By Michael Boland and Jeri Stroade, Kansas State University.
Profile updated August 2012 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are a native North American plant, believed to have originated around 3,000 B.C. in what is now the states of Arizona and New Mexico. The seeds were primarily used for food. When ground, the resulting flour was used in bread and cakes. When cracked, the seeds were eaten like nuts. Sunflower seeds were also a source of purple dye used as body paint and to decorate baskets and textiles.
The 2011 sunflower crop totaled nearly 2.04 billion pounds and was valued at nearly $603.62 million; both production and value declined from 2010. Average yield also continued to drop, falling to 1,398 pounds per acre. (NASS 2012)
Sunflowers are primarily grown in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Colorado. North Dakota typically produces about half and South Dakota nearly a quarter of the yearly U.S. sunflower crop. North Dakota's 2011 sunflower crop was valued at nearly $202.2 million, down from 2010. The 2011 sunflower crop in South Dakota was valued at nearly $182.2 million, the third consecutive year the total value has increased. (NASS 2012)
The United States produces both oil-type sunflower seeds and non-oil sunflower seeds. In 2011 production of oil-type sunflowers was valued at nearly $493.8 million, up from the previous year. Production of non-oil sunflowers was valued at nearly $109.8 million, down from the previous year. (NASS 2012)
Many factors influence producers’ decisions to plant sunflowers. Location determines whether sunflowers will be successful. Sunflowers are a short-season crop that allows them to be grown over a wide range of latitudes compared to other oilseed crops. The U.S. growing season for sunflowers is from June through September, around 90 days. Sunflowers thrive in northern areas and in southern double-cropping systems. High-production states, such as North Dakota and South Dakota, have cooler temperatures and harsh winters that make sunflowers less susceptible to insects and disease.
Crop rotations also influence growers’ decisions to plant sunflowers. Sunflowers have a deep root system that allows them to flourish in rotations that maximize water use from the soil. A fallow period is often recommended following sunflowers to replenish depleted soil water reserves. Moisture-conserving crop production techniques such as no-till and minimum till allow farmers to be more flexible and have increased dryland cropping intensity overall and the viability of summer crops, such as sunflowers in particular. Under irrigation, sunflowers compete with corn, silage crops, dry edible beans and wheat for acreage.
Premiums are offered for certain types of sunflowers for oil content and other characteristics. Premiums depend on market conditions and the individual characteristics that buyers are looking for in sunflowers. Buyers and processors usually offer premiums to producers, providing an incentive for producing certain types of sunflowers.
Globally, Russia produced the most sunflower seeds in 2011: more than 9.6 million metric tons (MT). The European Union (EU-27) was the biggest producer of sunflower meal, processing nearly 3.8 million MT. The leading producer of sunflower oil was Ukraine, which processed more than 3.7 million MT of oil. (FAS 2012)
Sunflowers are considered oilseeds. Sunflowers are used for their cooking oil, meal and confectionary products. Oil and meal are processed from the same varieties. Confectionary seeds have their own characteristics for their specific purposes.
Within the oil varieties, oil is extracted. Meal, a byproduct of this process, is used primarily as an ingredient in livestock feed rations. Compared to soybean and other meals, sunflower meal has the lowest percentage of protein, 28 percent. However, 80 percent of a sunflower’s value comes from oil. Oil-type sunflower seeds contain from 38 to 50 percent oil and about 20 percent protein. The crushing process removes the hulls from the seeds, and the hulls can be used to create steam to power the plant. For every 100 pounds of seed, about 40 pounds of oil, 35 pounds of high-protein meal and 20 to 25 pounds of by-products are produced.
Demand for sunflower oil has increased as food processors search for sources of transfat-free vegetable oil. In 2006, Frito-Lay, the country’s largest producer of snack foods, switched entirely to sunflower oil for its potato chips.
Non-oil sunflower seeds are also referred to as confectionary sunflowers. They generally are striped and larger than the oil-type, with a lower oil percentage. Confectionary sunflowers are divided into three categories. Food-grade sunflowers are made up of the highest quality seeds, including the largest and cleanest seeds. Ingredient sunflowers are seeds that are still food-grade quality, but they do not possess the characteristics to be in the food-grade category. The sunflower seeds that cannot be used for ingredients are used for birdseed. Usually these are smaller, lower quality seeds.
Three major oil-type sunflower crushing plants are located in the Great Plains. Cargill operates a plant in West Fargo, North Dakota (ND), while ADM operates plants in Enderlin, ND and in Red Wing, Minnesota. The availability of handling and processing facilities is directly related to transportation cost advantages associated with marketing sunflowers.
The location of the end users influences processing decisions. End users are defined as snack food companies, restaurants, fast-food chains, salad oil makers and any other firm that uses sunflower products. Cost advantages are greater when the plant also processes the seeds, rather than extracting the oil or processing the seeds, and then shipping the products.
The relatively small size of the sunflower industry compared to other grain crops has led to greater marketing options for producers. Sunflowers are priced on a per 100 pounds basis. Cash sales are used for marketing sunflowers in spot markets and local elevators. Elevators or cooperatives offer cash prices to the producers based on current market conditions. In turn, the elevators or cooperatives then sell the sunflowers to oilseed crushing plants, confectionary plants or birdseed packers, depending on seed quality. Cash sales are used with both oil and confectionary sunflowers.
