Two valley sunflower growers to harvest more

September 30, 2016 GMT

Two Kittitas Valley farmers this week are harvesting their sunflower seed crop from more acres than they have in the past three years, with the seeds destined to be sold to a Grant County firm for farm plantings around the nation and the world.

Harvest of the seeds from sunflower plants in Central Washington usually occurs sometime between mid-September to mid-October, depending on plant maturity, growth and other conditions. Nationally, it’s estimated that nearly 1.6 million acres of all types of sunflower seeds — for cooking oil, food and farm plantings — will be harvested this year, according to early projections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The two valley growers planted their fields in April.

Both have contracts to sell their seeds to Precision Seed Production LLC of Ephrata.

Mark Charlton of the Fairview area northeast of Ellensburg is into his third straight year growing sunflower seeds for farm plantings. Badger Pocket farmer Brent DeKoning southeast of Ellensburg is in his second season.

DeKoning didn’t pursue sunflower seeds in 2015 because of irrigation water restrictions due to drought conditions in the Yakima River basin.

“So far my plants look good and are maturing just the way they’re supposed to,” said DeKoning on Sept. 13. “We’ll start combining them when the seeds’ moisture content reaches the right level.”

He said a field agronomist for Precision Seed usually will visit each field and test the seeds for the right moisture content needed for harvest. Charlton and DeKoning have purchased header attachments and other equipment specially designed to accommodate sunflower harvest to go with their existing combines, which also have been used for grain.

Both also grow timothy hay and other forage for export along with grain, and Charlton also raises beef cattle. DeKoning also has grown grain crops for seed production.

The first

Charlton and DeKoning are believed to be the first growers in Kittitas County to grow sunflowers for commercial seed production with their 2014 sunflower crops. Each planted and harvested about 65 acres that year.

Charlton, ranching and farming on his own for about 30 years, said he has doubled his acreage in sunflowers each year since that first year. So far he’s viewing the plants as a good rotation crop for his timothy, and also as a good alternative crop in its own right for the Kittitas Valley.

DeKoning, who has been farming in the family operation all his life, and 20 years as an adult, estimates he has more than 120 acres of sunflowers in production this year. He said fields must be carefully positioned in relation to one another so as to not mix two different seed types for the production of two types of hybrid seeds. Separation must be at least 1 1/2 miles.

In each field there must be two rows of pollinator plants (male) for every six rows of female plants that will produce the hybrid seed type.

“They are somewhat of a high-risk crop that have to be managed carefully and at the right time,” Charlton said. “Every year is a new year with its own set of challenges, but they (sunflowers) have performed well.”

Because good cross pollination is crucial to produce a hybrid seed, both growers contract to bring bee hive boxes to their respective areas.

Whether to plant sunflowers for farm seed production is an annual decision, with growers taking into consideration several factors, including water availability, projected market returns on sunflowers versus production costs, how it fits into a crop rotation plan and the market and projected returns for other agricultural products raised by the grower.

Harvest weather also is a big concern, with soaking fall rains potentially causing delays and other problems. Recent dry, warm weather has taken out that concern.

DeKoning said sunflowers, overall, use less water than timothy plants, but having adequate irrigation at the beginning stages of plant growth is of paramount importance. After the plants reach a certain stage they are fairly resistant to damage from water shortages, he said.

Good returns

DeKoning said the financial return he received for his 2014 crop was a decent one, better than from other rotation crops, “and isn’t a losing proposition.” As a rotation crop for timothy grass, the sprays used to combat sunflower pests also take out stray grasses, which helps in any new timothy field seedings.

Sunflower plants are grown to produce a hybrid seed that will be sold to growers who want to raise sunflower seeds for cooking oil. Seeds produced for farm plantings usually fetch a higher price than seeds grown for food or oil because they must be raised and harvested under more exacting standards and are more labor intensive.

During harvest a combine cuts the dry sunflowers and then separates the seeds from other parts of the plant. The self-propelled combines, after filling with harvested seeds, unloads them into a truck parked on the edge of the field. Seeds are then trucked to the Precision Seed plant in Ephrata where they are washed and graded.

DeKoning said Precision Seed Production enters into grower contracts that correspond to orders for farm planting seeds the company receives.

He said he’s received a fair amount of interest from a few valley growers about his getting into sunflower seed production. If several growers are interested in knowing more, he said he would refer them to Precision Seed officials who could set up an informational meeting with them.

Charlton also said he’s also working with Precision Seed Production on a seven-acre trial plot for field corn seeds and will be harvesting them for evaluation with the Ephrata-based company.