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Sunflowers could be in line for comeback

Sunflowers grow in a field near Chamberlain in this August file photo. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Tim DeKrey, of Steele, N.D., has raised sunflowers since 1981. The crop isn't always easy to grow, but is consistently profitable for him.

He plans to plant sunflowers again this spring. "They'll always have a place on this farm" in southcentral North Dakota, he says.

Sunflowers -- once a shining star of Upper Midwest agriculture, but a crop that's lost some luster over time -- could be in line for a comeback.

The crop's extensive root system allows it to tolerate dry conditions better than most competing crops, and that could cause more area farmers to consider it after the drought of 2012.

"If we are trending toward dry, there will be more interest," DeKrey says.

Exceptionally strong 2012 sunflower yields in North Dakota, the nation's leading producer, also could encourage more farmers in the state to grow the crop this year.

Already, area seed dealers report more interest, says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, N.D.

But not even sunflower advocates think its popularity will skyrocket. Competing crops, particularly corn and soybeans, remain popular, and sunflower prices aren't as strong as growers would like.

Even so, sunnier times may be ahead. Wheat, corn and soybeans, the region's three major crops, currently are the stars. Sunflowers are a complementary player that potentially can play a bigger, though still secondary, role.

Sunflowers are "a rotation crop, not a big-acreage crop," DeKrey says.

Sunflowers are native to North America and grow wild in many parts of the United States. Commercial production soared in the 1970s because of new hybrids that produced better yields and attractive prices. In 1979, U.S. farmers planted a record 5.6 million acres.

In the 1980s, however, U.S. farmers cut back on sunflowers because of increased interest in soybeans, disease problems in sunflowers and expanding foreign sunflower production.

U.S. sunflower acreage rallied in the 1990s because of changes in federal farm programs that were favorable to 'flowers.

In recent years, North Dakota acreage has been trending lower, reflecting greater interest in corn and soybeans. But farmers in states to the south, including South Dakota, are growing more sunflowers, in part because of attractive yields.

In 2011, South Dakota surpassed its northern neighbor to become the nation's leading sunflower producer. But that reflected extremely wet conditions in North Dakota, which cut sharply into both yields and planted acreage.

North Dakota regained its traditional top spot in 2012 and almost certainly will keep it again in 2013.

Sunflowers could gain even more acreage in South Dakota this year, but it's difficult to estimate how much, says Ruth Beck, agronomy crops field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension's regional center in Pierre.

While the drought will cause some farmers in the state to take a closer look at planting sunflowers, moisture conditions could change drastically by planting time, she says.