John Sandbakken has been hearing from young Upper Midwest farmers interested in raising sunflowers in 2020. "They tell me, 'We haven't had sunflowers on this farm since my grandpa had them (decades ago),'" said Sandbakken, executive director of the Mandan, N.D.-based National Sunflower Association.

Though planting intentions are still in flux, sunflowers could be unusually popular in the upcoming planting season. Among the reasons for the upswing in farmers' interest:

  • Soybeans can be safer to plant late than most other crops, which could encourage area farmers to plant them in what could become an unusually wet and delayed spring.

  • Domestic demand for sunflower oil has risen by an average of 4.8% annually over the past 10 years, as many consumers increasingly regard it as healthy. That helps to bolster the prices that farmers receive, Sandbakken said.

  • The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement helps to ensure continued sunflower sales to Mexico and Canada, while the trade agreement with Japan will allow U.S. sunflowers to compete for sales on a fairer basis in that country.

  • Per-acre yields of more than 2,000 pounds of sunflowers are now the norm; once, a yield of a ton per acre was considered extraordinary. That reflects, in part, farmers' greater commitment to raising the crop successfully, rather than planting it only as a last resort when weather conditions prevent them from planting other crops.
  • Widespread blizzards in the fall of 2019 led to accumulated snow in many area fields that severely hampered harvest. Sunflowers weren't immune to those problems, but they're a tall crop, which in some cases made harvesting them easier.

Roughly 1.38 million acres of sunflowers were planted nationwide in 2019. South Dakota led the way with 540,000 acres, followed by North Dakota with 500,000 acres. Minnesota farmers planted 52,500 acres, most of them in northwest Minnesota. Cooler temperatures and harsh winters in the area make sunflowers less susceptible to insects and disease.

Sandbakken said there's increased interest in the crop in all three states, including areas such as eastern North Dakota where sunflowers are relatively rare.

There's also growing interest in warmer-weather states, such as Texas, where sunflowers can be one part of a double-cropping crop season, Sandbakken said.

Sunflowers were a star in area agriculture in the 1970s, with production rising tenfold in the decade. In 1979, a record 5.5 million acres were planted nationwide; North Dakota accounted for a majority of that.

But various production problems, including damage from flocks of birds that fed on the growing crop, led many farmers to quit raising it. In some cases, they switched to soybeans, which, like sunflowers, are an oilseed.

Birds remain a concern. But planting sunflowers early and applying desiccants at harvest (the latter helps the plants to dry up at a uniform rate) can moderate damage from birds, Sandbakken said.

"Plant early and desiccate," he said.

On the marketing side, growing domestic demand for U.S. sunflowers helps to bolster prices, Sandbakken said. Once, about 70% of U.S. sunflowers was exported, with the remaining 30 consumed domestically. Now, with domestic demand much higher, about 70% of the crop is used at home, with the other 30% exported.

Because of the strong interest among farmers, anyone planning to plant sunflowers this spring should try to line up seed as soon as possible, Sandbakken said.