Article by Jenny Dewey Rohrich
Until I stepped foot into North Dakota, I would have never imagined North Dakota to be a national leader when it comes to production of many different crops. It’s safe to say I had never before witnessed fields of crops that are seemingly endless. But let me tell you, there is something magical about coming across a field of blooming yellow sunflowers as far as the eye can see. It literally makes you stop in your tracks and takes your breath away.
So how did sunflowers end up here?
Sunflowers actually originated here, in North America. They were a common crop among American Indian tribes throughout North America. There is evidence that the cultivation of sunflowers began before corn in about 3000 B.C. in some areas of Arizona and New Mexico.
Around 1500, sunflowers made their way to Europe by way of Spanish explorers. The plant was cultivated and began expanding its way through Western Europe for uses from ornamental to medicinal and culinary. By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflowers. It is also during that time that many Russians (Germans from Russia) settled in places like Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
It is likely that the seed movement is attributed to them and by 1880 seed companies were advertising “Mammoth Russian” sunflower seeds in catalogues. In 1946, Canadian farmers built a small crushing plant. With an ability to get the oil from the flowers, sunflower acreage boomed in Minnesota and North Dakota. And since the 1930’s programs have been in place to hybridize sunflowers to provide additional yield, oil enhancement, and disease resistance. To date, however, there are no GMO sunflowers grown or sold.
Where are sunflowers grown?
Since 1977 North Dakota has ranked in the top states when it comes to sunflower production, producing nearly 51% of the nation’s total sunflowers. In the past several years, North Dakota has battled with South Dakota for the title of top producer. You would think with North Dakota being the leader in sunflower production that sunflowers are grown across the state. But this isn’t quite the case; in fact, I would venture to guess that some people living in North Dakota have never even seen a blooming sunflower field.
Reasons vary as to why sunflowers aren’t grown across the state. Disease is a limiting factor in growing sunflowers; some areas of North Dakota simply get too much rainfall, which makes sunflowers more prone to disease. In some areas of North Dakota it simply isn’t feasible to add sunflowers into crop rotation. Birds and large wetland areas (pot holes) go hand in hand as two more reasons which limit sunflower growing in some parts of the state. Large communities of birds can devastate a sunflower crop and usually birds flock to large areas of water and cattails. Also large wetland areas simply aren’t conducive to growing sunflowers because sunflowers are more of an arid plant and like less water. For more specific information about where to find sunflowers in North Dakota, visit this post, Where to find sunflowers.
How are sunflowers grown?
On our farm, sunflowers are planted on a four-year rotation cycle meaning a particular field will be planted in sunflowers once every four years. To see more about our crop rotation, you can check out this post on Community Agriculture.com, Crop Rotation on our Farm. Sunflowers are usually planted from early May until mid June and require soil temperatures to reach at least 45 degrees or above. Sunflowers are planted typically in rows about 20-30 inches apart.
Sunflower seeds require pollination to mature. Bees are responsible for the pollination of these fields. Farmers contract bee hives to be set near fields and the bees go to work. Because of the symbiosis between bees and sunflowers, North Dakota ranks number one in the nation’s productions for both sunflowers AND honey!
Sunflower harvest usually begins in late September or early October with a typical growing season of about 120 days. Sunflowers are harvested using a specialized header for our combine with trays that catch the sunflowers to minimize loss of any heads.
What are sunflowers used for?
There are three primary markets for sunflowers: oil production (oils), de-hulls, and confection varieties.
Sunflower seeds produced for oil are usually smaller and all black in color. Sunflower oil is the primary use for the seeds and has a variety of different uses from a healthier alternative for frying potato chips to even fuel! De-hulls (or basically de-shelled) are what you would find in your local grocery store to put on salads, chocolate covered, or to simply enjoy them without having to fight a shell. The confection varieties are roasted in the shell and sometimes flavored for you to enjoy at your favorite baseball game or an afternoon on the patio. Sunflower seeds are graded according to size and then separated. The largest size goes to be roasted and enjoyed in the shell, medium sizes are usually de-hulled, and the smallest size goes into the bird and pet food market.
As one of the few sunflower growers in our county, we hold them near and dear to our hearts. Sunflowers are a challenge and unique which are qualities that set them apart from other crops. They are also, as you can tell, beautiful. I hope you make a visit to a sunflower producing region of North Dakota in August and you will fall in love with the fields of yellow blooms too. Sunflowers are a challenging, but rewarding crop on our farm. And at the end of the day, we take pride in the fact that we are one of many helping to produce an important commodity to our state.
Jenny Dewey Rohrich is a born and raised Californian. She grew up in her parent’s local butcher shop and deli. She loved where she lived and vowed to never leave, but life had other plans for her. She met a farmer from North Dakota via social media and fell head over heels in love. Jenny followed her heart and her dreams to Ashley, North Dakota. Jenny and her farmer are now married and cultivating a legacy of family, food, and farming on the rural prairies of North Dakota. You can find Jenny at Prairie Californian where she writes about the things she loves: farming, family, food, photography, and fitness.