanced, and this year many are offering prices much earlier.

Danny Dale, Advanced Sunflower, Huron, SD: “Sunflower is not a price leader. It’s a follower. So if corn and beans go down, sunflowers go down. And if they go up, sunflowers go up. We have to pay a competitive price to buy the acres. And some years it’s a struggle and some years it’s pretty easy.”

John Sandbakken, National Sunflower Association: “There was just a mad frenzy those first two months during the war. A lot of people were trying to buy up as much as they could and getting as much oil on the books as possible for delivery. Then we went into…a transition period where those who couldn’t buy sunflower oil, they probably switched to other oils… I think there’s going to be a big resurgence in demand for oil because a lot of buyers are in the sidelines right now …waiting to see what kind of crop we are going to have.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, for Market to Market.