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Sunflower growers get insurance against low prices

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BISMARCK (AP) -- The federal government is expanding an insurance program for sunflower farmers -- two years after almost killing it -- in a move that could help protect growers against fluctuating prices and low crop yields.

The protection could be especially important this year as sunflower seed prices continue to fall, and some farmers contemplate planting fewer flowers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects an 18 percent decrease in the number of sunflower acres planted nationwide.

A small sunflower crop could mean higher prices at the grocery store for cooking oil, snacks and other items made with sunflower seeds.

The program, which guarantees farmers a minimum price for their crop, could encourage some farmers to plant more sunflowers, said John Sandbakken, international marketing director for the Bismarck-based National Sunflower Association.

"Having something like that helps you sleep at night," Sandbakken said.

Sunflower seed prices, like those for other crops, have dropped during the recession. Farmers have lobbied for years to get protection from low prices as well as low yields. This year, the federal Risk Management Agency is expanding a program known as "revenue assurance" to most areas where sunflowers are grown in significant quantities.

U.S. farmers grew about 2.4 million acres of sunflowers worth just under $670 million last year, most in North Dakota, the nation's largest sunflower producer.

While traditional crop insurance protects farmers from production problems, revenue assurance policies also provide coverage for price drops, although profits still vary with production costs.

Revenue assurance allows farmers to lock in the springtime market price and pay extra on their premium to have the option of taking the harvest price if it's higher. If the harvest price is lower, they still get the spring price.

Mike Clemens, 52, who farms near Wimbledon in southeastern North Dakota, participated in the program last year, when sunflower prices in North Dakota dropped about 17 percent from the spring to fall. Since then, prices have dropped another 32 percent to $16 per hundred pounds.

"For our crop to be competitive, we need to have an RA formula that works," Clemens said. "I carry RA on my farm on all my crops."

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