BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — South Dakota farmers can boast for the first time in recorded history that they are the nation's top sunflower growers, although producers understand those bragging rights aren't likely to last.
North Dakota has worn the sunflower production crown since 1977, when the government started compiling data for the Dakotas. Last year, wet weather and flooding in North Dakota led to a drop of hundreds of thousands of planted acres, and production fell 39 percent to 766 million pounds. Farmers in South Dakota's prime sunflower region did not have similar production problems and that state produced 777 million pounds of sunflowers, about the same as in 2010.
"I don't think it's so much that we had such a good year, but the problems that North Dakota had," said Tom Young, who has farmed for decades in central South Dakota's Sully County, the top-producing sunflower county in the nation. "It's a sad situation to see happen. While we like to have the notoriety of being No. 1, it's not the way we like to see it happen."
Planted and harvested sunflower acres in North Dakota last year fell by about one-third from 2010, USDA data show. That includes sunflowers grown for their oil — the majority of the crop — and those that are grown for snacks or bird food. The production drop in North Dakota contributed to a 17 percent decrease in oil sunflower production nationwide to its lowest level in 21 years.
John Sandbakken, executive director of the North Dakota-based National Sunflower Association, said that drop in production would probably not translate to an increase in prices at grocery stores of goods that are made with sunflower oil, such as potato chips. Makers of those products use different oils based on price and availability, he said.
But the production drop is likely to buoy already strong market prices for farmers.
"Five years ago at this time, we were at $14 (per hundred pounds), and basically we've doubled in price," Sandbakken said. "And historically, ($14) would have been an excellent price.
"Demand has not declined for sunflower products whatsoever," he said. "It would be a good situation for growers to plant sunflowers this year."
Barring another spring of historic flooding in North Dakota, sunflower acres are almost certain to rebound.
"We want to get back to that historical 1-1.3 million acres," Sandbakken said. "When you look at what we had for harvested acres last year, that's almost double. North Dakota will reclaim its No. 1 spot."
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