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A sunflower soaks up the sun north of Gladstone in July 2010. North Dakota regained its status as the nation's leading sunflower producer in 2012, after losing the recognition to South Dakota in 2011. The National Sunflower Association expects North Dakota to remain on top, if growing conditions are similar to last year.

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North Dakota was knocked down in 2011 when it lost its long-held title as the leading sunflower produce in the United States to its neighbor to the south.

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But the sunflower production loss North Dakota experienced in 2011 was followed in 2012 by an abundant yield and desirable weather conditions that allowed the state to reclaim its fame, and hopefully keep it in 2013 as well, said Sonia Mullally, communications director for the Mandan-based National Sunflower Association.

"With the help of constantly evolving, improved hybrids and favorable weather conditions, North Dakota will remain as the No. 1 sunflower producer in the nation in 2013," she said. "Sunflower has been consistently profitable over the years and farmers grow what makes them money -- it's a business after all."

The reason for the drop in sunflower acres that lead to North Dakota being surpassed by South Dakota in 2011 boiled down to precipitation, Mullally said.

"The extremely heavy snowfalls of 2010-11 and the wet spring conditions that resulted from that contributed to many acres in several areas that would have been planted into sunflowers not being planted at all," she said. "This meant less acres being planted in North Dakota. Conditions were more favorable in that particular year in South Dakota where sunflower acres have been consistently increasing each year."

But current sunflower seed sales at Homestead Seeds Inc. in New England are a little behind where they would be in an average year, said Twig Zahn, co-owner of Homestead Seeds Inc.

"Right now, I'd say we're probably behind normal on sunflower seed sales, but that's kind of expected because corn acres have increased because of high prices," he said.

Mark Egan, who runs the Beach Co-op Grain Co. agronomy department, said producers have time to evaluate the weather before planting, since many farmers do not plant their sunflowers until May.

"Last year, it was a phenomenal crop for sunflowers, but the year before it was too wet," he said. "Basically, it will all depend on Mother Nature."

Recapturing the top spot was no easy feat last year in North Dakota, where growers faced issues with drought conditions, plant spacing within the row, diseases and birds, according to a national sunflower survey.

Nationally, sunflower production last year was up 37 percent from the previous year to 2.8 billion pounds, said Tina Mittelsteadt, business manager for the National Sunflower Association. North Dakota's yield last year was estimated at 1.5 billion pounds -- a 91 percent jump from 2011.

North Dakota and Minnesota, which had its third-highest yield ever, were still able to eke out a better-than-expected 2012 sunflower crop when compared with Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota, which were plagued by exceptionally dry conditions last year, Mittelsteadt said.

Though there were several hurdles to jump along the way, North Dakota growers managed to have a record-setting year for both oil and confection sunflower production, according to the NSA.

Mullally said there are 9,625 North Dakota sunflower growers in the association's database.

If growing conditions are similar to last year, Mullally said a similar sunflowers could be a desirable crop this year.

"Sunflower's drought tolerance allowed them to really shine when other crops were not able to withstand as well," she said. "Weather predictions point toward sustained, if not worsening in some areas, drought conditions for this year's growing season. If weather conditions continue to trend toward dry, sunflower will be an even more attractive choice for farmers."

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