Contracts also are used to market sunflowers. One of the most common contracts is the forward-cash contract. In return for a guaranteed price, a producer and buyer agree upon a quantity and specific date to deliver sunflowers. The forward-cash contract price is determined, but it is subject to premiums or discounts associated with sunflower seed quality and oil content. This contract method is very successful in the sunflower oilseed industry.
Forward-cash grower contracts are also used for specialty crops, such as the high-oleic and confectionary sunflowers. This contract is similar to the cash-forward contract. First of all, a minimum number of acres as stated by the producer and processor is required to fill the amount specified in the contract. Processors also require the grower to use specific seed varieties. The processor provides production advice to improve quality and yields. This contract also includes “Act of God” clauses, which protect the growers from production failures due to conditions out of their control. Some contracts require the grower to store the crop until the processor is ready for delivery. In these cases, the grower receives a price premium or storage credit to defray a portion of the storage costs.
Sunflowers are one of the most popular oilseeds grown by producers. Prices have generally increased since 2000, suggesting greater demand. After setting a new high in 2007, the average price of oil-containing sunflowers declined for two years before jumping to $22.60 per cwt in 2010 and then to $28.40 in 2011. The average price of non-oil sunflowers also declined before shooting to $26.60 per cwt in 2010 and then to $34.60 in 2011. The average price for all types of sunflowers rose to $29.40 in 2011. (NASS 2012)
Harvested sunflowers are used in a variety of ways. Different markets and customers demand sunflower seeds with certain qualities and characteristics for specific uses.
Confectionary sunflower seeds are used for food-grade seeds, packaged seeds and ingredients. The largest market for food-grade seeds is consumer retail, both domestically and abroad. Packaged sunflowers are primarily a specialty food product and are sold to consumers as a healthy snack either in the shell or hulled. Ingredient sunflowers are sold to firms, such as bread companies, that use sunflower seeds in their products.
The birdseed market has been growing in recent years. Low-quality sunflower seeds are used in birdseed.
Health Benefits of Sunflower Oil
Studies have shown that sunflower oil is healthier than most other food oils on the market. The three types, or classifications, of sunflower oil are: linoleic, high oleic and NuSun™, or mid oleic.
Linoleic sunflower oil contains essential fatty acids that are 69 percent polyunsaturated. However, the structure of linoleic oil requires light hydrogenation to remain stable for frying. Linoleic sunflower oil is excellent for cooking, having a neutral taste. This characteristic enhances the taste of food, rather than masking it. Linoleic oil is the preferred oil in much of Europe, Russia, Mexico, the Mediterranean and South America.
High-oleic sunflower oil represents oils that have monounsaturated fat levels of 80 percent or higher. This sunflower oil is used in food and industrial applications that require higher levels of monounsaturated fats. In 1995, the members of the National Sunflower Association (NSA) determined that the existing fatty acid structure of sunflower oil needed to be changed to compete more successfully in the domestic market. After visiting with large domestic oil users and USDA plant breeders, the association determined that a mid-level oleic sunflower oil would be the best product to consider.
NuSun™, whose name was trademarked by NSA, is a mid-oleic sunflower oil with a lower monounsaturated fat level than high-oleic sunflower oil but a lower saturated fat level than linoleic oil. Therefore, NuSun™ is considered a mid-range oleic sunflower oil. The oil requires no hydrogenation. NuSun™ works well for frying applications and has a good balance of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that enhances the taste of products. NuSun™ sunflower oil is a close substitute to canola oil; however, canola oil has higher linoleic levels, which requires hydrogenation to stabilize. Compared to other oils, sunflower oils, such as NuSun™, have a longer shelf life due to their chemical makeup.
Oils with greater percentages of saturated and fatty acids are less healthy while oils with greater percentages of linoleic and monounsaturated fats are healthier. Sunflower seed oil is one of the healthiest vegetable oils available for cooking purposes.
The United States exported sunflower seeds valued at more than $131.3 million in 2011, down 11 percent from 2010. Spain, followed by Canada and Mexico, continued to be the leading customers for sunflower seeds, importing the seeds for snacks. The value of each country's purchase increased by 6 percent or more. (FAS 2011)
In 2011 the United States exported sunflower oil valued at more than $52.9 million, a 44 percent drop from 2010. Canada and South Africa were the top destinations, together buying more than 75 percent of the U.S. sunflower oil available for export. Canadian purchases dropped in value while South African purchases skyrocketed. (FAS 2011)
Exports of U.S. sunflower meal continued to decline in 2011, falling 21 percent to $493,000. Canada was the leading buyer of sunflower meal, followed by Mexico. (FAS 2011)
U.S. imports of sunflower seeds in 2011 increased 45 percent to more than $34.8 million. Likewise, the value of imported sunflower oil rose nearly 200 percent to more than $93.1 million. Canada remained the largest supplier of sunflower seeds, while Argentina was the largest supplier of sunflower oil. The United States did not import any sunflower meal in 2011. (FAS 2011)
Projected sunflower seed production for 2012 was reduced to 37.6 million tons from 39.1 million tons, due to lower production in Russia. Long term, that country will incrementally reduce export tariffs on sunflower seeds, benefitting its sunflower seed producers and exporters. (ERS 2012).
Profile written October 2005 and updated August 2012.