Sunflower crops are here to stay

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SUNFLOWERS NEAR DOVE CREEK

Sunflowers flourish in a field near Dove Creek, Colo. Despite the shutdown of a processing plant there, oil-seed crops are still popular with area farmers. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga

Despite the closure of the San Juan Bioenergy plant in Dove Creek, Colo., two years ago – and its uncertain future – sunflower and safflower crops appear to be here to stay.

Between southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, acreage planted in oilseed crops has been holding steady, even since the plant’s closure in October 2010.

Dan Fernandez, who recently retired as the CSU extension agent for Dolores County, said local growers have been planting around 15,000 to 18,000 acres a year. And researchers at the Southwest Colorado Agricultural Research Center in Yellow Jacket continue to perform extensive tests of various oil-seed varieties, to see which grow best in the area and offer the highest yields.

The oil-seed crops have “a place here, especially under dryland conditions,” Fernandez said. “They’re tough crops.”

The crops’ hardiness and drought tolerance aren’t the only points in their favor, either, points out Bruce Riddel, manager at High Country Elevators in Dove Creek. A company out of California has emerged as a faithful and steady buyer for safflower and sunflower harvests – and the successful, family-owned company has been building a solid reputation with local growers.

Specialty market

Dave Hoffsten, the sales manager at Arbuckle, Calif.-based Adams Grain, said it’s a third-generation, family-owned company – but that doesn’t mean it’s small.

“We contract all over the world,” he said. “The U.S., Mexico, South America, Europe. There are about four major safflower producers in the United States, and we are one of them.”

The company focuses on specialty oils including organic, non-genetically modified, and expeller versions of various vegetable oils. Of the organic oils produced in the United States, Adams contributes 60 percent. The company is selling to manufacturers that use oils in everything from salad dressings to massage oils.

High Country Elevators’ Riddel said the company is a boon for growers in Southwest Colorado and southern Utah. Adams wants crops with high oleic, or monounsaturated, acid content. That translates into oil that can withstand temperature fluctuations during transport, processing and cooking. Out of all the oil that’s produced, high-oleic oil accounts for about 3 percent. So while farmers in eastern Colorado and Kansas have been selling harvests with lower oleic-oil content to larger companies, local farmers are happy to grow for Adams’ specialty needs – and premium compensation.

“I think our farmers here, conventional and organic, are benefitting tremendously,” Riddel said. He estimates that last year, farmers in Southwest Colorado grew 3,500 acres of conventional high-oleic sunflower crops, and another 1,000 acres of organic crops.

“I’m going to guess safflowers, mostly in Utah and mostly organic, were probably 8,000 to 10,000 acres,” he said.

A good fit

According to CSU Extension reports, sunflowers were grown in Southwest Colorado in the 1970s, but were abandoned due to low commodity prices and long distances to processing plants and consumer markets. That changed recently, both with the twoyear run of the San Juan Biodiesel plant and the emerging relationships between local growers and Adams Grain.

Abdel Berrada, an extension agent at the Southwest Colorado Agricultural Research Center in Yellow Jacket, has been co-authoring reports for several years on growing experiments with sunflowers, safflowers, canola and camelina. The latter two crops haven’t yet caught on with local growers, but there are potential markets for them. Besides the usual tests of yields from various seeds, Berrada said, experiments are also under way to fit the crops to local growing conditions.

“One issue we are working on is ‘how does sunflower fit in dryland crop rotations in our area?’” he explained in an e-mail.

“Sunflower has deep roots that can mine soil moisture and nutrients down to seven feet or more based on published work; thus there may not be much moisture left in the soil after sunflower. This is obviously a concern in our area given the generally low and erratic precipitation we receive from rain and snow.”

Berrada and his colleagues are trying to find out how often they can grow sunflower in the same field – they’re looking at every three or four years – without negatively impacting soil and crop productivity. They’re also exploring which crop sequences that include sunflower work best.

“We have also been studying the response of sunflower to limited but targeted irrigation application and to nitrogen application rates,” he wrote, adding that he’s analyzing those results right now. Following peer review, he expects they’ll be publicly available by late spring or early summer.

San Juan Bioenergy: The sequel?

The San Juan Bioenergy plant opened with much fanfare in late 2008, with an initial goal to produce biodiesel from sunflower, safflower, and canola oil. Plans changed when prices dropped for fossil fuel, forcing the plant to sell all its oil to refineries for processing as food-grade oil. The byproduct from the seed-oil extraction was marketed as feed meal, and plant owners tried to burn the hulls, leaves and stems for heat and power.

Two years after the plant opened, its owners blamed financial hardship and a tanking economy for its closure.

Fernandez, the former CSU extension agent for Dolores County, now serves on the board of the Dolores County Development Corporation (DCDC). He was also on the board of San Juan Bioenergy before it went defunct. The DCDC has an interest in the plant because it sits on their property, Fernandez said.

“We’re trying to find somebody who may be interested in starting up the plant,” he said. “We’ve got one individual who’s now starting to check out the infrastructure, the facility, and is thinking of having a growers meeting. He would probably like to remain anonymous at this point, but he did meet with us.”

In the best-case scenario, the plant wouldn’t be reopened this season, Fernandez said, especially since local growers are already making their planting decisions.

But in general, “We are hoping that long term we don’t end up with two slabs of concrete out there. We want to get the plant restarted.”

High Country Elevators’ Riddel said the San Juan plant had had a welcome role with local growers – but now that Adams Grain is firmly on the scene, any new plant will have to run a tighter ship than San Juan Biodiesel did.

“What San Juan did was create some competition, so they didn’t have to put all their fruit into one basket,” he said. “With Adams, what we found is they’re a tremendous company. They’re easy to work with.

“With San Juan Bio, there was some mismanagement. Sometimes the growers had to wait three to six months to get paid, whereas with Adams Grain, as soon as I collect all the weights and send that information to the office in California, they write the guys a check.”

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From March 2012.