As demand for sunflower oil increases, the outlook for seeds is optimistic.

At the start of 2019, U.S. sunflower growers have a generally optimistic outlook. Demand for sunflower seed has steadily grown, escaping the trade war that has adversely affected soybean exports. In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provided an indirect boost to consumer confidence that sunflower oil is a healthy product.

“Market demand for sunflower oil is increasing,” says John Sandbakken, National Sunflower Association executive director. “People want to remove hydrogenated oils from their diets. Most consumers are looking to reduce the amount of saturated fat they consume. They want it to be healthier and still keep eating the same amount of food they like, such as potato chips, but with less saturated fat.”

Effective June 18, 2018, the FDA is banning food manufacturers from adding most partially hydrogenated oils to foods. The agency estimates the new ban could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year in the United States.

Sunflower oil is naturally free from trans fats and low in saturated fatty acids. The FDA ban opens new demand for sunflower oil, because it is naturally stable and does not need to be hydrogenated.

“There is always going to be a market for sunflower oil,” says Mark Jackson, general manager of Nuseed America. “During the past few years high oleic production has grown tremendously.

“Over half the crop now goes into high oleic. We have also seen a trend during the past few years for NuSun sunflowers. It is all about the fatty-acid profiles and the unique flavors that they provide.”

Globally, all sunflower crops are non-GM.

As a specialty oil, sunflower oil is price competitive. While it is not competitive pound for pound with soybean or canola oil on the grocery shelf, it is a specialty oil that comes out at a premium to soy oil, Jackson says.

Sunflower seeds are produced for several distinct markets, each with its own trait considerations. Jackson estimates that about 25 percent of sunflower production is for bird food. The confection market prizes large seeds that are sold in the shell and eaten as snacks. Shelled kernels are another market segment that has differentiated quality. The largest segment is for NuSun and oleic oil. Except for the generic oilseed market, most sunflower production is grown under contract with each processor having its own varying specifications.

For black oil seeds, processors are looking for seeds with a deep, rich color. The seed must also have the right size kernel and seed density. How well the seed fills the package is an important consideration; if seed density is too low, the appropriate package will be too large.

“We always work with our processors to know what they want in our products,” Jackson says. “You would be surprised to know how picky customers can be about the quality of seed they feed their birds!”

In black oilseed, there are concerns about color. Seeds have varying black color. Some are black with a white stripe. Different processors have differing preferences and specifications.

Most of the U.S. sunflower production is for domestic use. About 30 percent is exported to Canada and Mexico. A much smaller amount is exported to Europe and Western Asian markets.

Market Opportunities

Jackson says American producers lost a substantial export opportunity for the confection market because that market wanted a longer seed, which was not being produced in the United States. Nuseed is now breeding new hybrids to develop that type of seed desired by foreign markets.

“It launched this year and it will grow over time,” he says. “The kernel market is always looking for larger kernels with better flavor.“

Sunflower is a good rotation crop with the ability to adapt to its environment. Prices for sunflowers are now good enough that when drier growing conditions challenge growers to produce a good crop with soybeans, sunflowers are a nice alternative.

While yield is a concern for every grower, there are other equally important considerations, including return per acre. Sunflowers offer options to both producers and consumers, which combined assure the crop an increasingly significant position on the farm and in the food we consume.