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Sunflowers shine at NSA's three-day seminar in Medora

MEDORA -- As one of the last crops to be put into the ground each year, speculation surrounds just how many acres of sunflowers -- one of North Dakota's most popular crops -- will be planted in 2013.

Some of the guessing will dissipate today -- the last day of the NSA's three-day Sunflower Summer Seminar at the Medora Community Center -- when the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its first estimate for the number of sunflower acres it expects to be planted this season.

"Planting has been slow due to all of the rain the past few weeks, but farmers are still planting sunflowers to take advantage of the good market opportunities that sunflowers can offer," said John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association in Mandan "New crop sunflower prices continue to be competitive with other new crop prices and there is still time to plant sunflowers."

As of Monday, the NSA reports that North Dakota sunflowers are mostly planted and acreage appears to be 78 percent planted -- an increase of 15 percent from last week.

Sunflower processors are continuing to offer an opportunity to diversify crop risk this year, Sandbakken said.

He said they are also enacting the Act of God contracts, which allow producers to not have to assume production risks, in case of hail, insects or disease.

"If it results in a yield loss and you don't have enough production per acre to cover your sale, the clause kicks in, and you are only obligated to deliver what you produced, not what you contracted," he said.

But agriculture is subject to more influences than many industries and to more factors than use to impact prices of crops, said Terry Barr, senior director for CoBank's Knowledge Exchange Division.

"You have to be prepared for factors, both domestic and global, that could impact prices," Barr said, citing things like economic woes across the globe as a possible factor. "The last five years, the world has been transferring out of financial shock. Luckily, the agricultural sector has been mostly insulated and the one place people have wanted to be in."

Once he began farming full time in 1999 near Crookston, Minn., Kevin Capistran decided to include sunflowers, along with sugar beets, wheat, barley, soybeans and corn, in the rotation on his 2,200-acre land.

"For a lot of guys, sunflowers are labor intensive," he said. "But sunflower fits in with what we're doing and with the rest of the rotation on the farm."

Sunflowers are very much dependent on weather conditions, which have not cooperated this year with grower Clint Patterson, who lives near Bottineau and was part of a young farmer panel discussion at the NSA seminar.

"We still have snow on the ground in our area during the first week of May and that makes for a tight window for planting sunflower," he said.

Sandbakken said most farmers know how long they can extend their planting window, often to the end of June or early July in South Dakota and southern North Dakota, whereas he said more northerly locations may have a last planting date between June 15 and June 20.

Sandbakken said some common strategies agronomists and farmers have for working with late-planted sunflowers includes:

V Switch to an early maturing hybrid.

V Open or blacken the soil to warm it up for quicker emergence.

V Plant shallow, but into moisture, for faster emergence.

V Reduce some of the inputs to lower crop production costs.

V Plant slightly higher populations for quicker drydown.

V Minimize use of "stay green" hybrids to escape late-season drydown issues.

V Minimize use of "plant health" fungicides to avoid late-season drydown issues.

V Consider using a desiccant to aid drydown if it can be applied in time to be effective.