CANBY - Driving north on Minnesota Highway 68 toward Canby, amidst rows and rows of beans and corn, one brilliantly-colored field clearly stands out, the vivid sunflowers perched proudly around the Schrunk family farm.
While sunflowers are widely recognized for their beauty, they're also an important agricultural crop. National Sunflower Association statistics show that 1,951,500 acres of sunflowers were planted in the United States in 2010, with North Dakota accounting for 885,000 acres, followed by South Dakota (510,000), Kansas (139,000), Colorado (132,000), Texas (89,000) and Minnesota (88,000).
"This is our seventh year of growing sunflowers," said Lloyd Schrunk, who will soon be moving onto the family-operated farm owned by his mother Joyce and late father Marion since 1960. "The price is good right now, but we were just looking for something different than corn and beans."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Joyce Schrunk and her son Lloyd stand in front of one of their three sunflower fields near Canby. This year marks the seventh year the Schrunks have grown sunflowers.
Last year, sunflowers were one of nine different crops planted by Lloyd Schrunk and his oldest son Benjamin.
"A lot of people stop to take pictures of the sunflowers," Joyce Schrunk said. "I've lived on the farm for 50 years, but I'm moving to a smaller house in town soon. Lloyd farms and runs the family-owned business, Schrunk's Canby Implement."
The Schrunks typically plant 400 acres of sunflowers annually, rotating them around to different fields.
"You never want to plant sunflowers in the same field more than once every five years," Lloyd Schrunk said. "Otherwise, you'll acquire diseases. Sunflowers have a lot of the same diseases as soybeans, so you can't follow them with soybeans either."
The Schrunks will plant corn in the sunflower field next year, followed by beans, small grains, back to corn and then back to sunflowers.
"Sunflowers love alkaline ground," Lloyd Schrunk said. "They grow well in ground that other crops don't grow well in. They tend to neutralize or use up some of the salts so that the corn does much better the following year. It helps the other crops a lot."
Lloyd Schrunk said that before they're even planted, the sunflowers are contracted with SunOpta Sunflower, a plant in Breckenridge.
"The price is set," he said. "It's not like wheat, where it varies when you're combining it. They also pay a lot of the freight to get them up there."
The sunflowers on the Schrunk farm are grown for the people who enjoy one of America's favorite pastimes - eating sunflower seeds at outdoor events.
"Ours are all grown for high oleic huller, so they're for human consumption," Lloyd Schrunk said. "That's our first market. If they don't pass that market (in Breckenridge), then they can go for crushed for oil (in Enderland (N.D.). The main thing is sunflower seeds in the bag."
Sunflowers, in snack bars, cereal, kernel or oil form, have an abundance of nutritional value. But they're also used for bird seed and other products.
"The oil ones, you get a better yield, but you only have one market," Lloyd Schrunk said. "This way, we have two markets. If you really want to gamble, you can grow the giant sunflowers, which have huge heads. But if they don't work for human consumption, you plow them under because you can't crush them for oil."
Some people are fascinated with another aspect of the sunflower - its phenomenal ability to track the sun's movement, which is called heliotropism.
"Before they bloom, sunflowers will follow the sun once the bud is there," Lloyd Schrunk said. "It'll turn from east to west as the sun goes all day long. But after they bloom, they'll always face east."
Lloyd Schrunk said that years ago, people shied away from growing sunflowers because of poor genetics and the lack of crop insurance availability.
"People had some bad experiences in the past, with birds and with wind," he said. "Before the newer hybrids, the stalks all fell over and they lost the crop, and it was tough to get insurance. But now, after you prove your yields, you can have them fully insured like anything else."
Lloyd Schrunk said at one time, there were 12 local growers in the Canby area, but fewer planted sunflowers this season. The national average is also down this year, with only 1,756,000 acres planted, a 10 percent decrease from 2010. Minnesota farmers planted 75,000 acres in 2011, a 15 percent drop from the previous year.
"There are about nine that usually grow sunflowers here, but this year, I think there's only four of us," he said. "There used to be 12, but with the price of corn and beans, they're switching that way."
Growing sunflowers can be challenging, Joyce Schrunk said. They love hot weather, and do not grow well in overly-saturated soil. Cultivation is basically the only available form of weed control, too.
"You can spray for grasses, but everybody thinks they're weeds, and it is, so you can't spray for weeds because it'll kill the sunflower," Lloyd Schrunk said. "You can't spray for any broadleaf."
Fortunately, sunflowers mature quickly and can be planted later, which typically means cleaner fields. Since the crop is for human consumption, however, spraying for insects is another challenge.
"We spray them once and then wait a couple of weeks and then just border the outside to keep the bugs from moving in from the ditches," Lloyd Schrunk said. "The timing of the spraying is one of the biggest things we've learned over the years. We're spraying a lot earlier now."
What about birds?
"You don't keep them away," Lloyd Schrunk said. "You share. But you try not to plant them next to a creek, a lot of trees by water or anywhere that attracts birds."
In the near future, after wheat and flax, the Schrunks will harvest their sunflowers.
"They combine very easy," Lloyd Schrunk said. "You take a regular grain header and put pads on it, and it just cuts them and they go through. It's fun to combine them because the header is three feet off the ground and you never have to worry about a rock or anything else."