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Sunflowers spring up in Belfield

Perry Emch, 39, who works on the Richard farm, looks Wednesday at a sunflower field he helped plant this year. Emch, who has farmed for 39 years, said it is the largest sunflower field he has helped to plant.

BELFIELD -- Barely an inch tall, all green sunflowers in Byron Richard's more than 1,200-acre field south of Belfield are just beginning to make their debut this season.

Since Richard began growing the native, drought-tolerant plant in 1991, he has seen benefits that he wouldn't get from growing corn or other crops.

"Sunflowers are one of the few crops that are native to North Dakota and its drought tolerant and all of the other aspects that go with that," Richard said. "To grow sunflowers, though, we had to learn how to work some chemistry we weren't familiar with and the first plot turned out fairly successful."

There are roughly 8,000 to 10,000 sunflower growers in North Dakota, said Sonia Mullally, communications director for the National Sunflower Association in Mandan.

"Because sunflowers are a rotational crop and cannot be grown in the same field two years in a row, farmers may not grow sunflowers every year," she said.

Of Richard's total acreage, 2,600 acres are dedicated this year to North Dakota's native plant, just above the 2,500 acres of sunflowers he grows on average.

"Sunflowers were grown around here previously, in fact I had had some myself in the early '80s, but back then we worked the ground three times, seeded with a planter, and then we prayed it rained," he said. "But really, sunflowers are such a nice fit for this region that they're a great crop for us to grow and I could grow more, but that's when harvest might become a problem."

Today, Richard said sunflower growing is more productive for farmers due to a combination of better price, genetics, chemistries and technology.

Even though there are benefits to growing the plants, Richard makes it a rule not seed more than 20 percent of his total acreage to sunflowers each year.

"There's a management issue, as regards to harvesting them, because you are doing that late in the fall," he said. "You want to make sure you can do it in a timely manner. I haven't had the problem yet, but there have been more than a few neighbors that have had to go combine in the spring because the snow set in and they couldn't get out to there."

Richard, 51, got his first real taste of running a farm at the age of 19, after his father died and Richard took over the farm.

A past president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, Richard is now the third generation in his family to run the farm, where he lives with his wife, Kathy. The couple has two adult children, Michelle, who lives in Texas, and Brandon, who works with his father on the farm.

Richard and his crew of five, which includes Perry Emch, who is the foreman of the operation and runs the drill, started planting the sunflowers around May 15. Richard predicts harvest will come about Oct. 1.

"Seeding dates really start around May 10, but not before, and it could run through June 15 but much after June 1 there is a decline in the crop of choice," Richard said. "The latest, I think, I have ever combined sunflowers is Nov. 28."

Emch, who is in his 39th year in agriculture, said harvest is the best time to him.

"I guess I just like to run the combine and I enjoy the cold part of the fall when we're out there working the fields," he said. "And the more than 1,200 acres of sunflowers out here might be the biggest field of sunflowers I have ever helped to plant."