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Published January 14, 2013, 08:51 AM

Drought could make sunflowers more popular

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Lingering drought might prompt more farmers to plant sunflowers this year in North Dakota and South Dakota, the two states that typically lead the nation in the production of the crop used for cooking oil, snacks and bird food.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Lingering drought might prompt more farmers to plant sunflowers this year in North Dakota and South Dakota, the two states that typically lead the nation in the production of the crop used for cooking oil, snacks and bird food.

The crop's extensive root system enables it to tolerate dry conditions better than many other crops. If drought continues, that will make the crop more inviting, longtime North Dakota sunflower grower Tim DeKrey, of Steele, told Agweek.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that all of South Dakota and about two-thirds of North Dakota remain in some form of drought. Conditions are much worse in South Dakota, with about two-thirds of that state in the two worst categories of drought, extreme and exceptional.

Farmers in the region are only a few months away from spring planting, and this is the time of year when many begin making their planting decisions.

"If we are trending toward dry, there will be more interest" in sunflowers, DeKrey said.

Record sunflower yields in North Dakota last year also are encouraging to farmers in that state. Seed dealers already are reporting more interest, said John Sandbakken, executive director of the Mandan-based National Sunflower Association.

However, potential profits for sunflowers this year are not particularly attractive relative to most other crops, according to projections from the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

"Corn and soybeans are king. We want to promote (sunflowers) being part of a rotation with them," Sandbakken said.

South Dakota in 2011 became the nation's top sunflower-producing state for the first time in recorded history, due to extreme flooding in North Dakota. Production data from the federal Agriculture Department released this month show that North Dakota handily reclaimed the crown last year, with a crop of 1.46 billion pounds compared to South Dakota's 892 million pounds.

Sunflowers could gain more acres in South Dakota this year but it is difficult to estimate how much because moisture conditions could change drastically by planting time, said Ruth Beck, an agronomy specialist with South Dakota State University Extension Service.

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