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Revised February 2022
Sunflower can be produced in a relatively wide range of environments compared to other oilseed crops. Globally it is grown in more than 80 countries with the greatest acreage in Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Turkey and Romania. Sunflower seeds are grown primarily for oil and for the confectionary market.
In the U.A. in 2021, sunflowers were produced on 1.29 million acres with the largest production occurring in North and South Dakota. Additionally, there was significant acreage of sunflower in Minnesota, Colorado, California, Nebraska, Texas and Kansas. The average yield of sunflowers in 2021 was 1,554 lb per acre.
The United States produces both oil and confectionary types of sunflowers with about 90% of the area planted to oil types. Sunflowers can successfully 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 and is about 90 days in length. 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 help reduce some pests that are problematic to the crop.
Crop rotations also influence growers’ decisions to plant sunflowers. Sunflowers have a deep root system that allows them to flourish in rotations that leave water in deeper profiles of the soil. In dry regions, a fallow period is often recommended following sunflowers to allow some replenishment of 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.
Demand for sunflower oil has increased as food processors search for sources of trans fat-free vegetable oil. Premiums are offered for certain types of sunflowers for their oil content and its characteristics. Premiums depend on market conditions and the individual characteristics that are needed by the buyers.
The three main processers of sunflower oil are located in North Dakota (West Fargo and Enderlin) and in Lamar, Colorado. However, there are collection points in other states which can be found by contacting the National Sunflower Association or by visiting their website. The location of the market can be a significant factor in determining the profitability of producing sunflowers since transportation costs can be significant if the point of sell is far from where the crop is grown.
Currently there are four types of oil sunflowers. The traditional type of sunflower oil is call high linoleic oil, which is currently produced only in small volumes. NuSun™ or mid oleic types now are grown on the most acreage in the USA and Canada. The oil from this sunflower type has a good shelf life and is a preferred frying oil. It contains about 65% oleic acid compared to 21% in the high linoleic oil types. The third type of sunflower oil is high oleic. This type of sunflower is generally contract grown to insure identity preservation. The high oleic oil contains 82% oleic acid or higher. It has a long shelf life and doesn’t breakdown at high cooking temperatures. The fourth type of sunflower oil is call high stearic/high oleic. This trait is patented for use in sunflower hybrids and is called Nutrisun™. This oil can be a good replacement for hydrogenated oils or tropical oils and therefore is in demand for baking, ice cream and other applications that need a more solid oil. All sunflower oils have been developed through traditional breeding techniques; there are no transgenic (GMO) sunflowers currently under production. In the case of the more specialized oil types, contracts are needed. Marketing oil seed sunflowers on a cash basis may be an option, depending on the area of the country and the type of sunflower produced. The National Sunflower Association (see link below) can be an excellent resource for identifying elevators in a given state that may be buying sunflowers.
Buyers of confection type sunflowers tend to be smaller and more widely dispersed through the U.S. The National Sunflower Association maintains a listing of current buyers. Confection sunflower seeds are primarily grown under contract due to the strict specification required by the processors.
Sunflowers are considered oilseeds. Sunflowers are processed into cooking oil, meal and confectionary products. Distinct varieties are used for oil and for confectionary purposes. Meal is a byproduct of the oil is extraction process and is used primarily as an ingredient in livestock feed rations. The nutrient content of sunflower meal depends on the process used for oil extraction. Protein content may vary from 28 to 41% depending on if the seeds are dehulled or not prior to oil extraction. Oil-type sunflower seeds contain from 38 to 50 percent oil and about 20 percent protein. If the hulls are removed from the seeds prior crushing, they are often used as an energy source for the processing plant. Every 100 pounds of sunflower seeds yields about 40 pounds of oil, 35 pounds of high-protein meal and 20 to 25 pounds of other by-products.
Non-oil sunflower seeds are also referred to as confectionary sunflowers. They generally are striped and larger than the oil-types, 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. These seeds are sold “on-shell” and are usually roasted and salted and/or flavored prior to packaging for sell. Ingredient sunflowers are of high quality, but they do not possess the characteristics to be in the food-grade category. Sunflower seeds in this category are usually dehulled and roasted prior to their use in food. In addition to an ingredient in baking, snack and health foods, sunflower kernels are processed into sunflower butter as a non-allergenic alternative to peanut butter. The sunflower seeds that cannot be used for ingredients are used for birdseed. Usually these are smaller, lower quality seeds.
Harvested sunflowers are used in a variety of ways. Different markets and customers demand sunflower seeds with certain qualities and characteristics for specific uses. Growing sunflower types that produce specialty oils may allow for adding value at the farm level if a contract can be procured.
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 that is 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. A relatively new product made from hulled sunflowers is sunflower butter that can be used like peanut butter by those that are allergic to peanut butter.
The birdseed market has been growing in recent years. Low-quality sunflower seeds are used in birdseed. Additionally, sunflower petals can be consumed and are sometimes used to provide splashes of color in salads.
Health Benefits of Sunflower Oil
Oils with greater percentages of saturated fatty acids are considered less healthy while oils with greater percentages of linoleic and monounsaturated fats are considered healthier. Therefore, sunflower seed oil is one of the healthiest vegetable oils available for cooking purposes. Linoleic sunflower oil contains essential fatty acids that are 69 percent polyunsaturated. However, the structure of linoleic oil requires light hydrogenation to remain stable when used for frying. Linoleic sunflower oil is excellent for other types of cooking as it has 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 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 and are highly stable when used for frying.
Mid-oleic oil, marketed as NuSun™, is a 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. This oil requires no hydrogenation to enhance its stability. 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 it. Compared to other oils, sunflower oils, such as NuSun™, have a longer shelf life due to their chemical makeup. A recently completed human NuSun diet study showed that NuSun® has heart-healthy benefits of significantly reducing participants' total and LDL cholesterol.
Whole sunflower seeds when eaten directly or as an additive to other foods can be a good source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, zinc and iron. They are also rich in alpha-tocopherols, which may help reduced the risk of certain types of cancers.
Oilseed: World Markets and Trade, 2022, FAS, USDA.
Elevators listed by state that may purchase sunflowers, Compiled by the National Sunflower Association.
Sunflower: Alternate Crop Guide, 2002, Jefferson Institute.
Sunflower Production Guide, 2020. North Dakota State University Extension.